A lot has changed since 2007, when The World-Herald last visited classic French bistro Le Voltaire.
Cedric Fichepain and his wife, Desarae Mueller-Fichepain, have opened two locations of their French bakery, Le Petit Paris, run by a pastry chef they brought to Omaha from France. Cedric has gone from full-time chef to restaurateur and has hired a new chef de cuisine, Wilson Calixte, who is now at the helm of Le Voltaire. Fichepain was also inducted into the Omaha Restaurant Hall of Fame, an achievement he shares with a select group of Omaha chefs.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the classic, wonderfully executed French cuisine at the heart of his restaurant, which has been open near 156th Street and West Dodge Road since 2001.
Le Voltaire is popular, and even on a recent Wednesday evening, the main dining room was nearly full. On a weekend night, the crowd is even larger. Fichepain said many Le Voltaire regulars come from nearby neighborhoods. You can tell — the place has a cozy feel, and the staff, many of whom have worked at the restaurant for years, have a friendly rapport with customers.
The restaurant’s wine list is long, taking up many of the back pages of the menu, and covers lots of ground. We sampled a wide variety of the by-the-glass selections and found much to like. The menu makes wine-paring suggestions with each dish for those uncomfortable in asking for assistance.
On our first visit, a weekend night, everything we ate tasted great. A cheese plate arrived with a nice variety of hard and soft, pungent and mild cheese, along with accompaniments like jam, pumpkin crackers, spiced peppers and a little green salad. Diners can look forward to the house-made baguette at Le Voltaire, which comes from Le Petit Paris.
The special that evening, salmon en papillote, came prettily served in its parchment-paper package. Alongside a few nicely cooked Brussels sprouts and carrots was a wonderfully tender and juicy piece of fish. It’s a way of cooking and serving fish that I don’t often see, and it’s one I never fail to enjoy.
Fichepain said preparing fish en papillote is a regular occurrence at the restaurant, and though it requires a lot of preparation, it’s a quick, cook-to-order finish.
A steak frites dish, a personal favorite, includes a thin-cut ribeye and wonderful seasoned fries. The ribeye arrived just as I ordered and had a perfectly executed deep char and an almost cool, rare center. On top of the beef sat a half herbed roma tomato flavored deeply with garlic and fresh herbs — a perfect spicy side to the rest of the rich dish.
I asked Fichepain about that tasty tomato, and he said it’s roasted with shallot, parsley, herbs, salt and pepper — and he said, to my surprise, that only about half of Le Voltaire diners who order the dish actually eat the tomato.
“About 50 percent of the time, it comes back untouched,” he said. “But we have some customers, like you, who ask for two.”
I wouldn’t hesitate.
The atmosphere at Le Voltaire is fun mostly because of the crowd. None of my dining partners particularly liked the atmosphere otherwise: It’s too bright to be romantic, and the décor feels dated. Service was mostly good — knowledgeable and prompt — but we ran into a few problems on our second visit.
That night we ordered the Tarte flambée, a crisp cracker topped with seasoned crème fraîche, onion, savory bacon lardons and a lightly dressed pile of spicy greens.
Fichepain said the dish, a specialty from the Alsace region of France, begins with flatbread made in the bakery and finishes with lardons from locally owned Truebridge pork. The crème fraîche is lightly flavored with nutmeg. I’ve grown weary of flatbread appetizers; this one is fresh for the category.
Between our salad course and our main course, we waited at least a half hour. Staff that evening felt slim, and our waitress got busy serving dishes to a table of 10; I wondered if my dish might have been languishing in the kitchen as I watched her open a bottle of wine for the large group. As soon as she finished pouring from the bottle, she rushed into the kitchen and out with our dinners.
My bouillabaisse, a classic French dish of seafood and fish, suffered because of the delay. Mussels were slightly chewy; salmon and tilapia were dry but edible; a piece of flounder was overcooked to toughness. Crawfish and potatoes that rounded out the dish were the only ones that arrived unscathed from the time spent lingering under a heat lamp. The best part of the dish ended up being the two big pieces of crusty bread that tasted delicious dipped in the rich seafood broth.
Fichepain agreed that my dish probably sat too long before it was served, and he lamented that it’s been difficult of late to hire reliable staff.
Saucisse de veau de Strasbourg, a seasonal dish featuring house-made veal sausage and a rich sauce made from mushrooms and Lucky Bucket beer, had layered depth. Earthy and rich, it arrived in a smaller portion size, a good choice considering the dish’s heaviness.
A crème brûlée, one of my favorite French desserts, was just as it should have been: a cool, custardy center topped with a just-thick-enough charred sugar top — fun to tap through with a spoon, and the perfect accompaniment to the last few drinks of a glass of red wine.
Fichepain said he knows he’s not breaking new gastronomic ground — “I’m not doing foam,” he says — but he also admits that’s not what he wants to do. Instead, he chooses to focus on the French classics American diners love, and for what it’s worth, he’s carved out a niche for himself in west Omaha.
Though Le Voltaire isn’t new, it’s worth rediscovering.
Address: 569 N. 155th Plaza
Hours: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Lunch Thursdays and Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays. The restaurant will be closed Dec. 24-29 for a holiday break.
Hits: French classics like steak frites, crème brûlée and a rustic veal sausage with a mushroom demiglace were executed to perfection.
Misses: On a busy night, a bowl of bouillaba isse lingered too long under a heat lamp, and the fish arrived overcooked and dry.
Service: Friendly, though not always fast.
Drinks: A wonderful, vast wine list that’s fun to explore. Servers are knowledgeable about the wines on the list, in my experience.
Prices: Entrees are in the $20 range, appetizers about $10. Wine by the glass is fairly priced, and many glasses go for $10 or less.
Noise level: Moderate to noisy.