Read past top restaurant lists.
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It was a good year to be a food critic in Omaha.
Tons of new restaurants opened and I was lucky enough to review most of them.
I decided to break this year's list into two parts: My five favorite restaurants I reviewed this year, in order from one to five, and then five more restaurants that didn't make my top five but are too good to ignore, including some from our freelance critics. Their picks are noted with their name and their comments.
Let us know what World-Herald-reviewed restaurant is your favorite in the online comments. And here's to another year of adventurous eating in Omaha.
Note: Only restaurants either Sarah Baker Hansen or one of The World-Herald's freelance critics reviewed are eligible for this year's Top 10 list.
1. V. Mertz
Read the original review here
If you haven't rediscovered this Omaha classic, like I recently did, you should.
It still has that magnetic, romantic atmosphere you remember. It still has excellent wine. But, as I wrote about late this year, it's not as stuffy as you might remember. And it doesn't have to be as expensive.
In the year that Jon Seymour has been in the kitchen and Matthew Brown has been in charge of the dining room, things at this Omaha landmark have been changing.
Both Brown and Seymour told me in an interview after my two visits that they don't want to become obsolete among Omaha's ever-growing list of young, forward-thinking chefs who create interesting food and lots of buzz. It's worth noting that Seymour returned to Omaha a year ago after studying under René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark — voted the best restaurant in the world. They have tiptoed into the changes.
The good parts of the restaurant are still there, and the new parts are better than what was before. Service remains immaculate, but it's also friendly. The food, delicious, is also creative, seasonal and playful.
The traditional menu with caviar service and pepper steak remains. But on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, diners can eat from a $35 prix fixe menu that includes three courses: an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. Add $15 to have Brown, a certified sommelier, pair each with wine. For the experience, it's a steal.
The prix fixe menu rotates regularly depending on what's in season and what's in the kitchen.
Dining at V. Mertz is a culinary adventure. It comes with a sense of comfort that stems from Seymour, who told me he's never been more comfortable in a kitchen than he is now. Diners feel his confidence. It's a new phase, to be sure, for this Omaha classic.
2. Block 16
Read the original review here.
I reviewed Block 16 in February, and my fervor for this downtown hole-in-the-wall has only grown since then. Chef/owners Paul Urban and Jessica Joyce still serve those popular daily rotating lunch specials that embrace high-end ingredients — think braised pork belly, short ribs, oxtail and foie gras — next to street food like Philly sandwiches and gyros for both meat eaters and vegans. Their Block Burger tied for the win during this summer's cheeseburger Food Prowl; it's just as good now as it was when I ate it (and voted for it) then.
Urban and Joyce have added excellent weekend dinner service, and this is when Block 16 becomes the high-end destination the duo dreamed of creating when they bought the restaurant in 2010. I've eaten many plates of “snails cooked in fun ways,” lots of bowls of mussels, decadent Asian pork chops, a delicious vegan burger slathered in peanut butter and the restaurant's decidedly high-end take on the infamous “double down” sandwich from KFC. In short: What I see on the menu at Block 16 continually surprises me. It's always good. It's always creative. They serve a condiment affectionately nicknamed “ghetto sauce.” And I simply cannot resist any of it.
3. The French Bulldog
Read the original review here.
The French Bulldog was possibly the most anticipated restaurant opening of the year. I was one of the many who couldn't wait to try this new Dundee spot, focused on delicious charcuterie, simple meals and craft drinks.
After my visits, both great, I got the chance to hang out with chef Bryce Coulton and watch him butcher a pig (and wield a knife myself for a few cuts). I realized then that Coulton's approach to food and the thoughtfulness of the restaurant's succinct menu is what I love most about it. Everything they do, they do right. No shortcuts. No so-so dishes. No service sloppiness.
Coulton, with co-owners Phil Anania and Anne Cavanaugh, who also run Amsterdam Falafel around the corner, have created a true neighborhood destination where the atmosphere is magnetic — modern but not sterile — and a menu that's contemporary in its meatiness. Add a solid craft cocktail program and a reasonably priced wine list and you know why it's a place I want to visit as often as possible.
4. J. Coco
Read the original review here
I think J. Coco, chef Jennifer Coco's eponymous restaurant in midtown, hit its stride after I visited in May for my review. On my subsequent visits, everything — service, drinks, wait time and food — all were fantastic. I have revisited a lot of what I liked at J. Coco on my spring visits and now that it's winter, at least part of the menu I ate has been redone. The lamb done two ways, a favorite, remains, as do the Korean-style short rib tacos — I could eat a plate of those all by myself. The short rib entree also is still on the menu. I've eaten that without hesitation right after enjoying the short rib tacos. And I'd never turn down the burger.
The atmosphere at J. Coco is one of the things I like best about it, and when I spoke with Coco this spring, she told me that the old-meets-new vibe was intentional. I'm glad of it. They kept the old parts old, which is more important than you might think in this midtown neighborhood. When I spoke with Coco more recently, she said the neighborhood types who came in when the restaurant opened to check it out now are solid regulars. I can see why.
5. Blatt Beer & Table
Read the original review here
I debated long and hard over what restaurant should get this spot, and I decided on Blatt because I think it deserves more attention. A handful of restaurants opened in Omaha this year under the “gastropub” moniker. Blatt might be the only one that has done it well from day one.
