Monday, April 07, 2014

Stuck in the Middle....of the Country

You might remember from a few years ago I used to travel for work a lot. The judges at VA's Board of Appeals travel to the Regional Offices (there are at least one in every state) to allow veterans the opportunity for an in-person hearing. An attorney used to accompany the judges to help them brief the hearing cases--basically, we would quickly review each case and identify the issues and pertinent evidence for the judges.

Well, those days are gone.

Budget cuts must come to us all, and the Powers That Be decided about three years ago that sending attorneys on the Travel Board trips was an unnecessary expense. It was a shame too because getting out the office, networking with judges you otherwise wouldn't interact with, and forming relationships with the people in the Regional Office were invaluable benefits to the attorneys.

I had pretty much resigned myself to never traveling on the government's dime again...when all of a sudden! Rumors started that attorneys might be going back out on the road! Extra money from Congress and a change of leadership at the Board are no doubt the reason, and the rumors proved true. During the ten Travel Board trips in February and March attorneys were once again sent with the judges to various Regional Offices. And I was lucky enough to go on one! To Lincoln, Nebraska.

This is Husker territory.

I know what you're thinking. Lincoln? Nebraska? Umm....yay? But I was actually pretty excited, and had specifically requested the trip. I had been on it once before back in 2009 and Lincoln is a really well run office which means the practical aspects of the trip are easy peasy. It also meant I would be traveling with the judge who was my mentor when I first started at the Board in 2005--at that time he was an attorney like me.

The reason for sending the attorneys has also changed. Instead of spending an entire week with our noses buried in cases, the attorneys now only travel through Wednesday and provide training to the Regional Office staff on various aspects of the law. The employees at the RO who decide cases aren't lawyers, and yet they are often expected to know as much as we do and perform the same kind of analysis. So we provide them training to hopefully clear up some of the thornier issues.

So if the government wants to send me out of the office for a couple days, pay for a hotel and meals in nice restaurants (hello, per diem!), and let me do one of my favorite things--talking in front of a group of people who have no choice but to listen to me--who am I to say no??

That's how I ended up in Lincoln, Nebraska. From a work and personal perspective the trip was a complete success. The second judge traveling with us was a friend of mine and we had a great time. I was also able to find some GREAT restaurants. In the past four years Lincoln has become quite a bit more cosmopolitan, so much so that I was pleasantly surprised by the number of trendy restaurants and shops that would have fit in perfectly in downtown DC.

Since it's me, I took lots of pictures of the food and am happy to provide you, gentle reader, with all my dining recommendations in case you ever find your self in Lincoln, Nebraska. First, let's talk steak. Nebraska = cows. That's the reality. But last time I was in Lincoln I was not impressed with the steak dinner I had. Maybe I went to the wrong place? Or it was just a bad cut? But this time I was going to hunt down a great steak if it killed me.

Luckily I didn't have to go far. Enter Misty's Steakhouse and Brewery. Conveniently located directly across the street from our hotel, Misty's is considered the best steakhouse in all of Lincoln. But I went into it without expectations, after all, I had been burned once before. I am happy to report that Misty's more than lived up to its reputation and I think I had the best steak of my life.

Bacon-wrapped filet mignon with caramelized onions and grilled veggies. SO GOOD OMG. And only $25. Amazing.

The next two nights were also winners. Barbara (the second judge on the trip) and I had a bit of a girls' night on Tuesday with a delicious meal and wine at a French-inspired place called The Green Gateau. They had a three course prix fixe meal for only $25. Again, amazing. I realize people in Lincoln don't make as much as us in DC, but traveling someplace with such a low cost of living is definitely refreshing

 And it's signature dessert (from gateau, "cake" in French) was yummy. It's a light chocolate cake filled with mousse and covered with a green almond fondant. 

Another example of how things are cheaper in Lincoln: the cost of a mani/pedi. Barbara and I arrived in Lincoln on Sunday afternoon and I thought it might be fun to get our nails done to look nice for our interaction with the RO staff and veterans having hearings. I found a salon open late on Sunday afternoon and a mani/pedi was, you guessed it, $25. Apparently everything worth having in Lincoln is only $25. The folks at Queen Nails were completely nice, and I even got a little decoration on my big toes at no extra cost.

I went with black sparkly bow ties on my pink nails. Subtle and classy, just like me, right? Also, maybe it's me, but my toes totally look like fingers here. It's kind of creeping me out. 

Ok, back to the food. Our last night in Lincoln we tried a new farm-to-table style place called Jack & June (they're redoing the website, but the link will take you to the Yelp page). They bill themselves as an "urban table" and this is the kind of place that has become very hip in DC lately. Local fresh ingredients and trendy twists on classic American dishes. The decor was also pretty cool, kind of a burnished steel modern kitchen meets homey wood. It was also Spring Break at the University of Nebraska so the place was practically empty.

The bar at Jack & June. We definitely didn't have any trouble getting a table.

The food there was FANTASTIC. We were all really impressed with our meals--so impressed we had the manager come by to pay our compliments. He was very excited to talk to us and actually sat and chatted with us for about 15 minutes asking our opinion on any improvements that could be made. Apparently the restaurant had just hired a new chef and was in the process of some major menu revamps. I like nothing more than giving my opinions so it was very flattering to have the ear of the manager.

I had a kielbasa and brussel sprouts. And let me just say...

BEST BRUSSEL SPROUTS EVER. I never considered myself a brussel sprouts person, but they've become quite a trendy vegetable (which is hilarious that a "trendy vegetable" is a thing) and these were amazing. They were roasted and covered with a kind of sweet Thai chili sauce. Amazeballs.

Only one more stop on the Lincoln food tour. Barbara and I were both in agreement that it is never too cold for ice cream, so we decided to find the best Lincoln had to offer. I figured good cows must equal good ice cream. Unfortunately, our visit to the Nebraska University Dairy was a bit disappointing. I mean, it was good. But Nebraska couldn't hold a candle to the Penn State creamery which is the best ice cream I have ever had. But! All hope was not lost.

We found Ivanna Cone, an old fashioned ice cream parlor in Lincoln's popular Haymarket district. They had super unusual flavors, but also delicious favorites, and everything was super fresh and tasty. My selection?

 A scoop of chocolate, a scoop of cinnamon, hot fudge, and peanut butter sauce. Yum!

Ok, but enough about the food. Like I said, the trip was a complete success. The training I performed was super well received, and the RO staff actually kept me after the training for almost two hours to answer their questions. Which is great! They wanted more training the next day, but alas, the training room was booked. Instead, I spent the day talking to a lot of the staff one-on-one and getting some suggestions to increase communication between the RO and the Board. They also had some good ideas on ways to improve VA's overall efficiency and functioning. The hearings conducted by the judges also went really well and we had a great show rate. 

Overall, our trip to Lincoln was fun, informative, and even more successful than we could have hoped. It was a win all around and I really hope the Board decides to keep sending attorneys out with the judges. It's a nice break from the office and a great networking and mentoring opportunity. 

 Just remember, in Nebraska you can't carry your DEADLY weapons into the ice cream parlor. Non-deadly weapons are ok though. Bonus Barbara sighting!

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