Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The French Cafe -- RIP

Old Market, Omaha
thefrenchcafe.com

"Croque Monsieur ($12) A French classic!
Grilled ham and Gruyere cheese topped with sauce Mornay,
served with pommes frites"

Fingers are pointing every which way, trying to determine the guilty party responsible for the French Cafe abruptly closing its doors forever. It wasn't the mayor and his nominal 2.5% dining tax, and it wasn't Old Market parking issues. It was the food and service, which in my opinion were mediocre at best. If you're going to stick to textbook French for over forty years, you damn well better know how to make sauce Mornay. Sadly, the key ingredient on the Croque Monsieur sandwich tasted not like smooth, cheesy velvet, but more like sticking my tongue into a bag of flour. Really, the whole dish was a mess. But thou shalt not speak ill of the dead.

Crusty Roll and Butter

At brunch last week, the warm rolls with fancy whipped butter were absolutely delectable, and I wished I could have avoided the disappointing oeufs dishes and just sat there, in front of the giant tacky photographs of Parisian street life on the wall, and stuffed myself with carbs. Perhaps an informal Euro-style bakery would be a more fitting use of the space, instead of a $30 a plate shit show. It is sad to see an Omaha institution close, but the owners were smart to know when to bow out of the game. Now, I wonder if they'll be auctioning off their flatware...

Omelette au Saucisson with house-made sausage ($12), definitely just "ok."
I think I'd rather have a McDonald's hashbrown than these unseasoned fried cubes. 

Blueberry Pancakes with a Runaway Frite

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Red Zone BBQ

UPDATE: IT'S CLOSED! GONE! 

2056 North 117th Avenue (shopping center at northeast corner of 120th and Blondo)
Omaha, NE 68164
402.431.9663
Sun-Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri and Sat 11am-10pm

"The Big Memphis ($7.49):
Pulled pork with Memphis slaw and real Memphis BBQ sauce,"
pork nacho warmer in the background

Most of what I know about Memphis-style barbecue is from dudes who have passed through the hot and sticky city in the mid-South and gorged themselves, time and time again, on real Memphis "Q." Driving along the other day, my gut involuntarily pointed to Red Zone, and I pulled helplessly into the parking lot. Fortunately I had a barbecue buff in tow to help me pick apart the place. 

"Now THAT'S a sandwich!" The lady behind the counter made no attempt to disguise her pride as she set the meat mountain right on the tray. Just like in Memphis, no need for plates out here in Northwest Omaha. The pile of pulled pork wasn't extremely tender, and the first bite was a hard chunk of fat. Be that as it may, the slaw was crunchy and a little creamy, and the sauce was spicy like it's 'sposed to be. The ultra-white bun was "Wonder"-ful. Though the Big Memphis sandwich was enough to satiate the two of us for snack time, a comparable item would be about half the price in the Barbecued Pork Capital of the World. Still, the buff said it was better than at Tops, the big chain in Memphis. 

The interior design couldn't be less "authentic Memphis," but numerous televisions and red painted walls should be good for Huskers devotees. Their logo was so prominent throughout, I wondered if this was a national chain that had somehow eluded me my entire life. It's not. I may return to Red Zone to sample some of their more interesting creations, like the Pork Nacho Boat and Rubbed Cheesy Balls, especially since they've recently added a few draft handles. Next time I think I'll try a Bud and a brisket. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dessert at V. Mertz

1022 Howard Street
Omaha, NE 68102
402.345.8980
Open for dinner Tues thru Sat at 5:30pm
vmertz.com

"Chocolate Mascarpone ($8):
Mascarpone Mousse, Flourless Cake, Devil's Food, Raspberry, Mint"

Yes, they even let bums like me into this lavish joint. Anywhere that's touted as "one of the most expensive restaurants in Omaha" might sound a little intimidating, but not too much to mosey on up to the bar, have myself a seat and order some whiskey and cake. The Chocolate Mascarpone had alternating bites of flourless chocolate and devil's food cake, along with mint oil and cranberry cubes. Apart from the involved plating, the cake could indeed stand on its own. Their Manhattan cocktail was gloriously smooth, I suspect due to the addition of a little Ruby Port. I would so slip into V. Mertz after work for one of those in my business suit if I owned a business suit.

