One Old Market address marks the spot where many Omahans first experienced French cuisine and the romance that goes with it.
That address, where the French Café operated for more than 40 years, is finding new life next month, when Chef Paul Kulik opens Le Bouillon, a modern French bistro, at 1013 Howard St.
“It's the most important restaurant space in the city,” said Kulik, who also runs the Boiler Room Restaurant in the Old Market. “The opportunity to do something interesting in that space is absolutely thrilling.”
Slated to open in October, Le Bouillon won't be the French food your grandparents remember.
It will be a casual restaurant with a lower price point than the French Café or the Boiler Room. The menu will focus on French comfort food with a regional twist. Diners can expect a variety of small snacks and large entrées designed to share between two to four diners. The restaurant will also have a full bar but with a focus on wine.
“We want to return to the kind of classic products and techniques that make French food great,” Kulik said.
Kulik has worked in French restaurants all over the world. He's worked at Omaha's La Buvette, and, before that, at Montmartre in Washington, D.C. When the Boiler Room was under construction, he apprenticed at Avec in Chicago and at restaurants in Paris and Berlin. He's been nominated as a semi-finalist in the prestigious James Beard Awards, the Oscars of the food world. In 2009, the year the Boiler Room opened, The World-Herald called it the best restaurant in Omaha.
For the past six months, Kulik and the building's owners, Mark and Vera Mercer, hammered out the details of Le Bouillon, which means “broth” or “stock” in French. The new identity for this high-profile spot is meant to be accessible to all sorts of diners — those looking for a quick evening meal or those eating at a leisurely pace for a special occasion.
And Kulik says he has a few secrets up his sleeve that he won't reveal until the space opens. One is that he has plans to bring back a classic fixture that was in the space “once upon a time.” The other is a mystery artist whose work will set the atmosphere for the restaurant.
He will say, though, that Le Bouillon will be smaller, brighter and more open. The east bar has been retooled, and a dividing wall is gone.
“It will have a new identity,” Kulik said. “The look and feel will strike you immediately when you walk in the door.”
The opening of a new, high-profile restaurant on the Old Market's main drag is a good thing, said Joe Gudenrath, director of the Omaha Downtown Improvement District. Even as other areas of Omaha, such as Benson, Dundee, Aksarben Village and Midtown Crossing, continue to attract new restaurants, Gudenrath said the Old Market still holds its own with food lovers.
“The environments in Dundee and Benson are developing,” Gudenrath said. “In the Old Market, we are developed. The restaurants down here are unique to the Old Market and a big part of its personality.”
Le Bouillon brings more variety to the market, he said, and will draw diners looking for something specific — a new experience from Kulik and the Mercers.
“They aren't going to open it to be the average French restaurant,” Gudenrath said. “It will be the best French restaurant.”
The space at 1013 Howard St. has a long history of French cuisine. The French Café was the first restaurant in the Old Market and, over the years, earned a reputation as one of the most romantic spots in the city. Kulik worked there in the late 1990s.
Ron Samuelson, who co-owns M's Pub, which has been in the neighborhood for 40 years, said diners will remember their experiences at the French Café, but now they can look forward to something beyond it.
“I think there is a lot of exciting, modern French cuisine that we haven't gotten to look at in Omaha,” he said.
Kulik plans to shuttle between the Boiler Room and Le Bouillon, working at both and relying on long-time staff traveling with him to the new restaurant.
“I think Le Bouillon is something we haven't seen down here in a while,” Kulik said. “And I hope it helps to kind of reinvigorate this location in the Market as a place to find really great food and service. I think it's a middle ground that a lot of diners might be looking for.”