At The Table: Good food, with a side of spectacular scenery — a report from the dining car of the Amtrak Empire Builder

Clockwise from top left: Autumn meets winter in the Cascade Mountains in Montana, taken from the writer's room; the Amtrak sleeper car; hanger steak with baked potato and green beans; and the dining car.
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Clockwise from top left: Autumn meets winter in the Cascade Mountains in Montana, taken from the writer's room; the Amtrak sleeper car; hanger steak with baked potato and green beans; and the dining car.

SOMEWHERE IN THE UPPER MIDWEST — Husband Eric did it again and got me on an overnight Amtrak train, this time for two nights.

It took a lot of persuading to get me to go on an overnight trip in the first place, in a bedroom sleeping compartment with bathroom/shower arrangement in the room. But riding through the Rocky Mountains on the California Zephyr was enchanting; it’s an area so wild and completely unreachable by car.

Only the Amtrak train, gliding alongside avalanche trip wires and under snow sheds, could view the Donner Pass and access the 6-plus-mile-long Moffat tunnel. The scenery was spectacular.

Recently we flew to Seattle and took the Empire Builder train a few days later (Eric wanted to check out airplanes at the Museum of Flight) for a two-day trip to Chicago. Best of all, our historian friends, Mary and Kathy, were joining us a few stops from Seattle.

Our first meal

The train departed on a chilly, sunny evening about two hours behind schedule and picked up our friends in time for a late dinner. Let me tell you what we ate; passengers in the sleeper get three squares a day, and they’re not bad.‘

We finally all sat down to dinner at 7:45. The crew ran the dining car in two shifts and cut out the the first course of the three-course meal.

Anyone can see they work hard and they had to seat and feed a lot of people at a late hour. But I was disappointed. Our intrepid friends had taken Amtrak across the country from Rensselaer and had been talking up the appetizers.

Your sleeper room isn’t cheap compared to a seat in coach, but it comes with two beds and all the meals are included. And you get to eat on a train, in a real diner car, with white tablecloths at dinner.

Things on the train haven’t quite returned to normal since COVID; the china dishes are now plastic plates and there were no flowers on the table, but Amtrak still turns out three meals a day from a limited menu that offers just enough variety to last the length of the trip.

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At dinner, there are three courses: appetizer, entree, dessert. Each dinner includes a complimentary alcoholic beverage, rolls and butter. Lunch also includes a dessert.

The train cars on these long trips are not just the coach cars you take to New York City. In addition there are sleepers, a cafe car, dining car, and dome car, all two levels.

Once we were upstairs in our room, we stayed on the second level. The long dining car lined with booths on each side has a stainless steel galley with coffee makers and stainless steel counters in the middle. The cooking goes on downstairs.

They won’t let you see the kitchen (I tried). There is an ingenious dumbwaiter system that sends the food up and dirty dishes down. The one nearest our table made a grinding noise when underway, then, Ding! the door opened, revealing plates of fresh, hot food.

We toasted to our travels. Kathy and Mary each had a glass of Dark Harvest Cabernet Sauvignon. Eric and I split a bottle of nicely chilled Chateau St. Michelle 2021 Rosé. Nothing terribly fancy, but good enough for us. There is a selection of beers and spirits available. Wine is $7.50 a glass, $30 a bottle.

Our food arrived pretty quickly. I ordered the Amtrak signature flat iron steak, a flavorful piece of perfectly cooked beef, reasonably tender and served with a tasty port wine sauce, baked potato and vegetable.

Eric ordered the panko coated chicken breast, two very crispy breaded pieces of white meat with a tomato-butter sauce drizzled over, and lemon risotto. Parts of the meat were a little dry, he reported, and more sauce would have helped. He enjoyed it though and ate almost all.

Kathy’s Atlantic salmon looked appealing, the roasted fish covered in lemon caper white wine sauce. The side was a mix of ancient grains, presumably quinoa, farro, and the like, brightened up with colorful vegetables. She loved her meal.

Mary got the steak, also medium rare and perfectly cooked. She enjoyed the mashed potatoes; I ate the entire baked potato. It had such good flavor, even without a lot of butter or sour cream.

Everyone got the baby green beans. Mine were a little cold, but ok.

Of the three desserts, I ordered the chocolate toffee mousse, a towering slice, with toffee bits on top and a vein of caramel, served with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Mary had it too, we both loved the silky texture and the very dark chocolate crumb crust.

Eric and Kathy had the lighter Meyer lemon cake, four light, moist golden cake layers filled with creamy lemon mousse and lemon curd, drizzled with a berry flavored sauce. Very nice, again a large slice.

While you’re at dinner, the porter transforms your room into a bedroom. I can’t help but feel like my mom sent me to bed early.

Traversing Montana

The next morning we woke up in Montana. I was excited to see the state for the first time. Unfortunately we’d slept through Idaho. The sun was just coming up, turning the cool autumn air hazy. Deciduous trees were gold and orange, there were wispy clouds pocketed in the pine trees up in the hills.

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Eric and I arrived a little late to breakfast. Mary was finishing the continental breakfast with fruit, yogurt, cereal, grits and a biscuit. She said the seasonal fruit was very fresh.

Kathy was almost done with the french toast, something Eric ordered later. It’s made with brioche, soaked in rich egg mixture and served with fresh strawberries and lots of whipped cream.

I had two scrambled eggs still hot enough to melt the cheddar on top, fried potatoes with mixed vegetables and excellent chicken sausage seasoned with pepper and rosemary. The picture-perfect high biscuit flaked into layers.

