One bite, and the whole world grinds to a halt.
My eyes close. My hearing fails. I forget where I am.
I surrender to the aroma, flavor and texture of an exquisite mouthful.
It doesn't happen at every meal, but it happens often enough to make me feel blessed to be a restaurant critic in Omaha.
From a paper-lined cone of perfect frites to sushi on fine porcelain, those crazy-good morsels etch themselves on my soul.
I love reliving them in reviews and hearing from folks who get vicarious pleasure from what I write.
But the joy needn't be secondhand. And you don't have to be a critic to get a crack at such bliss. You just have to be a diner.
That's why I hope you'll make time to try the restaurants on the Top 10 list that follows, my ranked favorites of the 46 eateries I reviewed this year.
There's no reason the next Earth-stopping, soul-nourishing bite can't be yours.
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BEST OF 2010
1. DARIO'S BRASSERIE (4920 Underwood Ave., 933-0799)
This laid-back, 4-year-old French-Belgian eatery in the Dundee neighborhood just keeps getting better — with seasonally shifting specials, soulful sous vide dishes and hints of chef-owner Dario Schicke's Bosnian roots. Mussels, crepes, pommes frites and Belgian beer never disappoint, and specials strike a balance between modern creativity and French classics.
I still remember the unctuous pork belly (scored, seared, cooked sous vide and glazed with a sauce that smacked of Riesling and pear) I had nearly a year ago and the rainbow trout (pan-seared, stuffed with herbed breadcrumbs) and pickled vegetables I enjoyed one evening this summer. Dario's beckons on special occasions and ordinary weeknights alike.
2. SPENCER'S FOR STEAKS AND CHOPS (102 S. 10th St., 280-8888)
When it first opened inside the Hilton Garden Inn in 2008, seasoning lapses and a staid menu made Spencer's seem like just another overpriced steakhouse. But a new chef, more locally sourced ingredients and creative riffs within the meat-and-potatoes milieu made Spencer's a standout when I visited early this year — and not just for steaks and chops.
Executive chef Clayton Chapman left in the spring to work on his own venture. But his successor, Glenn Wheeler, continued one of my favorite things — a fabulous weekend prix-fixe dinner ($35 for three inspired, off-menu courses). I can still taste the Wagyu beef with sweet potato gnocchi and potato-leek sauce that was one of the prix-fixe courses 10 months ago.
3. HIRO 88* (1308 Jackson St., 933-5168)
Perfect sushi (and more) in a stylish space with thoughtful service and an undercurrent of Zen — that's what Milton Yin has achieved at this newer, bigger, more urbane Old Market version of his other eatery, Hiro Sushi in northwest Omaha. From memory, I could paint the sushi and sashimi combo I had at Hiro 88 in the spring: It looked like a day at the beach and tasted as fresh as an ocean breeze.
Even the sushi-afeared can find something on Hiro's generous menu, which includes hot Chinese and Japanese dishes prepared with fresh ingredients and obvious care. One unforgettable example: the mesquite-grilled salmon with raspberry sauce and a simply stunning apple-cucumber salad.
4. DANTE PIZZERIA NAPOLETANA* (16901 Wright Plaza, 932-3078)
Regionally grown and hand-crafted ingredients shine at this locally owned Shops of Legacy pizzeria. Named for the Italian poet, it mixes Old World techniques with modern decor. And its driven chef and co-owner, Nick Strawhecker, serves rustic Italian dishes that approach the divine as well as the region's only Neapolitan pizzas that have been certified as authentic by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association.
Unforgettable dishes include the meat and cheese plate (best I've had since a trip to Italy in ‘08); lovely salads with exotic greens that farmers market shoppers will recognize; and awesome thin-crust pizzas with house-made mozzarella, cured meats from the artisans at Iowa's La Quercia, San Marzano tomato sauce and sunny-side-up, local-when-possible eggs.
4.LA CASA PIZZARIA (4432 Leavenworth St., 556-6464)
Choosing between Dante and La Casa is like picking a favorite child. They're both awesome — in completely different ways. Hence, each lays claim to fourth place.
You won't find fancy ingredients at La Casa, but the rectangular Classic Hamburger Pizza at this 57-year-old Omaha original has no equal. With a thin, hand-twisted crust as its stage and humble ground beef as its star, it speaks to the city's Italian roots and Midwestern sensibility. Topped with house-grated cylinders of Romano, it is to Omaha what the Margherita is to Naples: a timeless, signature dish, served with well-seasoned hospitality.
