Dolce Cafe owner and chef Gina Sterns asked me my name halfway through my dinner at her restaurant.
She'd just finished describing in detail the ingredients that made up the house charcuterie tray, and apologized when she realized we didn't have small plates for the appetizer.
I thought she'd figured me out.
But I realized I was wrong as I watched her deftly move among the dozen or so tables at the restaurant, which opened in August.
This is just what Sterns does. She describes food, answers questions and chats up every guest like he or she is a VIP.
She's trying to make the restaurant an extension of her own dining room at home, a warm neighborhood hangout in a west Omaha neighborhood.
Dolce Cafe is fast becoming just that, with great food, delectable desserts and only a few missteps during two recent visits.
The first thing most diners will notice at Dolce Cafe is the service.
Sterns leads the way, and her staff isn't slouching, either. Our server one evening described in detail what a salmon dish would taste like. She recommended a reasonably priced red wine that she'd personally chosen as the featured wine that day. She called the house cheesecake "over the top" when we asked about dessert. Throughout both our meals, wait staff that didn't bring our food still asked how we liked our dinner and if we needed anything.
All this, without a hint of pretension.
Both meals began with an unexpectedly artful bread plate, easily the best free-of-charge bread plate this diner has ever seen.
Squares of dense, moist rosemary focaccia and pieces of crisp, light rosemary cracker filled the larger side of a partitioned white dish. The other side held a savory, tangy mix of oil and balsamic vinegar. The bread and crackers, though spiced the same, differed enough in texture that we ate them all.
Both trays included a thinly sliced garnish of watermelon radishes, which are larger than the usual radish, colored watermelon pink and with a milder flavor. The first tray also included what Sterns told me in a later interview is a sprout called sea beans.
I'd never seen them before, and our server at lunch did a good job explaining that they came from the ocean, creating the salty flavor. They were indeed salty: fresh, crisp and citrusy, too. We felt adventurous eating something new.
Dolce offers soups daily. The squash soup we tried at lunch was flavored with nutmeg and came to us hot, sweet and creamy. My dining partner described it as "liquid cake" and it did have a decadent, carrot-cake-like quality, especially with its vibrant orange hue and garnish of savory walnuts.
Serving bowls at Dolce are dramatic: the soup and the arugula and grapefruit salad I ordered as my main dish both came in one. They're white porcelain and slanted sharply higher on one side, creating a tall peak.
The arugula and grapefruit salad was a study in contrasts. The salad features a spring mix blended with arugula, small segments of pink grapefruit that Sterns said are cut fresh daily, a lemon vinaigrette and a slab of warm grilled salmon on top.
My salmon was cooked exquisitely. The center was just warm and the outer edges of the fish perfectly caramelized. The grapefruit was more subtle than I thought it would be, and the greens played well with the fruit and fish. The citrus dressing faded away against the bolder ingredients, and mine seemed flavored mostly of Parmesan. The grapefruit added acid that would have otherwise been missing.
"I'm really proud of that salad," Sterns said later. "It's one I launched from day one."
She said that because the arugula is notoriously difficult to get, she's thought about pulling the salad off the menu, but diners and her staff always persuade her otherwise.
My dining partner tried the goat cheese chicken panini, one of four sandwiches on the lunch menu. Moist, juicy pieces of grilled chicken breast met good-sized hunks of mild goat cheese and roasted red peppers, packed between two healthy slices of the house rosemary focaccia.
The sandwich was huge — two people could have shared it — and the goat cheese made the sandwich. It was warm, creamy, flavorful and applied with a heavy hand, which in this case, was great.
Dolce Cafe does a brisk lunch business, and most of the tables were filled with business-casual diners during the noon hour. The lunch hour prices compare with most casual sit-down eateries in Omaha. Our lunch, including soup and tip, came in just under $30.
The interior of the restaurant is decorated mostly in hues of celery green, white and silver. It's bright and airy during the day, with a wall of windows at the front that let in lots of natural light. A wine bar is fronted by a dessert case stocked with cupcakes and the house desserts for that day. Sterns makes all of the sweets in-house.
