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Midwest Meets Northwest

August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bil Sitzmann

When Seattle-area transplants Darrell and Laura Auld opened Twisted Cork Bistro in 2008, the cozy restaurant near 107th and Pacific streets accommodated just a couple of dozen guests and was open only at lunch. The owners have since added dinner service and Sunday brunch, made changes to the kitchen staff, and expanded the space. 

What hasn’t changed, however, is Twisted Cork’s commitment to showcasing the bounty of what the Midwest and Pacific Northwest have to offer. The motto on its website states, “Always natural, always wild,” and that’s still a big part of the bistro’s appeal a decade later.

Wild Alaskan sockeye salmon

Open daily, the restaurant focuses on natural, locally sourced food. The menu emphasizes fresh produce from area growers, handmade cheeses, and locally raised meat from Nebraska and Iowa farmers and ranchers. The eatery also embraces ingredients from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, including fresh seafood and a lengthy list of wines exclusively from Washington and Oregon. 

The paper menu, which folds like a map, boasts several salads, soups, sandwiches, small plates, and larger entrees. Burger fans may want to try Twisted Cork’s beef-and-pork-based burger, which Food Network Magazine listed in its “50 States 50 Burgers” in 2009. 

Pistachio-encrusted Hawaiian ahi tuna sashimi

For our weekend dinner visit, my dining partner and I took our taste buds on a culinary trip that started in Nebraska with a selection of locally produced cheeses and ended in British Columbia with a chocolatey dessert based on a classic Canadian treat.

Perfect for sharing, the bistro’s cheese board features a trio of artisanal cheeses from Branched Oak Farm in Raymond, Nebraska, along with sliced baguette, sesame crackers, and a variety of accompaniments. Visually appealing and full of textural variety, the cheese plate is arranged with thinly sliced pears, honey, fig spread, mixed nuts, and a cluster of grapes.

Other scrumptious bites can be found among the small plates, like the Whidbey Island Shrimp—four perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp served with sliced avocado, grapefruit segments, and a drizzle of sauce similar to Thousand Island dressing.

Falling into the would-order-again category, a scallop entree featured three plump sea scallops that arrived beautifully seared, tender, and moist. Accompanied by lemon beurre blanc and sriracha, the sweet, buttery scallops were topped with a zesty gremolata—a condiment made with fresh herbs, citrus, and nuts—that cut through the richness of the seafood. 

A side of charred Brussels sprouts and a scoop of jasmine rice, both excellent, accompanied the scallops. Cooked in vegetable stock, the rice was so good I could have eaten a bowl of it. Don’t let it go untouched.

Piedmontese rib-eye from Nebraska with potatoes and asparagus

We also sampled a Piedmontese rib-eye from Lincoln. The grass-fed, pasture-raised beef is leaner than its grain-fed counterpart due to less marbling, but it’s still flavorful. Perfectly cooked to the specified medium rare, the hand-cut, 14-ounce steak is seasoned with a house rub and served with roasted potatoes and asparagus.

Diners who save room for dessert can choose from several decadent sweets, all made in-house. With its smooth, luscious filling, a slice of caramel pistachio cheesecake was rich but not heavy. Chocolate lovers will want to try a Nanaimo bar, a quintessential Canadian treat named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, just north of Washington. The bistro’s version of the three-layered bar features a nut and wafer base, a middle layer of creamy custard, plus chocolate ganache on top. It’s super-rich, fudgy, and gluten-free.

Peaches and cream cheesecake

Twisted Cork’s combination of talented chefs, eclectic fare, and warm, welcoming service make for an inviting dining experience that highlights the best of land and sea. 


Visit twistedcorkbistro.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Fruit and cheese board

Pinot and Pumps

August 12, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While customers filled up their cars with gas, I filled up on a five-course meal and knocked back glasses of fine California wines. A gas station is the last place most people would go for fancy dining, but once a month local food and wine lovers gather around tables—set up just beyond the racks of Slim Jims and smokes—at the Old Market Cubby’s to savor elegant dishes paired with wines.

It’s not uncommon these days to find good, affordable bottles of vino at convenience stores, but few offer wine-tasting dinners like Cubby’s has for the last decade. The downtown Omaha convenience store, which includes a deli, produce section, and meat counter, hosts the popular wine dinners on the third Wednesday of the month. Cubby’s kitchen crew prepares the food on-site, and the menu, designed to appeal to a wide range of tastes, changes each month. 

