Even before its christening as the greenest restaurant in America, the Grey Plume was highly anticipated in Omaha.
The idea behind it was as uncompromising as winter, as hopeful as spring:
A seasonal, environmentally conscious, farm-to-table restaurant.
Built with reclaimed barnwood and modern efficiencies in a prominent new development.
Conceived and co-owned by Clayton Chapman — an Omaha-raised, Chicago-trained, world-traveled chef who wowed diners at V. Mertz when he was just 21.
The resulting 61-seat Midtown Crossing eatery, opened by Chapman and his Chicago-based culinary mentor in December, speaks volumes about what can happen when young talent finds the means to do something about it.
The Grey Plume is not only the country's greenest eatery; it's a local triumph and one of the most thoughtful restaurants anywhere.
Its philosophy is green, but its style is far from granola. The small, serene dining room has latte-colored walls, a gauzy fringe of cream-colored curtains, brushed charcoal banquettes and chestnut-colored barnwood floors. White linens adorn tables set with small vases of rosemary. Diners who sit at the bar get a view of the kitchen.
On January visits, the cooking was solid — a discreet mix of classic French and contemporary techniques. The flavors, plates and service were refined but not fussy. And the whole experience, with a soundtrack ranging from David Gray to Jimi Hendrix, was approachable enough for everyday.
Call it deep-rooted-sky's-the-limit new American — or delicious, for short. And call in your reservation right now.
Constantly changing lunch and dinner menus offer a limited selection: a few starters and a handful of entrees 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 from small farms near and far.
It's not all local. But Chapman seeks out small producers and aims to know exactly where the food comes from, whether that's a Nebraska prairie or a river fished by Native Americans in Washington state. When I phoned him and asked which ingredients he's particularly proud of, he said, without irony: “All of them.”
Menus viewed online in the morning may change a smidgen by evening, a transience that mirrors the reality of seasonal eating: When last year's pickled cherries are gone, you can't simply run to the store for more.
Lunches are simple and affordable (soups, a salad, a pasta, a burger, a mini pizza and couple of sandwiches with sides such as Israeli couscous, quinoa or duck-fat French fries; most around $10). Dinners are more adventurous and expensive ($25 to $30 for main courses). Tasting menus are offered by reservation, primarily at a special table in the cozy bar. A weekend brunch is in the works.
On our visits — one lunch, one dinner and one tasting menu — seasoning showed restraint (the better to allow those carefully sussed ingredients to shine) and surprise (some little hidden reward for all who clean their plates). Should you find the first bite too subtle, keep eating and stay tuned. Something remarkable awaits.
Meals begin with house-churned butter (made with Nebraska milk, served at room temperature and as incredibly silky and fresh as you dream it will be) and warm flour-dusted sourdough baguette (served by the slice on emerald, olive and cobalt glass squares made from recycled wine bottles). Sometimes our butter was dusted with tomato powder (from heirloom tomatoes grown in Benson last summer) or sprinkled with coarse red sea salt; sometimes the bread had a whisper of lemon and thyme. We didn't let either go to waste.
Soups were piping hot and often involved a tableside pour — some lovely vegetable puree over ultra-light gnocchi or roasted vegetables — and a flutter of microgreens.
With added salad and a glass of wine, a $15 charcuterie and cheese plate for two would have doubled as dinner for one: cold, chunky house-made lamb and pork terrines and a salty salmon pâté, an assortment of artisan cheeses (including the sweet-nutty Lancaster Duet from Shadowbrook and Branched Oak Farms near Lincoln), crostini and a host of condiments and pickled things to mix and match (local honey, balsamic vinegar, whole grain mustard, fennel fronds, pickled onions and peaches).
Citrus punctuated and uplifted many of the wintry dishes we tried. Lime zest underscored possibility in a pappardelle pasta with a comforting béchamel and humble root vegetables (roasted beets, carrots and turnips in pasta, who knew?). Satsuma tangerine pulp mimicked the texture of the braised pork on a flatbread pizza and slowed me down long enough to appreciate the real star: sweet-tart, cinnamon-scented pickled cherries. Meyer lemon segments were like land mines of sunshine in the farro (a nutty risotto of sorts made from a locally grown hard wheat variety called spelt) that pooled beneath remarkably light and flavorful slices of roasted Nebraska pork.
