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Gourmet getaway on a budget includes feast at McCook’s Coppermill
by Pam Soreide and Phil Soreide
One day had begun to feel just like another. The air seemed stale and once-bright colors appeared a bit gray; work that had been interesting now felt like drudgery. The prospect of two days of dusting, vacuuming, grocery shopping, laundry and yard work — with a couple of home improvement projects thrown in on the side — didn’t seem…somehow…very restorative.
We needed a weekend that felt like a weekend.
A change of scenery, perhaps with a view of the water as we sipped an iced cocktail. A gourmet dinner out, with white linen tablecloths and a nice bottle of wine. A fire. Lots of talk that has nothing to do with fixing the air conditioner or getting the oil changed in the car. Plenty of sleep followed by a fancy breakfast. Yes, that would do it.
But the budget — that darned budget. How can we have it all and not break the bank?
We hatch a plan
The plan we hatch is to hook up our little pop-up camper — not luxurious, but comfortable — and to find a nice secluded campsite overlooking Harry Strunk Lake at the Medicine Creek State Recreation Area north of Cambridge. Then we would spiff up a little and go to dinner at the Coppermill Restaurant in McCook — a place we know will satisfy our gourmet cravings — and return in time to sit beside a fire and watch the stars come out.
We were starting to feel better already.
One thing and another, we didn’t get an early start, and it was after four before we finally got to the campground. We both remarked that the first vacant site we saw looked promising, but not being familiar with the facilities, we felt the need to drive all over the park to see the options.
Medicine Creek State Recreation Area is a lovely setting with lots of trees and terrain and rugged views of the lake, even a swimming beach, but we saw nothing that looked better than the first campsite we looked at.
That it was still there when we went back to it seemed like a good omen.
The Coppermill calls
The growl of our stomachs was the Coppermill calling, so after quickly making camp, we cleaned up a bit and drove into McCook. We found the Coppermill — it does take a little finding — and found a place to park. The front of the restaurant is a tad plain, but the smell as we pushed open the door was divine. Because it is a fairly large restaurant, we were seated immediately.
Now, when you bring out a camera inside a restaurant and there are no presents or obvious party-makers, it gets attention. As we snapped a few interior shots and brought out the notebook, the server pouring our water could not contain her curiosity, so we told her about the Nebraska Rural Living website and the Rural Foodies column. She seemed a little bemused.
In a continuation of our quest for the state’s finest, we ordered onion rings and a bottle of wine. The Coppermill has one of the better wine lists we’ve seen and we chose a nice Conquista Oak Cask Malbec, which was smoothly delicious. It was a bit pricier than our usual fare, but, hey, this is a mini-vacation, right?
An appetizer meal?
We briefly considered having an assortment of appetizers and a salad with our wine and calling it a meal. About a quarter of the menu was devoted to an extensive list of appetizers, including Bluepoint oysters; mussels in wine, butter and garlic; calamari; mushrooms stuffed with lobster, onion and cream cheese and topped with mozzarella and romano cheese; “Shrimp cargot,” which is similar to escargot but made with cocktail shrimp, and, of course, the onion rings.
The menu is diverse, with Cajun specialties of blackened prime rib or orange roughy, pasta dishes such as the Chicken Tequila Fettucini with alfredo sauce and jalapeno puree (!), and a large assortment of fish and shellfish items including king crab legs, Mahi Poblano and wild sockeye salmon.
It all sounded good, but it is a steakhouse after all.
In the end, we ordered the special, which was a bone-in ribeye with rosemary and dill butter, as well as Adam’s Famous KC Strip steak. Knowing that we would never finish these bodacious meals, we set the baked potato aside to have for breakfast and shared the steak fries — more than enough, seeing as how we had made a serious dent in the pile of onion rings.
A man who knows his beef
As we tucked into our meals, a brawny, handsome young man approached our table and asked if we are the folks from Nebraska Rural Living. Kari, our server, had evidently ratted us out; we admitted that we were and took the opportunity to ask a few questions of Adam Siegfried, the Coppermill’s owner.
Adam told us that before he bought the restaurant last year, he had worked at the Coppermill for about eight years, most recently as head cook, but his expertise in beef extends well beyond the kitchen. He was raised near McCook on a feedlot operation owned by his dad, who today is a partner in Willow Creek Meats which supplies Certified Angus beef for the Coppermill. Adam was on the 4-H meat judging team in high school and comes from a long line of beef experts. The man knows beef.
Key to a good steak, he says, is aging. He told us that after doing some experimenting, his steaks are aged for 130 days which is the real sweet spot.
“I’ve tried 150 days, but that makes them a little ‘beefy’,” he says. He cannily allowed that he knew a few tricks about aging meat, but didn’t offer to share them with us.
The result? Some of the best steak we have had anywhere, and that includes big-city restaurants like Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris. We know there is more to a five star restaurant than the food alone, but if you can get the whole meal, including a nice bottle of wine, for the price of one entrée elsewhere, we call it a good value.
The stars come out
When we had enjoyed all we could of the fabulous steak, trading choice bits to compare flavor and texture, we had to ask to take the rest home. As we left the restaurant full to bursting, we noticed that the ribeye special had been replaced on the specials board, and smiled at each other, acknowledging our luck.
We found our way back to the campsite before full dark, in time to build a campfire and watch the stars come out. First one by one as the light faded, then a blanket, and finally a canopy of stars, planets and galaxies wheeled overhead.
It is mesmerizing and elemental to listen to the crackle and pop of the fire and let your eyes rest on the infinite grandeur of the night sky. Later, drifting off to sleep, we had a live concert of late summer cicadas carried along on the breeze through the cottonwood trees overhead.
Budget gourmet getaway
Our quest for a budget gourmet getaway was truly fulfilled the next morning when we cut up the baked potato we’d saved, mixed it with a few of the leftover onion rings (waste not, want not) and then added a generous portion of bite-sized pieces of the KC strip, all fried in butter. Hard to beat a breakfast like that while you watch the sun burn off the mist over the lake.
In light of the fact that we would get at least one more meal from the leftover ribeye, the whole dining experience began to look pretty affordable. And, when you consider the cost of our lakeside suite — $7 — we had done the whole thing for a little over $100.
Fun, affordable and very, very tasty. We just might have to do that again sometime.
Who to Contact
Coppermill Steakhouse and Lounge
N. Hwy 83 and Coppermill St.
P.O. Box 386
McCook, NE 69001