I actually visited Blatt, in the shadow of TD Ameritrade Park in north downtown, twice this year, and reviewed it twice: once during the College World Series, when it served a limited menu, and again after the series, when it had perfected its offerings and added more food.
I still think about the restaurant's burger. I still think about its salmon gravlax sliders, the fried chicken sandwich and the duck fat fries.
It serves a formidable selection of beers and, like all the Flagship Group's Omaha restaurants, it has a great happy hour that lasts all day on Sunday.
When I reviewed Blatt the second time, it wasn't very busy. I didn't think it was yet on the city's radar; north downtown still seems more of a destination for sporting events and concerts than for dining. Make a point to check out Blatt. Get a fancy beer and a juicy burger. Be in the know while you eat it.
Five more restaurants that we wrote about in 2012, in no particular order, are worth checking out:
M's Pub remains as relevant as ever 40 years after it opened. Almost everyone I know has been there at least once. All of my out-of-town friends always want to return when they come to the city. That's because it has held onto the classics, which still work, and added some twists without upsetting the boat.
The place feels inviting and relaxed, casual but still special. M's is the kind of place that can seamlessly accommodate a family with small children out on a Sunday evening next to a couple at an intimate table celebrating a special occasion with champagne.
I never get tired of eating a handful of items on its menu: Lahvosh. The fish burger. The Iowa Grill sandwich. The pound cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries.
If you haven't been to M's in a while, go back. If you have never been, you're in for a classic Omaha treat.
Lot 2 started the restaurant boom in Benson and it's still going strong, continually generating buzz with its modern, moderately priced menu. It seems to be packed almost every night. It was when we visited, and it had barely opened when I reviewed it in April. I like the atmosphere. Noisy, vibrant, young. It's a reflection of the surrounding neighborhood, to be sure.
The restaurant's kale salad was one of my favorites: perfectly dressed, tangy with yogurt sauce and crunchy with nuts. The bangers and mash — a traditional English dish — and tender chicken confit were good enough to remember. A lovely outdoor patio, service to the popular Krug Park bar next door and three certified sommeliers on site probably mean that its future popularity is set in stone.
This fall, freelance reviewer Niz Proskocil reviewed Canton House, an unassuming Chinese restaurant in a northwest Omaha strip mall. She sent me a note after her visits and told me to go to the restaurant and let her know how close it was to what I ate in China this past spring.
I took my China travel buddies with me and we all left stuffed to the gills and really impressed: Canton House is the real deal.
When Niz visited, she ate dim sum, served at Canton House all day every day. Her favorites: fluffy steamed buns filled with sweet-savory barbecued pork; thick, slippery rice noodle rolls; deep-fried shrimp balls; pan-fried, then steamed potstickers with a moist interior; sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf; fried turnip cake; and an assortment of dumplings.
The steamed pork dumplings were my favorite, similar to the delicious ones I ate in Shanghai. We also loved the salt and pepper tofu, huge chunks of firm tofu lightly breaded and fried; the mapo dofu, silken tofu squares mixed with a brown sauce and chunks of pork; and, of course, a plate of those steamed, soy sauce-covered greens that are everywhere in China.
Wraps & Crepes was freelance reviewer Casey Logan's pick of the places he reviewed in 2012. He told me he liked it so much he surprised himself. But the small restaurant off 114th Street and West Dodge Road resonated because of its dosas, thin layers of rice flour-based batter spread across a hot griddle to make a sandwich holder.
Casey loved the No. 13 dosa: chicken cooked in a tomato sauce with creamy goat cheese and spinach. Served in a light sourdough crepe made from rice flour, it was huge, about as long as his forearm and twice as much as he needed.
Other favorites: the mango lassi, the complimentary spice-laden chutneys that you can put on almost everything on the menu and the Chutney Ritto wrap with curried lamb.
As Casey discovered, it's exciting when an ethnic hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall turns out to be great.
When freelance reviewer Lainey Seyler went into Mai Thai 2, in Aksarben Village, it marked the end of a six-year search for Thai food that was as good as the everyday meals she bought for less than $5 when she lived outside Bangkok.
She said the restaurant was the perfect mix of American and Thai: a chic, pristine interior and friendly, English-fluent staff melded with authentic cuisine all the way from the tom yum goong to the Thai iced tea.
The restaurant's red curry was exactly what Lainey had been searching for: a slow and complex burning spice rounded out with faintly sweet coconut. She ordered hers with tender beef.
She also said the tom yum goong, a traditional lemongrass-flavored soup with shrimp, was the best she'd ever eaten.
The restaurant, she said, is a gift to the diner.
Reviews in review
Restaurants reviewed by The World-Herald in 2012:
January: Portovino, Cheddar's, M's Pub
February: Block 16, Dhaba
March: Taxi's Grille & Bar, Varsity Sports Cafe/Roman Coin Pizza, Wraps & Crepes
April: Ethel Mae's, Lot 2
May: J. Coco, Galo Brazilian Grill
June: Jim's Rib Haven, Pana 88
July: Curri, Mojo's, Taita
August: Omaha Cheesecake Bakery, Italian Gardens
September: Mai Thai 2, Lied Lodge Timber Dining Room, Mantra
October: Blatt Beer & Table, Ragazzi's Pizza, Ponzu Sushi & Grill
November: Omaha Tap House, 11-Worth Cafe, the French Bulldog, Canton House
December: V. Mertz, Bravo Cucina Italiana
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