Amtrak traverses the width of Montana. Shortly after breakfast I joined Kathy in the dome car and the train began to climb. Skinny pines were at first frosted with snow, as we got higher it piled up on branches. The Rocky mountains soon loomed over us and the train weaved through them, offering spectacular vistas first on one side of the train, then the other.

When we passed the Continental Divide we were in full winter mode. Several inches of wet, early snow clung to the trees and started to melt on the roads. Our ears popped, we took tons of photos.

The mountains gave way to snow covered hills and then plains. By lunch time we were in Siberia, fine snow blew over the plain and there was ice on the windows of the dining car.

We sat down together, reminiscing about “Dr. Zhivago” and howling wolves.

Kathy had a burger cooked to her liking, on a brioche roll with lettuce, onion, and tomato. Mary enjoyed the colorful chili-topped baked potato, with cheddar cheese and lots of bacon and green onion.

Eric enjoyed the Monte Cristo with honey cured ham, turkey breast and melty Swiss and cheddar. More brioche here, egg-soaked and grilled. I ate his potato chips.

The Amtrak dining car crew is accommodating. I had the green salad with strawberries and honey glazed walnuts, and they swapped out goat cheese for cheddar. Salads come with packets of Paul Newman dressing. It was mostly baby greens, with walnuts and sliced strawberries, just enough after a big breakfast.

Amtrak has a children’s menu but anyone can order from it; the Hebrew National hot dog is popular with all ages.
While Eric napped, the plains morphed into low, undulating hills and trees reappeared, spotty at first and bordering farm fields. Fine snow fell, coating the fields and clumps of grass.

Feeling rushed

At 7 p.m. we were back in the dining car and the sun came out, melting the snow and filling the diner with golden light. We started properly with appetizers; Kathy had the Mexican soufflé with grilled street corn, two little cakes came topped with roasted corn and roasted poblano sauce, garnished with jalapeño slices. Very good, she said.

The rest of us enjoyed the coconut crusted shrimp appetizer. The shrimp were straightened out, with just enough coating, mainly composed of toasted coconut. They were darker on the bottom like they’d been cooked or reheated in a hot oven, and the crust was crunchy. We all liked the sweet sauce.

Mary had the salmon this time, very good, and Kathy and Eric tried the rigatoni Bolgnese. Eric’s had a bigger scoop of sauce over the pasta. Kathy said she could use more sauce and reported the flavor was very good.

It was at this point that Kathy mentioned the dish was made with plant-based meat. Eric, who hadn’t read the menu closely and had eaten about half, now declared himself finished. It was just OK; they both said they’d pass on it next time.

Me? I had the steak again. Green beans were the vegetable of the day, the only one we saw on the trip.

We’ve had small green salads with our meals in the past, and rolls. When we asked, the server brought some rolls, warmed, with butter.

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Desserts are enough for two, we all decided. Eric said the blueberry cheesecake was not outstanding like the chocolate cake and the lemon cake. Kathy pronounced it excellent.

Service was rushed. We’d made a reservation for 6:45, but at 6:15 they summoned us. I wouldn’t have minded so much but the courses followed one on top of the other. I was still eating my steak when the server put dessert in front of me.

I ordered a second glass of rosé, and the server wanted payment then and there, as I was trying to finish my meal. I’m a slow eater and it made me anxious.

North Dakota storm

We’d have missed North Dakota if there hadn’t been a wild storm around 3 a.m., with lightning flashes one after the other, each a distinct bolt to the ground illuminating the land that was empty and flat as far as I could see.

I sat wrapped in an Amtrak blanket and watched as the storm raged all around. When it moved away I could still see it, miles off on the horizon and going strong. Thunderstorms are a different event in North Dakota.

By morning we were in Minnesota, where it seemed all the trees had yellow leaves. Farms disappeared as suburbs popped up. By lunchtime we’d just passed Minneapolis.

Lunch was salad again for me, a hotdog for Eric, hamburger for Mary, and Kathy tried the plant-based burger, which she said was very good. The diner was starting to run out of things.

That’s the way it is, enough food is stocked for the trip and not much more. We all got our choices, although if we wanted Cabernet they were out.

We chugged through Red Wing, with colorful boat houses and houseboats in the river across from the riverfront park and the train station. We passed marshes like the ones along the Hudson route between New York City and Rensselaer. Mary saw a bald eagle.

Summing it up

I asked my companions to rate their experience with the food on the trip. Kathy and Mary gave Amtrak a B+, Eric an A-. I thought it was more of a B.

But overall it was an enjoyable, comfortable trip, with attentive staff who made sure we were fed and happy. It’s not a restaurant, I reminded myself.

We crossed the Mississippi, wider now, as we followed it to LaCrosse and into Wisconsin. Then we left it and passed through the Wisconsin Dells and Milwaukee.

The sun shone on the colors of the northern suburbs of Chicago: yellow, orange, red and green, same as the sugars I use to decorate my seasonal cookies. The shadows were long, the sky blue-gray and the light, though brief, was brilliant.

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Almost there, running late but not so late that we’d miss meeting my brother Ed, who was in Chicago for a few days. The next day we’d be meeting Eric’s brother and his wife for dinner. A great ending to a wonderful trip.

Amtrak runs routes of varying lengths, some with spectacular scenery, around the United States. The staff has always been pleasant and helpful, and the food’s not bad.

And you get to eat on a train.

Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected]

Categories: Food, Life and Arts, Life and Arts

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