Sometimes when I dine at a restaurant, I wonder: “Where has this been all my life?”
The experience is so delightful and the food is prepared with such care that I get annoyed with myself for not eating there sooner.
That happened at Harvest Cafe & Wine Bar, which opened in June in west Omaha.
Harvest Cafe is situated among a cluster of medical buildings and offices just north of the Shops of Legacy at 168th Street and West Center Road. We had some difficulty finding the place, but once we did, we were rewarded with a tasty lunch.
We were seated at a table near the window. What struck me was how warm and cozy the restaurant felt, especially because of a glass-enclosed fireplace in the center of the dining room. Homey design elements such as warm colors, comfortable chairs and a not-too-large dining room all worked for me.
The kitchen was another focal point. Guests could see chef Robert Barr and his staff at work behind the counter. As one who loves all things food and cooking, I always appreciate being able to watch a chef at work.
Owner Tom Sawyer and Barr told me in interviews after my visits that a welcoming feel was exactly what they were going for when they started collaborating.
The concept for Harvest began many years ago with Sawyer and his wife, Tricia, a graduate of the culinary arts program at Metropolitan Community College. The couple wanted to open a small cafe in Omaha that paid homage to their love for California-style cuisine.
But before they could do that, Tricia was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and lost her battle with the disease in 2010. Sawyer decided to pursue their dream alone.
When a space became available, Sawyer inquired; at the same time, Barr wanted to open a restaurant and had his eye on the same space. A mutual friend introduced the two men.
“It was no accident whatsoever,” Barr said. “Our ideas were almost identical. He had the business skills and I had the culinary skills.”
Harvest's motto is: “Good, clean food.” They never deep-fat fry anything and they make every attempt to use local, seasonal ingredients. Barr studied classical French cuisine in the Lyon and Chablis areas of France. He also is a recipient of the American Culinary Federation Presidential Medallion.
“We are just a couple of guys that love food,” Barr said about he and Sawyer. “We have a passion for food and want people to have an experience when they eat at Harvest.”
It was a chilly day, and creamy, cheesy pasta sounded just perfect, so I ordered the macaroni and cheese with the Harvest side salad. I also felt it would be an excellent barometer of the chef's skills, as I've eaten a lot of macaroni and cheese.
My husband decided on the California club sandwich with roasted tomato soup.
Harvest offers individual hot tea service. I thought a pot of almond biscotti tea would warm me up. And I was right. It was the perfect start to a lovely lunch.
My husband's cup of piping-hot roasted tomato soup arrived with three crunchy and delicious croutons floating on top.
Flecks of fresh basil ran through it. My husband said he could tell the soup included really good ingredients, and he appreciated the deep smoky flavor that only roasted tomatoes can provide.
The Harvest side salad was delightful, with crunchy mixed greens, candied orange slices, sun-dried tomatoes and a slightly sweet Italian dressing. Normally I'm not a huge fan of sweet salad dressings, but because the salad wasn't overdressed, it was nice and the flavors blended quite well.
The macaroni and cheese might have been the best I have had. Barr's mix of romano, parmigiano reggiano and asiago cheese was creamy and slightly nutty and the spiral-shaped cavatappi pasta was cooked to perfection.
The portion size was just right for one person and not too heavy. I'm still thinking about it.
The sandwich wasn't just any club sandwich. Stacked between pieces of toasted marble rye were thick slices of hickory smoked turkey, ham and applewood smoked bacon with provolone, cheddar, lettuce, tomato and avocado.
My husband said he could taste each individual ingredient. The avocado offered a nice creamy element next to the smoky bacon and cheddar cheese. The sandwich also was a manageable size. It came with herbed kettle chips, crunchy but not greasy.
As we drove home, my husband said he wished it were closer to our midtown house.
We decided to check out Harvest's dinner offerings on another night.
That evening, Barr offered two appetizer specials: Baby portabella mushrooms in a Burgundy wine sauce and Baja bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with cheese, with a balsamic vinegar reduction.
My husband couldn't have been more pleased with the shrimp. In my opinion, cheese and seafood of any kind normally don't mesh well, but the spicy cheese and smoky bacon paired magically with the shrimp. Balsamic vinegar and chopped raw scallions added just the right amount of acidity and crunch.
I was delighted with the Burgundy wine sauce that accompanied the baby portabella mushrooms. It was silky and had a rich earthy flavor that came from the butter, thyme, parsley and garlic.
The mushrooms themselves could have used a little more salt and pepper, but I was willing to let that go on account of the perfect sauce.
My husband had the California cioppino — a fish stew made with cod, shrimp and sea scallops in an herbed wine and tomato broth. It was served with seasoned crostini and a rouille sauce — think spicy garlic and aioli, an egg sauce similar to mayonnaise that was spiced with saffron, a spice with a sweet, hay-like fragrance and distinct flavor that colored the sauce a golden yellow.
He liked the richness of the broth and the perfectly cooked, flaky cod. His only complaint was that the scallops seemed a bit overcooked and had lost their delicate texture. He also was surprised that it cost $27.95.
“Our prices are comparable to other restaurants in the area,” said Barr when I asked him about the price. “Food is not cheap anymore. But when people taste the love and care that goes into the food, they will understand what they are paying for.”
Barr said the seafood may have been overcooked because it was a busy night.
I chose the chicken marsala for my entree. What arrived were two lightly breaded chicken breasts covered in a sauce made with button mushrooms, shallots and marsala wine. It was served over angel hair pasta with a side of sauteed vegetables.
The marsala wine sauce was about as flawless as it could get. It's made with Marsala wine, olive oil, butter, shallots or onion, garlic and mushrooms. When done right, like it was at Harvest, it is a silky, earthy, and smooth accompaniment to the lightly breaded chicken. The angel hair pasta was cooked perfectly and seasoned well.
I did take issue with the sauteed vegetables. They tasted slightly underseasoned and had an overcooked consistency — as though they had been sitting in a warmer for longer than they should have.
Barr said later that they make every attempt to saute to order, but when the restaurant gets busy, they will often saute a bigger batch in advance and keep them warm. It was a small complaint, though, in an otherwise excellent string of visits.
Sawyer and Barr have succeeded in making their cozy cafe and wine bar feel like an extension of their homes. Their love of food is expressed in every scratch-made dish.
Though I did not know Tricia Sawyer, I feel I can safely say she would be proud of the California-style restaurant her husband and Barr have created.