A Midsummer’s Picnic with Salt 88
Mostly people enjoy picnics, and I believe Omahans are no exception. This is the thought that woke me up sweating in the night – having a picnic adventure (or many) was inevitable. Where to start though? Oh, oh, I know. I would choose from the few exceptional eateries of Omaha and consume them in the outdoors, like a marauding wild man. A raw look at cuisine is just what this town needs. No more lavish food orgies in the Turkish bath. I needed to take the food to the streets. Or in this case, a public swimming pool.
It was imperative that I chose my first restaurant wisely. After much consideration, I landed on the always incredible Salt 88. If you haven’t heard a few wild stories about this place, you are a real nerd. I called up John Horvatinovich, the owner and resident deity. John was more than on board with my vision. In fact he demanded that I head over there that day so he could get this show on the road.
There was only one necessary task I needed to accomplish before embarking. I needed some super-cool buddies to eat with. First, I chose myself because no one else is as funny or good. After that had been established, the next human I chose was Dan Crane. He’s a guy from Omaha who specializes in some type of street art or something. I don’t really get it because I’m a big dork, but I guess he’s getting pretty popular. But most importantly, he has a car and could pick up the food and the key players. So Dan swung by and grabbed me and we headed off in the direction of David Nance. This silly goose is from Grand Island and Los Angeles (yeah, the California one). We arrived at David’s place and snagged him. David is best known for his time in the band Forbidden Tigers. They were a real big in Europe. He is still involved in music, but he’s basically just riding out the success from his incredible record sales of Forbidden Tiger albums in Prague. Lastly, the three of us needed to grab one more person, because you know what they say, “Three’s a party, but four’s a picnic!” After an excruciating ride in Dan’s car listening to top 40’s music we arrived at Eric’s. We honked and waited and waited. It took Eric a really long time to come outside and the three of us immediately regretted including him. You might know Eric as the head chef at B & G Tasty Foods. He is jolly and, mostly, people like him and a few hate his guts. But, for the most part, he’s pretty good and he has a keen food tasting mouth. Eric was my secret weapon. If I didn’t know what was going on with some of the recipes we would be encountering, surely he could figure them out. Okay, the team was now assembled and we headed toward Salt.
Salt is out on 129th and Maple right by the golf course holes. Upon entering, we were nicely greeted by the hostess and directed to John himself. This was my first time meeting John and I didn’t know what to expect. He could be terrifying! I steeled my nerves and stepped forward. John wasn’t terrifying at all! He was friendly and inviting and didn’t even scare me once. If you want to meet John yourself, I highly suggest it. While John was talking to me, I did have a hard time concentrating on what he was saying because the interior of Salt was beautiful! I asked John if he designed everything himself and he said he did. Salt is his vision and he has fine-tuned it to perfection. I also met John’s wife and I bet she did a lot too. I don’t want to get anybody in trouble!
John invited our rag tag team of picnic misfits to explore the restaurant and explore we did. Dan even went behind the bar and said, “Look at me, I’m a bartender, haha.” Boy did we chuckle. Salt has this super awesome patio with chairs that look like they are made out of special 2001 Space Odyssey plastic, but way cooler. I bet Stanley Kubrick is jealous. The patio was shaded nicely and looked like it could be a real oasis to those trying to escape the heat, but still experience the thrill of the outdoors. The interior seats were similar to the outdoor ones, which I thought was a good move. Good Move, John. I sat down at this point and John had some drinks brought over, but I want to finish talking about the setting first, so I will. The bathrooms (or at least the men’s room, I didn’t go in the ladies room) we spectacular and huge. The tile work was immaculate and the lighting was real classy. I just wanted to stay in there all day. I didn’t though. I went back to the bar where my buddies were sitting because I’m trying to be more social lately. Dan is reading this over my shoulder and he keeps yelling at me to mention all the cool lights popping up all over the place. He’s right though, the lighting was tucked away and peeking out here and there and I really dug it. I bet this place is really something special at night. Okay, that’s enough about the interior. Writing about this stuff definitely isn’t my strong point. If you don’t like how Salt looks inside you’ll have some serious explaining to do.
