A quick reminder before we dive right in to the year’s best restaurants: My annual best-of list only includes restaurants that I have reviewed in the last calendar year, so if you don’t see one of your favorites, that might be why.
Check the end of the story for a full list of restaurants we reviewed in 2018.
When I wrote about Yoshitomo in March, it was the city’s most-talked-about spot. It’s in the No. 1 spot on this list because, nearly nine months later, it’s still the city’s most-talked-about spot.
I have been back a bunch of times, and for me, that counts. Chef and owner David Utterback spent years learning everything there is to know about sushi, and his mastery is clear in the quality of his product and the way it’s served. But he doesn’t stop there. Each bite shines with his creativity and his tinkering.
A single bite of smoked scallop, called hotate, is stunning. Like all of the fish Utterback serves, it’s been in some way tinkered with at the restaurant. Utterback smokes those scallops in-house. Same for his hamachi, which is also dry-aged in-house. I’ve eaten tons of his khaleesi rolls this year, filled with salmon and avocado and topped with meaty sun-dried tomatoes and charred lemon slices.
If you get a chance to sit in one of the handful of seats at the sushi bar, I recommend it. We sat across from Utterback as he worked one evening, and heard about the evening’s specials straight from him. It’s a chance to ask questions about the meal and leave not only full, but also a bit smarter about sushi.
The best chefs rely on tradition, yet still create truly original food, and that’s what Utterback is doing. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.
2. Farine + Four
I’ve also revisited this small bakery again and again since my review, and it continues to get better and better. Owner Ellie Pegler has since secured a liquor license, adding a bloody mary on weekends and a fun, unusual wine list; added a full menu of brunch and lunch sandwiches; and added a slew of new pastries. If you haven’t been in yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.
Omaha has lots of bakeries, but in my experience, few are this good.
Pegler, a Lincoln native, started baking when she was 16, at The Cookie Company, and worked there for the next nine years. She moved to New York, where she trained at the French Culinary Institute and worked at high-end restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Marea and Vaucluse, where she became head baker. She also became a certified-level sommelier while living in New York.
Don’t skip Pegler’s personal favorite, the Tosca bar. The Swedish almond cake is super-rich but has a light texture and plenty of sweet almond extract, a flavor I love. Crisp slivered almonds on its top add texture and crunch.
3. Monarch Prime
The meals I had at Monarch Prime were certainly some of the year’s most memorable, for sheer presentation alone. I couldn’t review it without sampling the $150 45-ounce bone-in tomahawk chop, which is aged at the restaurant for 60 days. I still haven’t forgotten the drama that comes with the order, or the excellent flavor of the chop. Monarch is the city’s best “new school” steakhouse. In subsequent visits, I learned it’s much more than just a big hunk of beef. There’s a great cocktail program, excellent service, a wonderful burger and a more casual bar area where I’ve met friends a number of times this year.
You could say, without much hesitation, that Monarch is forwarding the Omaha steakhouse tradition. It might be unfamiliar to some, but at first, the new always is. The restaurant sets diners up for an experience, and any time a restaurant does that, I leave full. And pleased.
4. Saddle Creek Breakfast Club
The lines out the door every dang weekend have kept me out of Saddle Creek Breakfast Club for longer than I care to think about. But I made it back on one recent Saturday morning with plenty of time to wait and, you know what? It’s just as good as it’s ever been. The menu was new since I reviewed it nearly a year ago, but I greatly enjoyed a piece of toast covered in jam, a runny egg and burrata cheese. Most of the food I really loved in my review remains on the menu: the delicious, just-sweet banana pancake included. Get in line, friends. It’s worth it.
5. Chocolat Abeille
Tina Tweedy’s jewel box of a chocolate shop deserves a spot in the top five, if for no other reason than her sheer ingenuity. But also for her absolutely delicious and truly beautiful chocolate confections. Her handmade and, in some cases, hand-painted chocolates are divine, truly worth the indulgence. The heady scent of chocolate hits you as soon as you open the door, and you know you’re in for a special experience.
My absolute favorite of her sweets is the hazelnut honey crunch, a five-sided candy decorated on top with a fine grid of lined golden honeycomb. Inside, finely chopped, savory hazelnuts meet honey-laced chocolate.
6. The Drover
It’s fair to say that nearly every Omahan who loves red meat and nostalgia also loves The Drover. It’s a modern-day classic that also happens to serve exceptionally good steak. We revisited it for the first time in nearly a decade this year, and found it as good as ever.
Our city’s love for this steakhouse was plainly obvious on Christmas Eve, when a fire damaged the restaurant, forcing it to close for an indefinite period of time. Tons of people professed their love on social media.
The Drover is known for its secret recipe, whiskey marinade, which we tried on two steaks: the house favorite cut — a bone-in ribeye — and on a giant slab of medium rare prime rib.