5. LE QUARTIER BAKING CO.* (8706 Countryside Plaza, 932-1207)
With its limited seating and takeout counter, it's the least restaurant-like of the lot. But this Montreal-inspired, Lincoln-based company's lacy bread and flaky croissants have changed my world. The new boulangerie in Omaha's Countryside Village is home to the almond croissant I most crave, the kind that's a happy mess to eat. It's also the supplier of some of the best breads I've ever tasted.
Fans of its seasonal farmers market stand will find much more to love at the shop: moist cupcakes, custard-filled Danishes, pecan-caramel rolls, brioche, take-and-bake pizzas and puff pastry hors d'oeuvres, tasty soups (with unbelievable croutons) and panini made to order on the terrific house breads.
6. ZUM BIERGARTEN* (513 N. Ft. Crook Road, Bellevue, 733-1900)
German-born Otto Helbig, longtime chef at the former Edelweiss in Bellevue, opened this casual eatery late last year in a neatly disguised former Pizza Hut with his Nebraska-born wife, Lisa. Though the menu is loaded with hearty German classics, they're prepared with lightness and balance suited to any season.
Give me one of Otto's four-way salads, some Bavarian cabbage, a house-pounded schnitzel with a paprika-spiked gravy and some of Lisa's slightly sweet yeast rolls, and I'm happy — winter, spring, summer or fall. The restaurant also now lives up to its name (“to the beergarden” in German): It got its liquor license a couple months after my April review.
7. HAROLD'S KOFFEE HOUSE (8327 N. 30th St., 451-9776)
Visits to this tidy Florence diner this summer prompted more of an ode than a review. Harold's, which dates to 1958, has an old-school charm that can brighten a dark day.
What's not to love about good coffee, tiny cake doughnuts, gooey pecan rolls, granola-and-berry-laced waffles, small hand-pattied burgers, properly cooked eggs, hand-flaked hash browns, servers who wield coffee pots with aplomb and tally the checks in their heads, and terrific people-watching while you wait for that perfect (and perfectly affordable) breakfast or lunch?
8. RIVERA'S MEXICAN FOOD (12047 Blondo St., 932-1381)
In the vast American desert of mediocre quasi-Mexican chains and tasty-but-trashy mom-and-pop taquerias, Rivera's is a welcome oasis. That's why diners in the know flock to the casual Mexican eatery that Jesus and Tracey Rivera opened in 2004. Its menu features flavorful Mexican fare with well-seasoned sauces and creative dishes seldom seen or matched elsewhere.
Most memorable for me were the sunset-colored house salsa (spicy but simultaneously fresh, fruity, floral, nutty, sweet and smoky); the two sauces on the chile en nogada (walnut-cream and a reduction of spiced pomegranate juice and red wine); and the lobster-and-shrimp-stuffed Enchiladas Acapulco with serrano-lobster-cream sauce.
9. MARU SUSHI & KOREAN GRILL* (5036 S. 108th St., 593-0717)
The decade-old Han Kuk Kwan reopened with a new name, a fresh and modern look, a liquor license, an expanded dining room and a sushi bar this year. But it was the Korean fare that shined most brightly at Boksoon Tamayo's renewed, rechristened restaurant when I visited this summer.
I loved rediscovering its bibimbap (the sizzling rice bowl with fabulously toasted rice at the bottom) — and the chance to eat it and other Korean delights in such a polished and welcoming room.
10. KURRY XPRESS* (10841 Q St., 934-5054)
This order-at-the-counter Indian eatery, opened in the spring, was neither fancy nor speedy on visits this summer. But its flavorful curries, aromatic biryani rice dishes and easy-on-the-wallet prices hit the mark.
I loved its naan (fresh bread baked and blistered in the tandoor oven), its sweet and smoky chicken tikka masala (made without artificial red-orange coloring), its vegetarian korma (with a sauce thickened, sweetened and made heavenly with raisins) and its goat biryani (made with extra-extra-long-grain basmati rice and seasoned just right).
Contact the writer: 444-1069, email@example.com
* Indicates a new restaurant, opened within the last 18 months.
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NOTE: Five other restaurants drew honorable mentions. Read about them by clicking the "Honorable Mentions" link in the "related" column at upper right.