I suggest the Mertz crew remind themselves there is a fine line between earned pretentiousness and acting downright cocky. At nicer places, I'm prepared to hear the staff speaking with a faux-British inflection and scoffing at my rookie wine pairings. But when the bartender uttered the words, "Everything's amazing, I trust?" I almost choked on my decorative pointy chocolate shard.

Read the rest of my flourless chocolate adventures here.

"V. Mertz Manhattan ($10):
Bulleit Bourbon, Ruby Port, Sweet Vermouth, Creme de Cassis and Angustura bitters"
(Psst... Mertz... You spelled Angostura wrong!)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Brunch at Jackson Street Tavern

1125 Jackson Street
Omaha, NE 68102
402.991.5637
Open Tues thru Thurs 11am-10pm, Fri and Sat 11am-midnight, Sunday brunch 10am-2pm
jacksonstreettavern.com
Jackson Street Tavern on Urbanspoon

Colorado Omelette:
Ham, peppers, onions and cheddar,
with marble rye and the besterest homefries around

Bailey's & Coffee--
Ever notice that Bailey's smells gross unless you're the one drinking it?
A worthy beverage to start your day.

People are weird about their eggs. In another life I was a diner waitress, and I served everything from "scrambled soft with American cheese" to "over hard and don't break the yolks" to the ever-popular "basted." It should be hard to mess up brunch food, but the truth is it's far too easy. Too many options, too many special requests, too many things that don't taste good once they've been sitting under a heat strip. Bacon that's too crispy, or not crispy enough. People who are pissed off 'cause they just came from church. You get the idea. And need I remind you that hardly any of it is even remotely good for you.

Many of the dishes jived with what I think makes a good brunch, but not all. My Colorado Omelette was a neatly folded disc with the right amount of high-grade fillings. The homefries were absolutely spot on with what I prefer: red potatoes, skin on, sauteed with not too much butter and oil, and a present but not overwhelming dash of herbs. However, for once it seemed I was the object of most of my friends' plate envy. The Brunchaladas, in spite of savory ingredients like chorizo and enchilada sauce, got two votes of "blah" and "bland." The Tree Huggers pancakes were a major bummer, as I expected the banana slices to be a part of the actual pancake instead of lazily thrown on top. The result was nothing more than a heavy and dry waste of Bisquick. A few other items were deemed "pretty damn good," but the only thing safe to say is that Jackson Street is a "hit or miss" kind of place right now.

Tree Huggers:
Banana-granola pancakes, maple syrup and whipped butter.
Thick, heavy, boring. This is how not to make pancakes. 

The atmosphere was easy like Sunday morning. Lots of natural light to show off our under-eye circles, hard-earned from the night before, and efficient but not intrusive service. We totally were the assholes who overstayed our welcome almost an hour past closing time, but didn't catch a single hairy eyeball from the staff. This would be a great place to start off one of those "Sunday Fundays," complete with filling food at reasonable prices, and a brunch cocktail or three.

California Omelette--
Stick an avocado on it and call it "California."
One of the good ones.

Black Hash--
Black angus corned beef and poached eggs provide you with the
right fuel to get through your Sunday on the sofa.
This one's a little messy. Square bowl reminiscent of a piggy trough? 

Brunchaladas--
Might want to rethink this one.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Old Dundee Bar & Grill

4964 Dodge Street
Omaha, NE 68132
402.558.0801
Open daily for dinner, kitchen open late
Old Dundee on Urbanspoon:
Old Dundee Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

A very respectable Fish & Chips

People sure did love that 49'r place. I arrived in Omaha just as they were auctioning off their tupperware, shortly before the big demolition and eerie replacement with a huge, shiny new CVS. Just a block away from the sacred ground of the 49'r grave, the Old Dundee seems to be handling a lot of their old patrons; on any given night you should watch for darts whizzing past your head and drunks stealing your bar stool. I, for one, really like it here. The downstairs bar in particular has excellent service, a decent tap selection (Hopluia, Ranger IPA, and so on), and a few comfy booths to get your grub on. It's impractical to pick apart the menu like it's some sort of five-star joint. The food feels good going down, which in this setting is what matters. For weeks now, Old Dundee has been featuring Soul Food Sundays, where you can pick up a plateful of favorites like featherbones, cornbread, and collard greens. This special dish changes weekly, and at under $7 a plate, it is not to be missed. If you're not into soul food (and to that I say, what's wrong with you?), the regular menu boasts a crispy pork tenderloin, fried pickles, honky-style nachos, and burgers galore. 2-for-1 shots are also available on Sundays to get your "drunger" going. Bring a couple of ones for jukebox tunes and cozy up to the bar. It's what the 49'r would have wanted.