The beauty of the marinade is that you can taste its touch of sweetness and hint of smoke, but you can also still taste the clean meatiness of the beef. It’s never overwhelming. It strikes a balance I’m OK with calling perfect.
There’s not a bad cut of meat on the menu. A petite filet came thick and lean, with a beautiful char and a tender, medium-rare center. The prime rib came juicy and flavorful, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The 16-ounce bone-in ribeye is a serious commitment. The meat, lined with fat, is tender but pleasantly firm, each bite exploding with flavor.
7. Oasis Falafel
I’ve previously written about Omaha’s best falafel and its best gyro, and had Oasis, which is fairly new to downtown Omaha, been open during either of those Food Prowls, it would have been a contender.
I’d been thinking about one item on Oasis’ menu since I saw it, the sabich (pronounced sa-beak), which is an unusual combination of Moroccan eggplant, hard-boiled egg and hummus served in pita. I loved its sweet-savory, herbaceous flavor. The combination of cool, tender, dressed eggplant with cold, firm hard-boiled eggs and a hearty bit of hummus is surprisingly great.
Don’t skip the house-made hummus or babaganoush. Both are excellent.
8. The Bánh Mì Shop
Bellevue’s tiny Bánh Mì Shop is serving one of the best bánh mì in the city. The competition historically hasn’t been that tough. Nonetheless, I tried half the menu and almost every version of bánh mì hit it out of the park.
The bread is key to any bánh mì, and at this shop, it’s spot-on. Individually sized baguettes have a thin-but-crisp crust and an airy, tender inside. Owner Chloe Tran told me later that the dough, which is made and baked in-house, is proofed longer to ensure flavor and texture.
The classic comes with cold vegetables that are julienned and quick pickled, fresh cilantro, a selection of meaty cold cuts, hunks of flavorful pate and a spread of creamy mayonnaise. I loved it.
9. Mayne St. Market
In the tradition of the classic Jewish-style deli, Mayne St. feels like yet another move forward for Benson as a restaurant neighborhood. Instead of being known as a bar neighborhood, Benson is now known as both a restaurant and bar neighborhood.
If you want a hearty sandwich, especially for the price, Mayne St. won’t disappoint. The club is insanely good, layers of pastrami bacon, turkey, tomato, avocado, smoked mozzarella, lettuce and tomato are piled on two toasted slices of caraway rye, the whole thing set off by a slather of garlic mayonnaise. And if it’s a cold day, don’t skip the matzo ball soup, with its hearty chicken broth, carrots, onions, tender matzo balls and plenty of salt and flavorful herbs.
10. Dante Pizzeria Napoletana
The second location of Dante is an excellent translation of the original west Omaha location’s delicious pasta and Neapolitan pizza into a more casual Blackstone District setting. On top of that, prices are almost criminally affordable. Peroni beer, Negroni cocktails and prosecco are available on tap for $6 a pop. There’s a new $10 “pick two”-style lunch special. And best of all is a $32 dinner for two that includes a half bottle of wine, a pizza and a pasta.
That pizza, coming out of a wood-fired oven painted Ferrari red, is excellent. I noticed virtually no difference between this pizza and the countless pies I’ve eaten at the west Dante. Thin, flavorful crust held up miraculously well under a topping mostly of meat on the amore di carne pizza. It comes with big dots of locally made mozzarella along with house-made “papa’s sausage,” soppressata, mortadella and big, thin pieces of 600-day aged prosciutto draped over the top. It’s salty, spicy and satisfying.
11. M’s Pub
In the months since M’s Pub reopened, it has settled comfortably back into its position as the Old Market’s living room. Its atmosphere, recreated almost exactly as it was before being destroyed by fire in 2016, has, against the odds, the same singular vibrancy. Its menu features all the same dishes you’ve had, and the kitchen executes them at the same level. I’m happy to have those reliable dishes back, and judging by the large crowds still filling the restaurant, others are, too.
The crabcakes are chockablock with meat and come served on crisp greens drizzled with a spicy aioli. The M’s baked dish, with shrimp, escargot or mushrooms slathered in crisp-edged, melted havarti: still great. Don’t skip dipping your roll in the wells of garlicky oil.
M’s is the same in the most important ways: the atmosphere, the classic dishes it does best. The service. The friendly faces. The long, green bar.
12. Mode de Vie
The French-inspired Champagne bar, on the southwest side of Regency Fashion Court, is pretty hip. Mode de Vie is aiming for the sweet spot between the classic cuisine of France (there’s some straightforward French dishes on the menu) and food from regions influenced by French rule, including Vietnam, North Africa, the French Caribbean and New Orleans. Though it wasn’t always perfect, there are things to love: the French onion sandwich, a well-cooked cast iron filet, and, of course, perhaps the city’s largest menu of Champagne and sparkling wines.
Cheers to 2019.