On to the drinks! I didn’t even know we were getting drinks! John had his mixologist whip some stuff up for us while he prepared our food. The first beverage was the Water Hazard. This is the drink Eric won’t shut up about. He was blown away. As soon as he saw its striking blue color, he said, “That one is for me.” Eventually we all were able to sample the Water Hazard and for once, Eric was right. It is made with coconut vodka, pineapple juice, soda pop and curaçao. I could drink these all day. Yummy, yummy, yum. The next drink was the Make It Rain. This drink is organic cucumber and lime vodka, sour, mint and freshly sliced cucumber. Here are some quotes we had about this one, Eddie – “I don’t even like cucumber but this is an absolute treat.” David – “Tastes like rain!” (David is wrong, but the drink is still great). Anyway, it was really refreshing and if you need to cool down while getting tipsy, this one is for you. The third drink was the Juicy Orange. Oh, I forgot, the first two drinks were in mason jars. That’s cool. This one was in a martini glass. The Juicy Orange is made with orange vodka and fresh lemon and orange juice. I swear to God, it tasted like vodka and Tang. That is a huge compliment from me. I freaking love Tang. The fourth and final drink was the Ginger Drop. This baby is vodka, ginger, lemon juice, mint and candied ginger. It had a sugary rim to tempt your tongue. Dan fell in love with this one. As soon as he got his hands on it, none of us got it back. So I’m going to quote Dan on how this tasted. Dan, how did it taste? Dan – “Right now? Yeah? Okay, it surprised me because I don’t really like ginger. I am now questioning all sorts of life decisions I’ve made. I don’t even know who I am anymore.” That is one hell of a cocktail.
At this point, John had all the food ready for us. He had it all boxed up nicely and labeled. What a great guy. We chit chatted for a few minutes then loaded up the car and headed to the pool. It was super-hot outside so the pool was packed full of teens and children splashing and shouting. It was perfect. Don’t forget, reader, that this article is picnic themed! I highly suggest eating your meal at Salt, but if you must, a swimming pool is the next best location. We took the last table with some shade, which was in the baby pool section even though none of us are even babies. John gave us so much food that we could hardly fit it all on the table. Let’s dive right in (haha, a swimming pool joke).
The first of the appetizers we partook in was a goat cheese Rangoon. Everyone is familiar with the crab Rangoon at Chinese restaurants but these are definitely not your common fare. These Rangoon may look normal but the sweetness of the goat cheese along with the acidity of the sun dried tomatoes and red sauce really put these in a league of their own. We all tried them and decided that these were not only meant to be enjoyed in the shade poolside, they needed to explore the wonders of pool life along with us. Dan decided that these would be a perfect snack to take along on his journey off the diving board. Dan patiently waited in the line of children 1/5th his age, Rangoon in hand. He quickly ate the Rangoon prior to splashing into the comforting waters. If this appetizer were to have emotions, I would say that it was equally as stoked as Dan.
The next appetizer did not get to go on any fun adventures because it was gone before anyone had time to concoct a plan. The Salt charcuterie board was a treat even with the soaring temperature of the mid-June day. The salty meats combined with the acidity from briny olives and peppers was just too much for David to resist. He said, “If there is one thing I know that I can’t live without on these hundred degree days, it’s meats and mustard.” David isn’t a very interesting dude, but the truth is the spicy mustard that came with our charcuterie plate does match his personality well. Not too spicy to be a bad boy but just enough heat to get you excited. You could ask his wife if you don’t believe me.
All the boys couldn’t seem to get enough of the Parmesan edamame. They are just so pleasant to bust open and chug the little beans down your gullet. These did not go very quickly as we were using them as a bit of a break between our bigger portions. If I could compare edamame at the pool to a well know American tradition, I would say they are similar to peanuts at a baseball game. Not something to scarf down, something to enjoy throughout the duration of your stay. I know you may think, “I am at the pool. I want Bomb Pops and soda.” You just listen to me – next time you are headed to the pool stop at Salt on your way and grab some edamame. Folks may look at you weird but you know the truth.
