Culprit Cafe and Bakery
1603 Farnam St.
Hours: Monday-Friday 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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When I lived on 16th Street years ago, the only food options in the neighborhood were Chinese, Quizno's subs or Diet Cokes and chips from a corner market.
If I lived there now, I'd be hard pressed to decide where to dine among all the new local restaurants within two blocks. The latest, Culprit Cafe and Bakery, would be among my first choices.
It's got top-notch coffee, thoughtful lunch fare and a daily selection of fresh baked goods. It's a comfortable fit in an area that needs more places like it.
Owner Luke Mabie said he scouted for locations for more than two years and this one, on the corner of 16th and Farnam, felt right.
“I love the downtown city feel, like New York,” Mabie said. “I love classic bakeries, French style, with a nostalgic, film noir feel. I wanted to make a space inspired by those things.”
Big windows give lingerers at Culprit a view of the street, which, during the day and especially over the lunch hour, is bustling. An open kitchen gives diners a glimpse behind the scenes and a case at the front tempts with sweets, including muffins, scones, cookies and cupcakes.
Coffee is at the heart of Culprit, and it makes up most of the menu, which is written on a chalkboard above the counter. Mabie said he tried a lot of coffee beans before selecting Broadway Cafe and Roasting Co., out of Kansas City, Mo.
The coffee bar has all the expected things: lattes, cappuccinos, espresso shots and Americanos. But it's also serving quick press coffee; a French-press full bodied coffee from Brazil; slow pour, which is hand brewed coffee with a lighter body; and its “Tower of Power” aged cold brew.
We tried a variety of drinks: hot, flavorful pour-over, where the coffee is brewed for just a single cup; strong but not bitter cold brew; a classic cappuccino; a brewed black tea over ice; and an Americano. Each one was crafted with care and none tasted too strong or bitter. We liked them all.
“Everything boils down to simplicity,” Mabie said. “Coffee is one of the fundamentals of what we are trying to do.”
Simplicity was also one focus in the small, thoughtful lunch menu.
The Harvest salad, simply dressed with pepitas (pumpkin seeds), cheese, onions and a light vinaigrette, was a nice size and came topped with big, homemade croutons and a pile of cold, thick-cut turkey.
A friend was impressed with the piece of fried eggplant that topped the open-face veggie sandwich along with roasted tomatoes, zucchini and red pepper hummus. The open faced-nature of the sandwich made it a knife-and-fork job, and my friend wished for a second slice of bread.
My husband tried to order chicken that afternoon, but the kitchen was out, so he chose ham instead. But when the sandwich came to the table, it was turkey. Despite the confusion, the sandwich was good, with roasted tomatoes, dill havarti cheese, caper mayonnaise and spicy arugula atop more thick cut, quality meat.
The salad and two sandwiches, which come with the choice of a small salad or the soup of the day — a hearty, spicy, autumnal squash — were big for the prices, about $8 each. Diners get the choice of four house-made breads on the sandwiches: tomato basil, sourdough, maple oat, or drunkernickel, a delicious pumpernickel made with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
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I got that ham sandwich at another lunch, and it was my favorite of the ones I tried. Thick-cut, smoky ham met a tomato aioli and a sweet and herby balsamic dressing. A side of simple tabouleh, a salad made with bulgur, cucumbers, peppers, bits of feta and tomatoes, was light, citrusy and fresh.
I shared a number of Culprit baked goods with my co-workers. My favorite was a Nutella muffin, which was unexpectedly light and airy. Though I liked it, my co-workers were divided on it and the other muffins, a lemon poppyseed and banana. Half of them liked the lighter flavor, half wanted more flavor. But all liked the muffins' airy texture.
A banana cupcake was a hit for the same reason the muffins divided: It wasn't over the top. One co-worker said she especially appreciated the simplicity of the cupcake in a world filled with overcomplicated, trendy baked goods. A second cupcake, pistachio, was too light on flavor, though the frosting on top was creamy and rich, and in just the right amount.
Two scones, one blueberry and one savory, tasted more floury than the rest of the baked goods, though we also appreciated that they weren't too dry or crumbly.
Culprit has a regular selection of vegan baked goods along with its non-vegan selection. The choices rotate on a daily basis and include vegan and non-vegan cinnamon rolls, among other offerings.
Mabie said patrons have given him good feedback. “I think some people read the menu and get it instantly and appreciate it and enjoy it,” he said, “and others are growing with it.”
He said he believes coffee and the culture that surrounds it are finally making their way to Omaha in a legitimate way. I agree.
“If you start to see microbreweries and local brews, coffee follows,” Mabie said. “I think we're on trend to see better coffee all the way around in Omaha.”
Culprit is good because it's fresh and creative, affordable and welcoming. At the heart of it, though, is a coffee shop serious about brew. I hope the neighborhood, which desperately needs a replacement for the late, great Stage Right Coffee, helps Culprit thrive. 16th Street needs it, and coffee lovers do, too.
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More about Culprit
Before he opened his stand-alone restaurant, owner Luke Mabie sold his baked goods at Caffeine Dreams coffee shop, where he also worked. He created vegan and non-vegan savory “kolaches” — small, stuffed sandwiches in the vein of Runzas — and he still sells them there, with flavors that vary daily.
At Culprit, bread comes out of the oven weekdays at 3 p.m. and weekends at 1 p.m. and is sold by the loaf. Mabie said the restaurant bakes sourdough; tomato basil; maple oat; drunkernickel, which is pumpernickel made with Pabst Blue Ribbon beer; wheat; country rustic loaves and baguettes. As the bakery gets more established, the offerings will grow.
Mabie and his father finished the space themselves, doing all the tile work and painting.
Culprit doesn't serve a full brunch on Sunday but does serve coffee and a selection of pastries.