Last week's Soul Food Sunday:
Fried chicken, greens, cornbread

Friday, February 17, 2012

Kimson Seafood Grill

333 North 78th Street (in shopping center with Brazen Head and Omaha Steaks)
Omaha, NE 68114
402.926.2700
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Kimson Seafood Grill on Urbanspoon

Chicken Pho--
A temporary bout of misjudgment led my dining buddy
to order chicken instead of beef. Still tasty. 

Definitely go to Kimson when you're extra hungry, and be prepared to be delighted by the delicacy of flavors in dishes that can be laden with too much soy sauce or fish oil or what have you. Definitely do not go to Kimson on any hallucinogens whatsoever. The interior would almost be too weird for a Surrealist master, in that it makes no sense at all. Take someone here to avoid awkward conversation, since there's plenty of paintings, neon signs and knickknacks to stare at.

There are a few pho snobs out there who say Kimson's endless bowl is too oily. This was not at all apparent to me, but maybe I got a good batch. Points for the giant stem of fresh basil, instead of stupid cilantro like some places try to get away with. The heap of noodles and steamy broth make this excellent winter comfort food. Do not argue with me.

Crispy Noodle Combo
There's not much to say about the crispy noodle "combo" with chicken, beef and shrimp, other than the meat was tender, the vegetables crunchy, and the sauce didn't weigh me down with an MSG coma. I enjoyed the big hairy looking pile of noodles; they sopped up the sauce perfectly.

The waiter/owner/major Dude, whatever he is, provided prompt service, but didn't encroach on our privacy whilst refilling our waters a zillion times. The two dishes with tax and tip came to about $25, which may be more than you'd pay in say, Vietnam, but my experience was totally worth it. Don't be a pho snob and check it out.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Twisted Fork

1014 Howard Street
Omaha, NE 68102
402.932.9600
Mon thru Thurs 11am-10pm, Fri and Sat 11am-11pm, Sun 11am-9pm
Happy Hour every day from 3-6 and 9-close
restaurantsinc.net/twistedfork/

Appetizer Sampler:
That's chicken fried bacon in the foreground,
waffle fries, fried pickles and hot wangs.

The glitzy chandeliers, turquoise vases with oversized feathers, and plush red wall tapestry -- combined with the rather bright spotlight lighting motif -- reminded me a lot of Urban Outfitters Home section. The decor is definitely fancier than the food, which follows more of a stripped down "Texas cowboy" theme. I was disappointed to see they must have taken their venison Frito Pie off the menu, but forgot all about it when the Appetizer Sampler platter came. Our server did a run through of the sauces; good thing I already had my pen out to take notes, since they were all white and creamy. I quickly decided that no one should eat Chicken Fried Bacon, ever. It looked like deep fried jerky and tasted like a salty clogged artery. Still, I appreciated the novelty of something so shamelessly unhealthy, and the white gravy dip sure was zesty. The wings, fried pickles, and waffle fries were all of good quality. The BBQ Beef Sliders had smoky meat, sweet sauce and toasted buns. Mmmmmm, toasted buns... no complaints there. The only thing was, as the only customers of the hour, we caught a strong "we don't really want you to be here" vibe from the employees. In their defense I bet they were just preoccupied getting ready for the dinner rush.

I didn't get to try any of the entrees, but I'd only go back here if I felt like getting all fat about it. Though they have salads on the menu, it's not the kind of place where you order one. You know the saying: "Everyone's fatter in Texas."


BBQ Beef Sliders--
Blurry photo due to the cocktail pictured below.