Whether guests are casual wine drinkers or connoisseurs, the dinners provide a chance to enhance their knowledge—perhaps my favorite aspect of the event. At a recent dinner, fine wine specialist John Ursick of Omaha and others were on hand to describe the nuances of each wine and answer questions. The dinners are a relative bargain at $30 per person. Portions are generous, and so are the pours.

Crostini topped with olive tapenade and sliced prosciutto

On my visit, the first course featured a flavorful flatbread layered with dried apricot and figs, prosciutto, and fresh arugula. Edible flowers scattered on top provided an extra pop of color, while the sweetness of the dried fruit combined perfectly with the saltiness of the prosciutto. Also good was the accompanying glass of smooth, fruity chardonnay from The Crusher Wines.

A textural and visual delight, crostini topped with olive tapenade and sliced prosciutto was a satisfying blend of crispy, salty, and savory, but I would have preferred the prosciutto shaved thin. A juicy, easy-drinking red blend, also from The Crusher Wines, complemented the dish beautifully.

I also enjoyed a plate of plump, tender crab cakes that had a generous amount of lump crabmeat and a crispy, golden brown exterior. A glass of full-bodied Chardonnay from B Side Wines on California’s North Coast delighted with its crisp finish.

Crab cakes

Shrimp scampi arrived buttery, lemony, and just garlicky enough, but the accompanying pasta was slightly overcooked. It came paired with a Don & Sons pinot noir from Sonoma County, in the heart of wine country.

For dessert, a version of frozen s’mores delivered all the flavors one would expect from the classic childhood treat: graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow. A scoop of homemade bubblegum ice cream in the center was luscious and creamy, but the flavor clashed with the other ingredients. The dessert’s sweetness paired well with the slightly smoky notes of the Gunsight Rock cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles.

Although a gas station is no match for the ambiance of a rustic winery or cozy bistro, wine dinners at Cubby’s are a fun way to sample a variety of bites and learn more about wine in a relaxed, casual, and unconventional setting. 

Cubby’s Old Market Grocery and Catering

601 S. 13th St. | 402.341.2900 

FOOD 3.5 stars
SERVICE 4 stars
AMBIANCE 3 stars
PRICE $$
OVERALL 3.5 stars


Visit cubbys.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

Flatbread layered with dried apricot, figs, prosciutto, and fresh arugula

The Big Easy in the Big O

March 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

One of America’s great food cities, New Orleans, is steeped in history, culture, and fantastic flavors. From beignets to étouffée, the Southern city’s distinctive cuisine attracts food lovers worldwide. Perhaps the best way to satisfy one’s Cajun and Creole cravings is with a trip to N’awlins. But if that isn’t in your plans, a visit to Herbe Sainte offers a taste of the Big Easy without leaving the Big O.

The Aksarben Village cocktail bar and restaurant, which opened in late October 2016, is the creation of longtime restaurateur Ron Samuelson and his nephews, Aaron and Justin Halbert. For decades, Samuelson co-owned M’s Pub, the iconic Old Market restaurant that was destroyed in a January 2016 fire. His focus is now on Herbe Sainte and other new projects, including a French-focused eatery that he and the Halberts are working on.

muffuletta

For Herbe Sainte, the trio took inspiration from the food and drink of the Crescent City. “New Orleans has a great cocktail culture,” Justin Halbert says. Seafood purveyors from several Gulf Coast states supply the restaurant with fresh shrimp, crawfish, and oysters. Halbert, who used to live in Florida, says seafood from the region, particularly Gulf shrimp, boasts exceptional flavor and texture.

Shrimp is the star of one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, NOLA shrimp. One of a dozen items on the small menu, it features plump, succulent shrimp smothered in a rich, luscious sauce made decadent with cream, butter, and wine. It’s served with crusty French bread to sop up the sauce, which is sparked with a Creole seasoning blend for a palate-tingling heat. I would have liked a bit more spice, but I thoroughly savored each bite.

raw oysters

Executive chef Jeff Owen leads the kitchen, showcasing an appreciation for the nuances of New Orleans cuisine while putting his own twists on the classics. The shrimp roll features boiled shrimp lightly dressed with Cajun remoulade, lettuce, onion marmalade, and cornichon. Lack of breading and frying allows the shrimp’s firm, meaty texture and sweet, clean flavor to shine. We liked the filling but thought the bun needed to be warmed or toasted a bit.

