OMAHA, Neb. — Whether they're driving through, stuck here for work or savvy enough to make a long weekend out of this under-the-radar city, travelers tend to want a darn fine hunk of meat when visiting Omaha.
Steak from steak country. Omaha offers succulent brawn in venues that range from the hushed upscale (V. Mertz) to the unfussy historic (Johnny's Cafe) to the frozen-in-a-Midwestern-time-vacuum (The Drover).
But insisting on steakhouses in Omaha is like cashing out on deep dish in Chicago. What a shame. Here's a look at some of the city's most inventive, playful and neighborhood-favorite joints:
The Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave., No. 3101; 402-763-4447; thegreyplume.com
Chef Clayton Chapman, an Omaha native, attended culinary school in Chicago and worked at Tru under chef Rick Tramonto and chef Laurent Gras, then consulted for Tru. He also did some well-deserved gastronomic touring through Europe after leaving Chicago.
Returning to Omaha, Chapman in December 2010 opened The Grey Plume, an upscale farm-to-table haunt in Omaha's revived Midtown. He co-owns Plume with one of his former professors, Chicago chef Michael Howe. Chapman aims to serve at least 90 percent locally produced food, which has him pickling, preserving and canning for the winter.
You can read about Chapman's cooking in Time, Gourmet online, New York magazine, Travel & Leisure, Bon Appetit and Wired, or just take a quick flight to Nebraska to get a bite for yourself.
Expect dishes such as chevre agnolotti with sweet potato and aronia berry jam ($22); a bison burger with caramelized onions, house buttermilk cheese and Dijon ($16); or unassuming shiitake mushrooms with bok choy, oxtail and pickled ramps ($13).
For a sense of Plume's presentation, take the shiitakes: "They're cold-smoked with a local walnut wood, and cloched," Chapman said. Servers then remove the cloche at the table so the dish "smokes into the dining room." Quite a lot of fun for $13.
Lot 2, 6207 Maple St.; 402-504-4200; lot2benson.com
Lot 2 hums along in Benson, Omaha's version of Chicago's Logan Square. (Read: tight-knit community, recent gentrification, unexhausted "cool factor.") With its street-level front window, warm lightscape and proximity to Omaha's new "it" bar (Krug Park), Lot 2 has a lot going for it. After a chat with the restaurant's young waitstaff, you realize another perk of Omaha tourism: Even the hipsters are nice.
Chef Joel Mahr guides his menu to the unexpected. The bruschetta ($8) boasts chicken liver mousse, pickled cherry, pistachio and parsley. The Brussels sprouts arrive with candied lemon, chestnut and Parmesan ($6). Vegetarians embrace the haute-seitan, the Big O's finest. Mahr uses the faux flesh in shepherd's pie ($11), alongside peas, carrots, pearl onions, kale, garlic smashed potatoes and a blend of Gruyere, Parmesan and panko.
For a clean finish after a spicy-savory meal, the fresh goat cheese panna cotta ($6) with cherries and vanilla soothes the palate with a mellow creaminess, offset by the sweet-tart fruit.
French Bulldog, 5003 Underwood Ave.; 402-505-4633
A handful of restaurants in Omaha cure everything in-house, but French Bulldog is the city's brand new stand-alone charcuterie. Expect dishes such as an earthy, grassy beef cheek sandwich ($10), served with spicy-sweet brined peppadew peppers, smoked Gouda, mixed greens, red onions and house-made grainy mustard. Lemon zest brightens the mellow, fatty pork-belly rillettes ($4). Fennel and orange zest add an herb note to the salami ($4).
The Boiler Room, 1110 Jones St.; 402-916-9274; theboilerroomrestaurant.com
Chef Paul Kulik's menu speaks for itself. Roasted wagyu bone marrow with grilled bread, fried capers, preserved apple and parsley ($11). Crispy tete de cochon with stewed zucchini, gribiche, coppa ham and frisee ($12). Monkfish with whitefish brandade, green beans, leeks and littleneck clams ($28). Housed in the historic warehouses of Omaha's stylish Old Market, this space is all catwalk and aged brick, spot lighting and art.
Dario's Brasserie, 4920 Underwood Ave.; 402-933-0799; dariosbrasserie.com
A Dundee neighborhood favorite, Dario's offers an excellent patio, casual cafe tables and a back bar that occasionally fills with young people. Like humans everywhere, Omahans dig the frites cones with dipping sauce ($6). Also noteworthy are the mussels ($17-$18) and the pheasant ragout with wild mushrooms, house-made mustard spaetzle and Parmesan ($19).
Block 16, 1611 Farnam St.; 402-342-1220; block16omaha.com