Chef Paul Braunschweiler must be feeling a bit of deja vu.
His latest restaurant, Brushi, is in the same spot as his first Omaha restaurant, Spanna, which closed in the late 1990s.
Many of the customers who loved Spanna and his second effort, Prima 140, which closed in 2010, are filling the chairs at Brushi. And Braunschweiler has reincarnated some of his most popular dishes.
I had one question during the three nights I visited: How does a much-admired chef who left Omaha for California and returned four years later respect his past without getting stuck there?
Braunschweiler’s answer is to flex his creativity on a large rotating list of daily specials but stick to the classics on the menu.
A few dishes felt like they were straight out of 1999 (some actually are), but the chef so perfectly and consistently executes his proteins, vegetables and sauces, that it made me forgive the less-modern menu.
The first dish we tried, a garlic shrimp appetizer, illustrates my point.
Four big shrimp, cooked to a T and served in a just-garlicky-enough sauce, arrived topped with a gargantuan pile of thinly cut, crispy potato sticks. It doesn’t look particularly modern, but after we polished off those meaty shrimp, we kept eating the potatoes. And kept eating and eating until finally, we had to ask our waitress to take the plate away. Those potatoes — crisp, salty and savory — are addictive. You see my difficulty.
Though I was intrigued by the list of specials that evening, which included a veal dish, two fish specials and pork enchiladas, I stuck to the menu and went with Braunschweiler’s take on paella. This isn’t the long-cooked Spanish rice dish with the crispy bottom; instead it’s a lighter, California-influenced version, packed with clams, mussels, white fish, shrimp and chicken tossed through a bowl of saffron rice. I found it a light, satisfying meal. Consider it more of a seafood-and-rice dish than a true paella if you order.
I liked my husband’s dinner better. His perfectly cooked, tender scallops hit the mark. The fleshy seafood came served with a tangy balsamic vinegar sauce and cheesy handmade gnocchi.
Inside, Brushi is warm and welcoming, with banquette seating that lines the walls, dark carpet and chairs, and a dim but not-too-dark ambiance. The crowd is older — 50 and up, mostly — sprinkled with younger couples and a few families.
There’s a patio out front with a handful of tables. Braunschweiler, who’s a hobby gardener, decorated the space himself, with potted flowers, plants and a gurgling fountain. The best element might be a tall green hedge, which blocks diners’ view of an adjacent parking lot.
The evening we sat outside, every bite sung.
I wanted to try the lox salad — smoked salmon is a personal favorite, and I loved Braunschweiler’s take. House-cured fish with the right soft, smoky texture came served with crisp pieces of toast, each topped with a bit of creamy cheese and briny capers — an upscale twist on the classic lox and bagel.
The accompanying arugula salad was delicious and beautiful — edible lavender-hued chive blossoms (which taste strongly of onion and are fun to munch) topped a heap of peppery greens, sweet beets and green apples, cornichons and pickled onions. The chef grows herbs, greens and vegetables in a garden behind the restaurant, a seasonal, fresh approach. Dressed with a light vinaigrette, I’d return if only for this dish, which would be perfect for me as an entrée.
A shrimp papardelle pasta — Brushi makes all its pasta in-house — didn’t taste muddled like pastas sometimes can. Al dente pasta and well-cooked shrimp met an interesting melange of colorful, seasonal vegetables cooked so they still had crunch.
One short rib on my husband’s plate had a more tender, fall-off-the-bone texture than the other, and a pile of polenta was a touch too soft for us. The wine reduction sauce, though, tasted great.
For dessert, the moist chocolate cake was layered with chocolate mousse, fresh whipped cream, a lovely berry sauce and a second dollop of cream tinged pink with the berry reduction.
The wait staff lent menu and wine recommendations and had the kind of old-school charm that makes dining a pleasure.
Portion sizes at Brushi are reasonable, as are the prices.
The crab cakes were our only bump. Two small cakes arrived nearly buried in Mexican accompaniments. I didn’t get — or much like — the combination. The cakes’ interiors were too smooth; I’d rather have seen big chunks of crab meat. The dish comes served with Mexican rice, tortilla chips and colorful pico de gallo, which was the tastiest thing on the plate.
I saw lots of people ordering the whiskey chicken, one of the chef’s signature dishes. It makes sense why it’s popular: moist chicken, crispy skin and a whiskey-tinged reduction sauce are easy to like, as are the accompanying crisp-fresh vegetables and mashed potatoes. Braunschweiler said it’s a dish he’s been making since the beginning of his restaurant career and has always been a customer favorite.
Brushi is a comfortable neighborhood spot, in line with other Omaha restaurants like J. Coco, Taxi’s and Marks. I’ll go back to Brushi for that lox salad, but also to try the more creative daily specials.
What Brushi does is the kind of food diners always want: tasty, fresh and classic. Braunschweiler is a talent many are happy to have back in the city. Now I know why.
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