Naming the top Omaha restaurants of 2011 is a challenge.
This year, the city saw many new places open, and the culinary scene as a whole was pushed to a new level.
Young chefs opened restaurants. Native Omahans returned to the city to cook something new. And a few standbys that we'd long ignored became new favorites.
As 2012 approaches, the trend continues: Lots of new places are on the horizon. Until then, we'll enjoy the best of the best right now. This year, we chose the top eight restaurants based on reviews throughout the year from World-Herald critics. They're listed here in order. Those marked with an asterisk are considered new restaurants, opening in the last 18 months.
Read. Enjoy. Eat.
1. GREY PLUME*
Location: 220 S. 31st Ave., Suite 3101, 402-763-4447
Chef Clayton Chapman is one of a handful of young Omaha chefs pushing the city in a new culinary direction.
Though a delicious bison burger and a pile of duck-fat french fries have both appeared on the menu at the Grey Plume, it's not just meat and potatoes. Here, it's fancy food that's not fussy. It's classic style melded with contemporary technique. And it's approachable enough for every day.
Constantly changing lunch and dinner menus offer a limited selection of a few starters and a handful of entrées identified simply by their main ingredients. House-made staples (right down to the butter, preserved produce and house-roasted coffee beans) as well as meat, fish, fowl and seasonal produce hail from small farms near and far. It doesn't hurt that the restaurant also has one of the best cheese and meat trays in the city, featuring delicious blends of locally produced cheese and charcuterie that's artfully presented and a triumph to eat. Don't forget to take a complimentary package of the delectable butter cookies on your way out the door.
2. TWISTED CORK
Location: 10730 Pacific St., 402-932-1300
When chef-owner Darrell Auld of Twisted Cork Bistro says he's into using fresh, local and natural ingredients, he means it.
The bistro's beef comes from grass-fed, free-range cattle from family-owned Hollenbeck Farms in Elmwood, Neb. Auld gets chicken from Plum Creek Farms in Burchard, Neb., which raises free-range poultry without growth hormones and antibiotics. The restaurant doesn't serve Diet Coke or Pepsi, or anything else with unnatural additives, and all the wines come from Washington and Oregon.
At just 1,000 square feet, the cozy bistro seats just under 40 and the owner and his wife are likely to also be your servers.
Auld makes a great burger — the patty a blend of beef and pork spiked with fennel seed, paprika, ginger, Worcestershire sauce and molasses. The tangy, slightly sweet house cioppino is another hit.
Twisted Cork offers diners a singular experience — one beautifully curated to make it different than any other place in the city.
3. DIXIE QUICKS PUBLIC HOUSE
Location: 157 W. Broadway, in downtown Council Bluffs, 712-256-4140
When Dixie Quicks moved across the river to Council Bluffs, regulars were skeptical.
Would it maintain its devotion to tasty food and making customers feel like family?
The new space is fantastic, on a busy sliver of Broadway, with atmosphere second to none. The food is as good as ever. And all the familiar staff is there.
Owners Rob Gilmer and Rene Orduna, who is also the chef, maintained all of the Dixie Quicks favorites on the chalkboard menu: chicken fried steak, blackened salmon, red beans and rice. The same see-and-be-seen Sunday morning brunch crowd is there to nosh on specialties like eggs Blackstone, a version of eggs Benedict with bacon and tomato; chilequilas, a Mexican breakfast speciality; and mountains of thick-cut french toast topped with fruit, syrup or chocolate.
Gilmer and Orduna hit the perfect pitch with the latest location of their Omaha institution: funky decor, good music, friendly staff and, above all, food that's simply delicious.
4. ZIN ROOM*
Location: 316 S. 15th St. inside the Hotel Deco, 402-991-0660
If one thing stuck in our minds (and to our ribs) after visiting the Zin Room, chef Ryan Gish's latest effort, it was the gouda mac-and-cheese.
The smoky, gooey, surely calorie-laden side dish was a perfect twist on every great-aunt's homemade mac-and-cheese, and it endeared us in a serious way to this new downtown spot.
That mac is the perfect way to describe Gish's food, which he calls "Americana fusion." We think of it as upscale home-cooking, with Gish taking time-honored recipes and sprucing them up in a way that crosses generations and can impress serious foodies and casual diners alike.
The restaurant is a touch nostalgic, yet creative. Classy but not pretentious. Simple yet thoughtful. Simply good.
Twists on classics like trout amandine and shrimp scampi and pepper steak didn't disappoint. And if you know what's good for you, order the Bananas Foster for dessert.
Every time we visited, Gish was there: working the room, mingling with guests, taking orders and, one night, sitting in the bar over a drink after a long day.
The Zin Room is old-school in the best possible way.
5. DOLCE CAFE*
Location: 12317 West Maple Road, 402-212-1027
Dolce Cafe chef-owner Gina Sterns is all about customers. She works the room like a champ, describing food and delivering plates. She's trying to make the restaurant an extension of her own dining room at home, a warm hangout in a west Omaha neighborhood.
Food at Dolce is a pleasure: exquisitely cooked salmon, tasty paninis and creative salads all served on dramatic, contemporary china.
