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Rural location is no barrier to success for White Hill Farmhouse Inn
by Pam Soreide, Phil Soreide and Betty Sayers
Restaurants, we are told, are one of, if not the favorite enterprise for starry-eyed entrepreneurs, which explains why independent restaurants seem to come and go like phases of the moon and why, as often as not, the decorations are cute but the food is mediocre, or the food is good but the wait staff is inept, or the service is great but there’s left over bits of…something…on the fork.
The Rural Foodies have been around long enough and been to enough rural restaurants to appreciate when a restaurateur really “gets it” – the atmosphere is clean, comfortable and inviting, the service is friendly and competent, the food is well prepared and presented promptly. More than that, we appreciate when a restaurant “gets it” in a business sense — they understand the finer points of marketing, merchandising, brand identity, and public relations…but it still feels a bit like you’ve been invited to someone’s home for dinner.
Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn in Minden is like that, but then, what would you expect? — the B&B and restaurant are created from Linda Arp’s childhood home, and her husband Bob directed the restaurant management and hospitality department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas until they retired to Nebraska to run the White House Inn.
The vagaries of March
March means a weather rollercoaster in Nebraska — days of clear skies and plenty of sun; gentle, rainy days; brisk, clear and windy days; damp and cloudy days; and then wind, rain, snow and cold pelting us from all directions. On a recent damp, cloudy day we craved the rich, dark mixture of spices and flavors in master barbecue chef Bob Ard’s barbecue sauces and set out for the White Hill Inn.
For anyone who wants to get a feel for or grab a memory of what it’s like to live on a Nebraska farm, this is your place. The original farmhouse is now a bed and breakfast, and the original barn is now a restaurant, but other than that, you are smack in the middle of broad expanses of fields bordered by straight-as-a-die gravel roads, not much different than when the house was built somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, except the trees are bigger.
We are greeted by our hostess, Linda Ard, who points out that the pond outside has recently attracted a flock of Pintail ducks. Our photographer slips off, hoping to catch a picture, but the ducks are wary and all rise at once and are gone in the blink of an eye.
A venture into agritourism
The cream and barn red color scheme is perfect for the farmyard theme, and you soon know that this venture into agritourism is meticulously planned and executed. We enter through wide, welcoming doors and stroll past neatly arranged boutique items and art for sale. Our host, Linda Ard welcomes us, and we are seated in the immaculate and charming dining room.
As we contemplate our menu choices, Linda suggests a bottle of an Australian Petite Shiraz wine because, she notes, “It complements the barbecue flavors.” We sip the Shiraz and decide on the inn’s signature baked beans, broccoli coleslaw and cheesy potatoes as accompaniments to our meal — everything is served “family style”. We promise ourselves that on the next visit we will definitely order a barbecued steak because we know Chef Ard’s mastery of meat includes steak, but tonight we are hungry for his barbecue chicken and brisket.
After we place our order, we lean back in our chairs and do as we often do in restaurants. We eavesdrop.
Crane watchers rest
Diners at the table on one side had seen the 60,000 cranes lift off their roost on the Platte River at 7:00 a.m. that morning. The table on the other side – eight people ranging from a patriarch to a young couple dewy-eyed with love – were on their way to the Rowe Sanctuary for the evening show of the same 60,000 cranes spiraling down to roost in the river through the night.
The Ards saw the value of the Sandhill Crane migration before they even returned to Nebraska. In addition to their mainstay weddings and reunions, during the spring migration they accommodate bus tours for birdwatchers that arrive to see the cranes but stay to see a bit more of rural Nebraska.
Birds seem to be on everyone’s mind at the White Hill Inn, and we also overhear talk of the Pelican Watch festival in Alma. Thousands of American White Pelicans in dramatic contrast to the somber gray skies of March are feeding in Harlan Reservoir before they continue on their migration. Barbecue and birdwatchers must go together, we decide.
Soon, plates of many flavors, textures, colors, and certainly wonderful aromas arrive, and we pass them around and comment on our favorites. The home-baked beans are quite the best flavored and least saucy we’ve found. We all like the light rub on the chicken — Chef Ard tells us that the rub is his own combination of nine ingredients — and Phil takes an extra helping of the thin slices of savory, meaty brisket, which we learn is first marinated, then treated with a rub, and smoked for upwards of six hours. We hadn’t tried the cheesy potatoes on previous occasions, but enjoyed potato being the predominate flavor, lightly complemented by the cheese. The broccoli coleslaw held its crunch, and the dressing combined the perfect proportion of vinegar to sugar in a delicate creamy sauce.
Being the Rural Foodies, we felt obligated to try the dessert menu and selected the Platte River Mud Pie, a peach cobbler and Bob Ard’s original brownie. Although we appreciated the cobbler and the light combination of chocolate and vanilla blancmange layered over a delicate butter crust on the Mud Pie, they don’t capture our hearts and taste buds like the brownies. Bob’s original brownies are among our top three favorite desserts in our searches for fresh, local, and handmade food.
As we stepped into the brisk Nebraska breeze we noted that location isn’t necessarily a key to restaurant success. If the food is good and the restaurateur “gets it”, the diners will come.