Continuing with the lighter fare, the next menu item we dug into was the Mediterranean salad. This was a pleasure for us to partake in before getting into our pizza and entrees. A bed of romaine with kalamata olives, tomatoes and feta all topped with herbed chicken. This reminded all of us of the wonderful seaside picnics we had on the beaches of Greece (we actually never took a joint trip to Greece but this salad was enough to make us pretend that we had, even if only for a fleeting moment.) David was so drawn back to the “Grecian beaches” that he had to go lie in the shallow waters of the kiddie pool to enjoy his final bites of this salad. Lying on his stomach in mere inches of water he cherished his last bites, the waves of joy lapping over him.
The time of reckoning was now upon us, and by reckoning I mean pizza. PIZZA TIME! Now we aren’t just sitting poolside eating some greasy pepperoni wheel; we had the Salt pizza of the week by our side. This is a bummer for all of you readers because by the time this is printed it will be a different week and there will be a different pizza, sorry guys and gals. It will all be okay though, I promise. The chicken and Marsala spiked mushrooms made this pizza plenty enjoyable for all four of us. I decided that though thoroughly exciting, this pizza needed a little bit of fun in its life. Slice in hand I casually sauntered over to the water slide. I ascended the stairs, took a bite and let the slice take me away. Did I say slice? Sorry I meant slide. I walked away from this refreshing experience realizing that this pizza is great and life isn’t worth living if you can’t have a slice on the slide.
Fun and games aside we had to get to the heavy hitters, the entrees. The first entree John had selected for us was the plank-fired Scottish salmon. I have had fish cooked on plank before but this was a very different experience as it was to-go. Much to all of our surprise and excitement, we opened our box to find the mesquite plank in our to-go container! The fish came with a tomato basil sauce with a sweetness and acidity that paired wonderfully with the smoky, salty and fatty elements of the salmon. Eating fish poolside while children around you are stuffing their faces with nachos is an odd experience. I love stuffing my face and nachos are great, don’t get me wrong. The joke was on the children, however. Their nachos were pathetic compared to Salt’s salmon.
The next and final entree was salmon’s smaller cousin, the rainbow trout. This one was really exciting! We looked at our to-go box and it read, “When in doubt go with trout.” This was a good sign. All of us agreed that this was maybe our favorite item we consumed all day. With a citrus buerre blanc and a hazelnut breading that complimented the slightly more mild fish very well. We would swarm the table grabbing edamame or random bites of pizza but it always seemed you had to wait in line to get back to have more trout. I guess they knew what they were doing at Salt when they labeled that box. Grab some trout, it’s great. I may be wrong, but as I was eating the rainbow trout, I thought I glimpsed an actual rainbow on the horizon. By this point in time we had all had our fill, but there was one last treat…
Cotton candy. This was a last minute surprise as we were leaving the restaurant. Lightly tossed upon the top of the bag we all waited patiently until the end of our meal to dig in to the light, sugary fluff. Eric wasn’t in a very sharing mood and took a whole bundle for himself and rushed off to his poolside lounger to enjoy his cotton candy in the serenity of the mid-afternoon day.
Well, the boys and I had a blast. I can’t believe how successful our Salt picnic at the pool was. John is such a nice guy, too. It is very evident how much effort he has put into every aspect of Salt. The restaurant itself is beautiful and the food is not only delicious, but also visually appealing. I, for one, would not blame you in the least for trying to recreate our adventure. Whether you eat at the actual restaurant, or you take it to-go, you will have a wonderful experience with Salt.
I’m Eddie Morin. I’m from Omaha. I run B & G Tasty Foods, and I like eating food, playing video games and dinking around with my wife and kids. I used to not be so fat. That’s all I really think there is to me.
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