Sunday night was the first time I’ve ever seen a dining room give a chef a standing ovation.
Omaha native Austin Johnson, who returned for a one-night-only pop up at the Block 16 supper club, earned it.
He served a menu rich with memories — flavors of Nebraska summer, his mother’s banana bread — melded with flavors from the present, including versions of dishes he’s served at Frenchie, the Paris restaurant where he’s the chef de cuisine.
I’ll get to the point: his meal was one of the most memorable I’ve had in Omaha.
The dinner, called “Home,” sold out its two seatings in about five minutes earlier this month. I was lucky enough to snag one.
The dinner came about after Block 16’s owners Jessica and Paul Urban dined at Frenchie, and Johnson said he wanted to have a dinner in Omaha. They planned for months.
Johnson served eight courses with plenty of highlights. My favorites included the fluke, thin fish topped with quinoa and an edible garden of flowers, fruit, herbs and vegetables.
A wedge of foie gras mousse ribboned with black truffle came topped with more of the razored mushroom, along with burnt rounds of onions and a madeira gelée atop the wedge. It’s an incredible dish, one Johnson has made at his Paris restaurant in different iterations.
Sections of roasted carrot were paired with a bold cumin sauce, crunchy toasted buckwheat, sunflower seeds, fresh herbs and beet chips.
Corn shoots atop the corn course tasted like a hot summer Nebraska day, of raw sweet corn and grass. They came atop perfectly made gnocchi, charred corn, seasoned popcorn and summer tomato.
Each course came paired with wines selected by master sommelier Dustin Wilson, who worked with Johnson at Eleven Madison Park in New York. Wilson, who you might recognize as one of the students in the movie “Somm,” wasn’t in town for the event. Local sommeliers Matt Brown, David Eckler and Sara Mellor served his selections. Among the most memorable pairings were a white rioja paired with the truffles in the foie gras course, and a Hungarian dessert wine called Tokai.
Mellow striped bass wrapped beautifully in squash blossoms and duck prepared with rich sesame followed; Johnson ended the evening with rounds of his mother’s banana bread next to flambéed banana slices and a banana custard.
A tray of colorful macarons that Johnson brought back from Paris in his carry-on bag and locally made, marbled candy from Farine + Four finished the meal.
“It has been my dream to come back to Omaha and do this for even just one moment,” Johnson said at the end of the night. “The pleasure is all mine.”
Well, not quite. The diners who attended left with the memory of a singular meal; a true pleasure indeed.