The transition from bright, airy lunch spot to a more romantic dinner spot with a pricier menu — our dinner tab came in at $80, including wine, appetizer and dessert — is a bit rough. The lack of window coverings means that even in the early evening, the restaurant is bathed in bright light (though the end of daylight saving time may solve this in the coming weeks).
My dining partner and I agreed that we'd have liked the restaurant to be dimmer in the evenings, and window coverings could solve this. We would also have liked to see white tablecloths so the somewhat industrial space stands up to the fanciness of the menu.
We began dinner with the house charcuterie tray, which came out on a plate similar to those used for the house bread plate. The slim well on one side held artfully arranged burgundy olives and green olives. The burgundy olives, mild and squishy, played nicely with the firmer, cheese-filled green olives that had a tougher bite and stronger flavor. The center of the plate featured rolls of bland prosciutto ham and rounds of salami cut tissue-paper thin. These salami rounds almost melted in your mouth and ended with a strong, peppery flavor. They were the best part of the tray.
The cheeses on the tray were too cold for our liking and rather basic: slices of smoked gouda and nuggets of mozzarella both came off surprisingly dull. I loved a green-hued blue cheese that was packed with intense flavor, almost herby, but not too smelly. The tray came with two selections of store-bought crackers.
I'll admit — I love a cheese and meat tray. I've eaten them all over town, and this one could be a lot better.
Sterns said she's not yet making the salami in-house, instead buying it from a Kansas City-based Italian store. She's also working to bring locally made cheeses to the restaurant.
My dining partner ordered the beef tenderloin for his main course — the menu's priciest item, at $28. He ordered the steak medium; it came to the table medium rare on the edges and rare in the center. The menu also listed the beef as grass-fed, but Sterns said that was a mistake. The beef wasn't grass-fed, but it was raised locally.
The tenderloin had a clean, meaty flavor and if it'd been cooked as requested, my dining partner probably would have finished it. As it turned out, he couldn't eat a big portion of the center. The steak came with a side of glazed carrots, which my dining partner thought forgettable.
We thought the meat may have been delivered more rare than requested because the meat was grass-fed, but when Sterns later said it wasn't, we realized it was simply a mistake. Last weekend was the first time Dolce has offered steak on its menu.
"There's a bit of a learning curve with steak," Sterns said.
I ate more salmon for dinner, and it was again perfectly prepared, with a just-warm center and caramelized exterior. This time, the salmon was topped with a traditional French beurre blanc sauce and a creative blueberry relish. The sauce, French for "white butter," is a reduction of wine, shallot and vinegar that's whisked with cold chunks of butter until it becomes thick and smooth. Clearly, it's not low-calorie, but it's delicious.
The fish and fruit combination worked for a second time here. The blueberries held their color and their softened texture mixed wonderfully with the buttery sauce and grilled fish. The dish came with a side of sweet potato fries clearly cut from a real potato. They were uneven in size and shape and came with their skins still on, cut like steak fries.
We couldn't leave Dolce Cafe without trying one of the house-made desserts, and went for the special of the day: white chocolate raspberry cheesecake. My dining partner isn't a dessert lover, but he loved this one, and I did, too. It was dense and creamy and the raspberry swirl went all the way down to the crust, made of crumbled Oreo cookies.
The presentation was a bit stale: I've seen the raspberry sauce squiggle and the tiny blob of whipped cream hundreds of other times. The Oreos, too, have been done before. But honestly, it was so good that I didn't even really care. We ate the whole thing.
Dolce Cafe has a few things to work on: Evening atmosphere and steak temperature are the two biggest issues. The cheese and meat tray could be better. But outside all that, it's got heart.
"I'm just really amazed," Sterns said, "that it's hard for people to see that the hospitality industry is about just that — hospitality. I'm not faking it."
And we could tell Sterns isn't faking it. 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 instead of one of the chains that dot the area.
And don't be alarmed if Sterns asks you your name. She's just being herself.
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