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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.