Louie's Wine Dive is what most high-end chains should aim to be.
It has a creative atmosphere, but the decor isn't forced.
It has kitsch — there's wine on tap, but the wine on tap tastes really good.
Its menu doesn't skimp on calories and includes a lot of crowd favorites, but it's also a well-edited single page, not the size of a science book.
The Wine Dive stands out from the rest of the chain restaurants in its west Omaha strip mall because of all those things, and also because the food, dishes such as gnocchi and short ribs and deviled eggs, were thoughtful and tasty. Other Omaha restaurants are trying to be gastropubs with a focus on local and creative. Louie's is beating many of them at their game.
The Omaha location is the third for the Wine Dive — others are in Des Moines and Kansas City.
The space is bright and colorful, with a huge wall where the wine selections are listed in chalk and a large bar that dominates the space. There's a mix of high-top, low-top and banquette seating around the restaurant. The bar is decorated with bottles of wine, and at the top of it, red bottles pushed through holes in the raw wood spell “LOUIES.”
Jamie Burrow, who owns the restaurant with Justin Rufus, said the look of the Wine Dive in Omaha has evolved from the other two.
“It's a challenge to make a new strip center feel friendly and comfortable,” Burrow said. “So we used salvaged barn wood and old brick to try and make it casual but warm.”
Those touches do warm it up, though it's hard to forget where you are when the view out the many windows is a parking lot and SUVs.
We were seated quickly on our first visit near the back of the restaurant at a table adjacent to the bar and to a space reserved for private parties.
We started with the Wine Dive's take on the classic deviled egg. Louie's version is a row of egg halves filled with a creamier, more refined version of your grandma's deviled egg filling. A tiny blob of black caviar made each egg just salty enough. I wouldn't hesitate to order them again.
Burrow said the caviar is local — it's Missouri River Haddock Sturgeon Caviar. He also said the deviled eggs we tried are being rotated out for a spring version, a BLT deviled egg.
I tried the selection of bruschetta as my entree. It also could be a shared appetizer.
Louie's has four flavors of bruschetta. Diners can order just one or a selection of flavors in groups of six or eight. The eight-piece I ordered had two of each flavor and was more than enough to feed me. In the middle of the plate was a small pile of simply dressed greens.
All of the bruschetta had the same base: a crisp piece of ciabatta bread made locally at LeQuartier Bakery. The Louie's margarita bruschetta was topped with fresh mozzarella cheese, a tangy balsamic glaze and basil; the balsamic portobello had marinated mushrooms along with roasted red peppers, goat cheese and a balsamic glaze; the braised short rib bruschetta had tender shredded meat along with pinot noir-infused onions and Maytag blue cheese; and the pulled pork bruschetta had flavorful juicy meat, fontina cheese, roasted butternut squash, balsamic onions and lime sour cream.
The bread on the bottom stayed crispy in all four versions. My favorites were the short rib, with its nice kick from the blue cheese, and the pulled pork, with its slight Indian flavor paired with thin slices of crisp apple. I was pleasantly surprised that aside from the bruschetta with the slippery portobello mushroom, all were incredibly easy to pick up and eat.
My husband's dish, the Four Pork Gnocchi, was another surprise. Gnocchi, an Italian potato dumpling, can be tricky and sometimes is too dense or too sticky. The gnocchi at Louie's was neither. The pillowy potato bits were topped with a creamy, intense mixture of pork: prosciutto, pork shoulder, ground pork and Italian sausage. The sauce is slow-cooked with cream and red wine. If anything, it was a bit too rich.
Prices at Louie's are middle-of-the-road to more expensive. Our appetizers were in the $7 range and the bruschetta sampler was $12. Entrees are pricier, ranging from $14 to $22.
On both visits, service was attentive and friendly. I was especially impressed with the servers' wine knowledge.
Louie's doesn't skimp on its wine pours — both of mine were sizable — and the prices are more than reasonable. Glasses run around $10. On the first visit, I tried one of the “wines on tap.” The list rotates regularly, and there are always a few choices of reds and whites that retail for $7 or $8 a glass.
“The wines on tap are high-quality, but they also fit in with the idea that wine should be fun,” Burrow said.
He said the restaurant continually trains its staff about wine so they can answer questions from more experienced wine drinkers and newbies alike.
I found that to be true, especially on my second visit, when the server accurately described the differences between two red wines on the menu and gave us what we were looking for.
That night, one of the first warm spring days, the restaurant was packed with tanned women — from my seat, I only saw two men. Burrow said lots of women who work out at a gym near the restaurant meet at the Wine Dive after they're done. He said the crowd at the restaurant is diverse: men in suits or business casual, blue-collar workers and lots of ladies. I definitely saw the ladies.
We started with buttermilk fried oysters that were served on a crispy wonton and topped with a distinctly Asian sauce. The menu said the oysters were “lightly fried,” though on our dish, the tiny oyster was lost inside the breading. I liked the spicy-sweet sauce, with habanero pepper and balsamic, but I'd have preferred more oyster flavor.
The short ribs were the star of the second meal: Tender, flavorful and rich, they were just what beef short ribs should be. Burrow said the ribs are braised in cabernet before being slow-cooked. A side of mashed potatoes had a nice consistency, and the side of green broccolini was fresh. Steak de Burgo will replace this dish on the spring menu.
We couldn't leave without trying one of Louie's versions of macaroni and cheese. When I saw truffle oil, I knew that was the one we'd sample. Portobello mushrooms cooked with truffle oil were scattered in chunks throughout the creamy truffle sauce. The dish had two problems: The pasta didn't hold the cheese sauce as much as we'd have liked, and we had a hard time finding the prosciutto. A scattering of citrusy bread crumbs on top made for a nice textural change, though.
Burrow said that “foodies” usually order the truffle macaroni and cheese, a chef's favorite, and that some of the other flavors are more popular. The Lobster and Shrimp macaroni and cheese, he said, is the most popular.
I liked the focus on local suppliers at Louie's. Burrow said their cheese, some of their meats, bread and beer all come from vendors close to Omaha.
I've eaten at a lot of places like Louie's Wine Dive in the past few months, and of those places, it was my favorite. The food was consistent and at the right price. The service was exceptional, especially when it came to answering wine questions. The well-edited menu is thoughtful. It's worth a visit.