• Note: Sweets of Eden and Bianco have closed since the publication of this article.
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As a new dining reviewer who previously was more home cook and Food Network addict than professional diner, what a treat it has been to sample the Omaha area's newest and best restaurants.
• The downs: Crummy service. The occasional bit of raw chicken. Not enough time or budget to try everything or return more often to the places I loved. The 20-plus pounds I gained.
• The ups: Some of the best meals I've ever eaten. More feedback from readers than I've had in more than a decade as a journalist. And a renewed sense of the restorative (and even libido-enhancing) power of a great meal.
I leave the year, too, with a deeper appreciation of all that goes into a great dining experience -- in front of, behind and beyond those swinging doors.
Before the drum roll, one disclaimer: There are hundreds of restaurants in the Omaha area. I reviewed 38 after making about 80 visits to them since March, when I took over from our previous critic. I didn't make it to many of the area's most established restaurants or to some of its newest.
But the ballots are in. The votes have been tallied. And here are my favorites of those I tried in 2007.
The Golden Forks (or chopsticks, as the case may be) go to . . .
Most promising startup (and most mourned closing): Darwin Bistro
I felt depressed when I learned the owner had abruptly closed this little gem just after it passed its one-year mark. I loved the innovation in the kitchen and on the plates at this new-American bistro in Miracle Hills. Here's hoping its talented executive chef, Paul Urban, and crew resurface in new local ventures of their own.
Best fine-dining: V. Mertz
I'll never forget the tasting menu from a young new chef who looked like that kid from Hanson (at least until the chef cut his hair). I loved the sophisticated whimsy in some courses, the beauty in the wine pairings, the seasonal crescendo of the entire meal and the blissed-out feeling I had when it was all over -- not to mention the undeniable romance of this Old Market underground hideaway. 1022 Howard St., 345-8980.
Best French (old and new): Le Voltaire and Dario's Brasserie
Though different, both have a neighborhood feel, authentic and earnest cooking styles, heartfelt French flair and a lack of stuffiness. Dario's is for Belgian beer what Le Voltaire is for French wine. And the chefs at both places have sexy accents, which never hurts. Le Voltaire, 569 N. 155th Plaza, 934-9374; Dario's, 4920 Underwood Ave., 933-0799.
Best new Asian: Mai Thai and Wave Bistro
These two cross the sometimes-wide cultural divide -- offering not only delicious, authentic Asian and Asian-inspired dishes but also gracious service, pretty plating and pleasant ambience. They raise the bar for Omaha's Asian eateries. Mai Thai, 14618 West Center Road, 333-0506; Wave Bistro, 4002 N. 144th St., 496-8812.
Best hole-in-the-wall Mexican: La Cabana d'Franko
The huaraches were phenomenal and the deeply satisfying mole I'll never forget. 4835 S. 24th St., 614-9977.
Best pick-me-up: Sweets of Eden
I'm not sure which I adore most -- the lighter-than-a-cloud chicken salad croissant, the divine chocolates and inventive individual desserts, or the no-hurry vibe of this delicious little downtown lunch and dessert spot. It's still my favorite stop on a rough day. 315 S. 16th St., 614-2299.
Best breakfast: Bailey's
Perfect execution (peppy hollandaise, crisp bacon, precisely cooked eggs) and interesting flavors (alligator in your omelet or a Moroccan slaw on your chicken sandwich) made this one a standout. 1259 S. 120th St., 932-5577.
Best barbecue: Doc & Eddie's BBQ
The super-tasty smoked meats made it worth the trek out west. Even though it's not his main job, the doc knows a thing or two about smoke. 6610 S. 168th St., 895-RIBS (7427).
Least chain-like of the chains: Charleston's
The restaurant continues to serve consistently wonderful meals and live up to its "everything's so right" motto. It's a restaurant that even chain-spurning local purists can feel good about supporting. 13851 First National Bank Parkway, 431-0023.
From former restaurant reviewer John Keenan: Of the 11 restaurants I reviewed early this year, two standouts:
Most comfy: Lazlo's Family-friendly brewpub. 2425 S. 192nd St., 289-5840.
Most stylin': Bianco Ristorante Italiano
From the architecture and decor to the Italian food, the third restaurant in the red-white-and-blue enterprise (Roja Mexican, Blue Sushi and Bianco) nails chic style. 13110 Birch Drive, 884-9500.