Mango Mai Tai--
It's true, I ordered a girly drink, and I liked it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Marrakech Gourmet

504 North 33rd Street (Just south of Cali Taco)
Omaha, NE 68136
402.502.0739
Open daily 11am to 11pm, and they deliver up to four miles.
marrakechgourmetomaha.com 

Moroccan Mint Tea

To profess my love for Marrakech after just one visit feels a little premature. Like proposing after just one date. Or cumming after just one minute. I need to feel this place out a little more, sample more of their affordable small plates, another rice-y, spicy tagine, and heck, maybe even a Moroccan panini. I can firmly vouch for the fruit and custard tart, which acted as a cool and delicately sweet palate cleanser after the piquant main course. And the Zaalouk (stewed eggplant ragu and pita appetizer) was the most refreshing and flavorful presentation of eggplant I've had in a while. We can't forget the Lentil and Ginger Soup, a puree with texture and pleasant spices. In the Lamb Tagine, I appreciated that the "seasonal vegetables" were more than the routine red pepper and zucchini mix that usually turns up. Instead, it was a game of Name That Veggie, plus other stuff like dates and kumquats (I'm pretty sure). The New Zealand lamb (free range, natural) was falling off the bones. Plus it came in a cool clay pot.

Lamb Tagine--
Ask for a side of spicy sauce.

Amongst communal-style tables, and worn trinkets juxtaposed with the newness of the bar and floor tile, spices permeated the air, and they weren't afraid to crank up the Afrobeat. The twenty or so visits to our table by the chef and server were borderline overbearing, and even with all of their doting, the appetizers and entrees were basically served together, so their timing might suck a bit. I would recommend dusting off your finest bottle of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape from your cellar (you have one, right?) and heading in soon, as this is normally a BYOB. Speaking of dates, if I could get one I would go here this week, since they're offering a special five-course meal for two and a couple glasses of bubbly for just $75 in honor of Saint Valentine. Shoot, I might just go by myself.

Zaalouk--
Eggplant ragu and pita

Lentil and Ginger Puree

Fruit Tart--
Maybe you'll be lucky and score a slice for free like we did.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Duncan's Cafe

501 South Main Street
Council Bluffs, IA 51503
712.328.3360
Open Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri 7am to 7pm, Sat 7am to 1pm, Sun 8am to noon, closed Tues
Duncan's Cafe on Urbanspoon


French Dip and Jacket Fries

Attracted to the mysterious nature of a restaurant that doesn't have an online menu but does decide to run a Living Social deal, I couldn't resist trying out the enigmatic Duncan's Cafe across ye ole Missouri. Plus, getting out of my zip code felt really good, even if it was to a place called Counciltucky. (Oh come on guys, as if Omaha is like, sooooo cosmopolitan in comparison.)

Exposed brick and weird giraffe picture equals "quirky country kitchen" feel.

The coffee was watery, and the chili wasn't very edgy. Over the semi-bland but piping hot cup we discussed the Bean Question. (Do beans belong in chili or not?) Here there were just a few kidney beans, a safe compromise for all.

Cup o' Chili, Stack o' Crackers

"I'll have the Skillet Breakfast," I proudly proclaimed, after several minutes poring over the two pages of selections. The exceedingly nice waitress only then informed us that breakfast is not served during the lunch rush. Certifiably bummed that I wouldn't be annihilating a cheesy, hashbrown-y platter, I reluctantly ordered the lunch special of pork and mashed potatoes. I chose green beans over peas. When it came, I imagined myself an old widower, unable to open my own can of green beans at home, sliding the gummy mashed potatoes over my gums, at Duncan's mostly for the friendly faces. The French Dip was above average, with tender beef and savory jus, but the unseasoned "jacket fries" were not much more than floppy, oily potato discs.

The Daily Special--
Points for the Simon-inspired plates.

On the way out I eyed the neon-colored plates of other diners, which were brimming with fried eggs and pancakes. Apparently breakfast ordering was permitted only minutes after I sealed my fate with the pork special. We weren't even able to spend the whole $20 Living Social coupon, as the bill only came to $17. Still, I will be back to Duncan's when I don't feel like Lisa's or Leo's, and I'll be sure to go early enough to score some bacon.