A complimentary house bread plate is one of the most creative we'd seen anywhere in the city, and delicious, too.
Sterns has been in the cake making business since 1998, so it makes sense that the desserts, house-made fresh daily, are delicious.
But most of all, we could tell that Sterns and her staff aren't faking their hospitality. She's running a restaurant in the old-school tradition — a neighborhood place that make customers feel at home even if they're not regulars. West Omahans should find their way to Dolce Cafe.
6. BLANC BURGERS + BOTTLES*
Location: 3157 Farnam St., in Midtown Crossing, 402-502-3686
Blanc Burgers + Bottles is what the neighborhood malt shop wants to be when it grows up.
The food, typical soda shop fare, is raised to a gourmet level. Instead of phosphates, order a boozy milkshake. And choose wisely from the list of close to 100 liquor and beer choices.
Chef Ryan Kearney sets the bar high: a cheese curd appetizer made with locally sourced cheddar, are just too good. Truffle fries and sweet potato fries are both great (and come served in a cute miniature shopping cart). Homemade ketchup and chipotle aioli are great. A variety of burgers — kobe, bison, turkey, fish and veggie — mean that anyone can find a sandwich they like.
Creative toppings like slaw, port wine onions, ham, fried eggs and others bring us back to that old soda shop analogy: Burgers and malts and fries are typical.
Blanc, however, is not.
7. SOUTH 24TH STREET TACO TRUCKS
Location: Various places on South 24th Street.
It's not often that we've eaten lunch on a hard plastic picnic table in an abandoned gas station parking lot. Not often that we've dined on food cooked and served from an ancient white food truck.
And it isn't often — OK, it's happened only once — that we enjoyed this experience so thoroughly that we urged friends, relatives and near strangers to give El 7 de Copas a try.
We urged them to venture over to South 24th Street and check out Dos de Oro, Taqueria el Rey and a handful of other food trucks because the experience, the price and the food are all just that good.
We tried Guadalajara's version of the French dip sandwich. We ate beef tongue and liked it. We watched four hardy souls stand outside the Avanza grocery store in a freezing, sideways rain so they could score a giant burrito from the Taqueria El Rey food stand.
The food trucks lining South 24th Street are serving up their own legitimate cuisine.
It's good food for a good price, made by people who know what they are doing. Next time, skip the Americanized Mexican chain restaurant. Hit the food trucks instead.
8. SAIGON SURFACE*
Location: 324 S. 14th St., 402-614-4496
At Saigon Surface, the old meets the new.
A steaming bowl of traditional pho sits next to a gleaming iPad that customers use to order this and other traditional Vietnamese specialities.
Owner Tu Nguyen sources authentic ingredients locally and aims to use everything he buys — leftover lemongrass, ginger and coconut used for food find their way into the restaurant's signature drinks. A pineapple shell becomes a serving vessel.
A bowl of pho here is served with rare beef, Thai meatballs and steamed brisket. It cooks overnight, resulting in a complex broth flavored with chicken bones, oxtail and steak bones.
Saigon Surface mixes the traditional with the technological to great effect. It's a welcome addition to the downtown dining scene.
Location: 15805 West Maple Road, Suite 101, 402-614-4100
With a new name and a refocused menu, 7M Grill deserved a second look. The menu from executive chef Aron Mackevicius features refined, globally spiked comfort food with tropical touches. We loved the chicken lettuce wrap starter and beautifully prepared pasta dishes.
TOMMY COLINA'S KITCHEN*
Location: 3558 Farnam St., 402-502-9027
Tommy Colina's is hard to pinpoint: It's got great steak burgers, globally inspired chicken sandwiches, homey soups, thyme-flecked french fries, fresh salads with zippy house-made dressings and interesting riffs on eggs Benedict. Co-owners Grant Lundin and Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Jon Dye helped launch Absolutely Fresh Seafood spin-offs Shucks Fish House & Oyster Bar and Bailey's, and have taken bits and pieces from those two restaurants to create something truly tasty.
Location: 4005 Twin Creek Drive, Bellevue, 402-933-8727
The burgers — and some of the other menu items, too — at Sinful Burger fit the name: they're sinfully good. Each open-flame-grilled burger on the menu gets its name from one of the seven deadly sins, and the contents of the burger often reflect the sin itself: For instance, the gluttony burger is two patties between two full-sized grilled cheese sandwiches that act as a bun. We'll return to sample the Lust Burger, topped with blue cheese, garlic mayo and basil. The owners say they know Omaha has lots of burger joints, and they're aiming to stand out. If the food we had was any indication, they do.
Location: 741 N. 114th St., 402-884-1115
This San-Francisco based chain drew us in with its funky, outdoorsy atmosphere but more so with its creative pizza toppings: black beans and salsa, Portugese sausage, mandarin oranges, a variety of nuts and hummus included. Vegetarians will find much here, and meat eaters will enjoy it, too.
CASABLANCA MOROCCAN CAFE
Location: 3025 Farnam St., 402-884-3382
If you like a laid-back atmosphere, homey attitude and prepared-with-love Mediterranean, Arabian and north African food, this is the place for you. Lots of complimentary items — hummus plates, salads, glasses of tea — make each visit surprising.
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