Meat-and-potatoes Omaha, Neb., is turning out a rich stew of culinary invention.
Whether they're driving through, stuck here for work or savvy enough to make a long weekend out of this under-the-radar city, travelers tend to want a darn fine hunk of meat when visiting Omaha.
Steak from steak country. Omaha offers succulent brawn in venues that range from the hushed upscale (V. Mertz) to the unfussy historic (Johnny's Cafe) to the frozen-in-a-Midwestern-time-vacuum (The Drover).
But insisting on steakhouses in Omaha is like cashing out on deep dish in Chicago. What a shame. Here's a look at some of the city's most inventive, playful and neighborhood-favorite joints:
Chef Clayton Chapman, an Omaha native, attended culinary school in Chicago and worked at Tru under chef Rick Tramonto and chef Laurent Gras. He also did some well-deserved gastronomic touring through Europe after leaving Chicago.
Returning to Omaha, Chapman in December 2010 opened the Grey Plume, an upscale farm-to-table haunt in Omaha's revived Midtown. He aims to serve at least 90 percent locally produced food, which had him pickling, preserving and canning for the winter.
Expect dishes such as chevre agnolotti with sweet potato and aronia berry jam ($22); a bison burger with caramelized onions, house buttermilk cheese and Dijon ($16); or unassuming shiitake mushrooms with bok choy, oxtail and pickled ramps ($13).
Lot 2 hums along in Benson, Omaha's recently gentrified neighborhood with an unexhausted "cool factor." With its street-level front window, warm lightscape and proximity to Omaha's new "it" bar (Krug Park), Lot 2 has a lot going for it. After a chat with the restaurant's young wait staff, you realize another perk of Omaha tourism: Even the hipsters are nice.
Chef Joel Mahr guides his menu to the unexpected. The bruschetta ($8) boasts chicken liver mousse, pickled cherry, pistachio and parsley. The Brussels sprouts arrive with candied lemon, chestnut and Parmesan ($6). Vegetarians embrace the haute-seitan, the Big O's finest. Mahr uses the faux flesh in shepherd's pie ($11), alongside peas, carrots, pearl onions, kale, garlic smashed potatoes and a blend of Gruyere, Parmesan and panko.
For a clean finish after a spicy-savory meal, the fresh goat cheese panna cotta ($6) with cherries and vanilla soothes the palate with a mellow creaminess, offset by the sweet-tart fruit.
A handful of restaurants in Omaha cure everything in-house, but French Bulldog is the city's brand-new stand-alone charcuterie. Expect dishes such as an earthy, grassy beef cheek sandwich ($10), served with spicy-sweet brined peppadew peppers, smoked Gouda, mixed greens, red onions and house-made grainy mustard. Lemon zest brightens the mellow, fatty pork-belly rillettes ($4). Fennel and orange zest add an herb note to the salami ($4).
Chef Paul Kulik's menu speaks for itself. Roasted wagyu bone marrow with grilled bread, fried capers, preserved apple and parsley ($11). Crispy tete de cochon with stewed zucchini, gribiche, coppa ham and frisee ($12). Monkfish with whitefish brandade, green beans, leeks and littleneck clams ($28). Housed in the historic warehouses of Omaha's stylish Old Market, this space is all catwalk and aged brick, spot lighting and art.
This small space is all about transformation. And fun. Located among City Hall, Omaha's downtown library and several office buildings on a block that's as vertically dense as the city gets, Block 16 likely could survive on the quick-lunch crowd alone. But when Paul Urban and Jessica Joyce bought the restaurant in November 2010, they transformed it from New York Chicken & Gyros (home of Philly cheesesteaks and fries) into something unique.
Block 16 offers lunch and dinner and a menu that winks with wry creativity. For example, Urban and Joyce run a "Snails in Fun Ways" series; past items include snails with crepes, Gruyere and Mornay ($6); snail chowder ($6); and cast-iron French-style with herbs, Gruyere and baguette ($6).
Even though the Reuben was invented in Omaha's Blackstone Hotel (as any local foodie will tell you), finding a solid vegan version proves challenging. With its monthly vegan specials, Block 16 rises to the occasion. Its seitan version ($7.25) boasts creative twists on the time-honored original: Thousand Island dressing appears as "Kajillion Island," with capers and pickled red onions; sauerkraut becomes pork chocrutte; and pickled beets add an appropriately earthy flavor. Whether lunching locals want to escape the dreary office buildings that Omaha-native Alexander Payne made famous in "About Schmidt," or whether they want a zany, heartfelt dinner, Block 16 delivers.
This airy cafe and grocery is owned by a pair of renowned free spirits: the quirky, cosmopolitan Mark and Vera Mercer. (A crash course on Omaha's architectural preservation movement would include a chapter on the Mercers and the rest of their family, a group of forward-thinking bohemians who protected the city's warehouse district long before rehabbed lofts grew trendy.) Order a house-cured gravlax salad ($9) and uncork a bottle from the grocery. If you harbor no guilt about wine at lunch, find communion here.
For those who want the opposite of a steak dinner, this is it. McFoster's health-food joint fills a converted gas station and has been juicing, julienning and jammin' since 1994. This is the spot for drum circles, Keystone pipeline protests and chocolate vegan cheesecake ($5.25).