Black trumpet mushrooms hit thrilling earthy-savory notes (what the Japanese call umami) in a dish of Wagyu beef loin with cubes of sweet potato and unexpected chunks of seared heart and chewy tongue. A less adventurous diner might have liked some kind of “offal ahead” warning on the menu. But, for me, it was a happy surprise. And the beef heart was a particular treat — so potent and fortifying.
A tasting menu reminded me of the wide world of options beyond feedlot beef and factory chicken, even in the dead of winter.
The rabbit (from a farm between Omaha and Lincoln) smacked of a sweet, gentle country life. Simply seasoned, perfectly roasted coins of the mildly sweet, tender saddle were laid in a garden of baby spinach, sautéed oyster mushrooms and pickled shallots. And a bit of the thigh had been cooked in duck fat, boned, re-formed and seared in a clever little patty that was reminiscent of — but considerably better than — chicken-fried chicken.
A Red Wattle pork belly dish was what breakfast-for-supper might be in some better, alternate universe: a tidy package of soft unsmoked meat and seared fat, served with a slow-poached egg (its white pillowy, its yolk like custard); fully utilized grapefruit (simple segments, a fruit leather involving the zest and a frothy white puree of the pith); a drizzle of rich coffee and a brilliant sprinkling of bittersweet celery leaf. (One quibble: I'd have liked a wider dish and a spoon. Knife and fork weren't ideal for lapping up that luscious egg, and cutting things in the bottom of a bowl can be awkward.)
Steelhead trout from the Pacific Northwest had a peachy hue and tasted just as it sounds: clean and fresh, with a cool hint of steel. I loved the sour notes of the crčme fraîche spätzle beneath it, the braised-to-bits Wagyu beef oxtail at the bottom of the bowl, and the shower of frizzled leeks and mung bean sprouts on top — like a hit of onion, black pepper and green beans but with an entirely different texture.
The grass-fed Nebraska bison ribeye was leaner and more flavorful than any beef I can recall. It had a resounding earthiness and seemed right at home on its new prairie: a porcelain plate dotted with seared potato gnocchi, roasted cipollini onions, slices of cinnamon-spiced Chieftain apple and sunflower sprouts.
House-roasted organic coffee was exquisite — dark and bold, devoid of bitterness, terrifically hot — made in a French press that serves two. Even the decaffeinated version quickened my pulse a little. Soft drink options included two sodas sweetened with agave (strawberry-rhubarb and grapefruit) and two with cane sugar (cola and root beer), served with an eco-friendly but unnecessary wax-coated paper straw.
A well-edited wine, beer and cocktail list offered a smart range (including some bottles under $40 and several glasses under $10) and introduced me to a rather terrific New Mexican bubbly, the Gruet Blanc De Noirs. It smelled of berries and pineapple. Though it was amber in the glass, the flavor was mostly pinot noir, followed with a rush of pleasantly peppery bubbles.
Desserts ranged from intriguing sorbets and ice creams (lemongrass, chamomile tea) to whimsical explorations of chocolate. The one I liked best was a platter that looked like a playground: a sand pile of cocoa powder (ŕ la Swiss Miss) on the left; chocolate truffles on pedestals of buttery shortbread in the middle; sophisticated winter squash sorbet, bizarre beer gelée and otherworldly butter powder on the right. What seemed whack at first grew more brilliant as we dragged our spoons through the dark chocolate paint down the middle, the plate's unifying stroke.
Service was professional and full of hospitality — from a warm greeting and coat-taking at the start to holding the door on the way out. Multiple servers engaged to deliver courses together, tend drinks, keep wines at the right temperature and ensure that diners had utensils before they were needed. Course pacing was appropriately languid.
A few exceptionally thoughtful touches stood out: A small glossary posted online and at the tables helps decode some of the ingredients, especially nice when the menu's in flux and so many things are new. When we ducked away to the restroom, we returned to find our abandoned napkins neatly refolded. And helping us into our coats after dinner, hosts handed us little bags of pastries (shell-shaped Madeleines or chocolate-dipped biscotti) with cards that read: “Please enjoy this pastry in the morning. It was made fresh today with you in mind.”
From a restaurant with less soul, that message might feel gimmicky. Here, it felt genuine.
It's astonishing to think that the Grey Plume is only two months old — and that its unassuming chef is not yet 25. It's thrilling to ponder where this already remarkable new venture will lead. And it is a joy to experience right now, right here in Omaha, from the ground up.
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