Oysters are abundant in New Orleans and on Herbe Sainte’s menu. They’re available shucked and served on the half shell, as well as broiled. For non-seafood lovers, there’s muffuletta (a signature New Orleans sandwich stuffed with cold cuts, cheese, and olives) and a cornbread and sausage plate. It features sliced boudin (pork-and-rice sausage), mustard, pickles, slaw, two types of cornbread, and honey butter. The restaurant’s boudin has a soft, crumbly texture and was milder than I expected.

Enhancing the dining experience is a stylish interior with local artwork, modern-meets-rustic décor, and an eye-catching bar with custom wood shelving. Several couches, coffee tables, and armchairs invite guests to linger. The high-ceilinged space is intimate enough for date night yet lively enough for after-work cocktails. “We wanted it to be really eclectic,” Halbert says.

The establishment’s name comes from Herbsaint, an ingredient Sazerac cocktails.

The drink menu offers classic New Orleans cocktails, such as the Sazerac. Bold yet balanced, it includes brandy, Peychaud’s bitters, simple syrup, and the restaurant’s namesake, Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liqueur used as an absinthe alternative. The long, spacious bar provides plenty of room to whip up craft cocktails and develop house-made ingredients.

Together with their design team and bar and kitchen staff, Herbe Sainte’s owners have created a delicious, inviting spot to savor a taste of New Orleans and let the “bon temps” roll year-round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visit herbesainteomaha.com for more information.

NOLA shrimp

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Birrieria El Chalan

January 3, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Step inside Birrieria El Chalan, and the sizzle of grilled meat along with the aromatic scents of cumin, chiles, and other spices are the first signs that Mexican food fans are in for a treat. And once they start digging into a plate of tacos, tortas, or tostadas, they will realize this place is not about Tex-Mex, fusion, or modern Mexican. Instead, the focus is on homestyle, traditional food that, for the most part, is flavorful and done well.

Although there is nothing fancy about the outside or inside of the small, locally owned spot near 24th and J streets in South Omaha. The spare, simple restaurant is a fun, casual, and welcoming place to eat.

El Chalan serves many of the classic favorites one would expect at a Mexican restaurant, but it also offers cuisine from the state of Jalisco in west-central Mexico. Dishes such as birria, a spicy, savory stew made with goat or beef are popular among many patrons. For our recent first-time visit to the restaurant, my dining partner and I skipped the specialties and stuck to more familiar fare.

Complimentary chips and salsa are a great way to start. I could have sat there all day munching on the crispy tortilla chips and fiery red salsa. Medium spicy with a hint of smokiness, the salsa is terrific both as a dip and drizzled on nearly everything. Equally addictive is the house-made guacamole. Slightly chunky with chopped onion, tomato, and cilantro, it boasts a salty, spicy, citrusy balance.

The kitchen does amazing things with tacos, too. My dining partner, a former South O resident who has eaten tacos all over the neighborhood, said they are the best he has tried locally. Diners can choose from more than a half-dozen meat options, ranging from marinated pork to beef tongue. We went with carne asada (grilled steak) tacos.

Warm corn tortillas, soft yet sturdy, hold a generous amount of tender, seasoned steak chopped into small pieces, dressed with onion and cilantro. Diners can add accompanying garnishes of sliced radish, lime, and a blistered whole jalapeño for added texture and flavor.

Tortas, a popular Mexican sandwich, are offered with a choice of meat, topped with lettuce, avocado, pickled jalapeño, and other ingredients on an oval-shaped roll with a pillowy interior and grilled exterior. We tried a torta con lomo (pork loin sandwich). The meat was tender and flavorful, but the bun started falling apart under the weight of all the filling before we could finish.

I’m a huge fan of chile relleno—a poblano pepper stuffed with mild white cheese, battered, and then fried until golden brown—but the restaurant’s version missed the mark for me. A zesty tomato-based sauce drowned the pepper, making the breading soggy. And I thought the sauce was too thin and watery. The entree comes with fluffy seasoned rice and creamy refried beans.

The restaurant takes cash only, but you won’t need much. Tacos cost $2; entrees run about $8. Despite the shortcomings, our overall dining experience was satisfying. Those looking for a casual, low-key spot that highlights traditional flavors of Mexico will find it at Birrieria El Chalan.

Rating:

Food- 3.5 stars

Service- 3 stars

Ambiance- 2 stars

Price- $

Overall- 3.5 stars

Visit http://Facebook.com/pages/birrieria-el-chalan/168661723148405 for more information.

This article was printed in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.