Tag Archives: wine

Mexican
 Perfection

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Anthony Bourdain was asked what food trend he would like to see in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), he said, “I would like people really to pay more for top-quality Mexican food. I think it’s the most undervalued, underappreciated world cuisine with tremendous, tremendous potential.”

At Hook & Lime Tacos + Tequila, North Downtown’s newest addition, you will find that top-quality Mexican food and all kinds of potential, though you won’t necessarily have to pay more for it.

Owner Robbie Malm says after selling his share in Dudley’s Pizza and Tavern, he wanted to do something smaller and more creative. With a little help from his wife, Erin, and his brother, Tim Malm, he has done just that.

Hook & Lime’s menu has a selection of a la carte tacos, small plates, and tortas, all for under $20.

But if you do want to spend some money and have a more decadent experience, you can try the family-style tacos or the tasting menu (with or without tequila).

For the family-style tacos, you can choose between the whole fish, which is currently fried, striped bass, or bone-in barbacoa, which is cooked for 72 hours, crisped in the oven, and sent to the table for you to pick apart.

Head chef Alex Sorens says the tasting menu is something he’s excited about because it gives his crew the opportunity to create dishes and test things out. If they’re good, they’ll go on the next tasting menu.

“It’s stuff that we wouldn’t normally serve to the public,” he says. “It will be a select amount of these things, and when we run out, we run out.”

The menu features a lot of fish, hence the “hook” in Hook & Lime. Sorens says he gets their fish from Seattle Fish Co. out of Kansas City, Missouri. He uses their program Whole Boat Harvest for some of the dishes, like the ceviche. The program sells the “leftover” fish from hauls, fish that would normally go to waste because they’re not as well-known as others.

“The reason for that is because I’m trying to do my part to not be in that same group that’s using all those super popular, over-fished species that are going on endangered lists right now.”

Sorens also tries to support other environmentally conscious businesses, getting a lot of their ingredients from local producers like Plum Creek Farms and Jon’s Naturals.

Malm says these are things you might normally only find at “higher-end, white tablecloth places.” He says their goal is to make that food available to everyone.

“We have this amazing menu, these amazing items, that we’re able to bring to people who normally wouldn’t get to experience them,” he says. “We’re trying to take that food, that approach of sourcing locally and treating these items with respect, and make it more approachable. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a suit and tie or flip-flops, we welcome everybody here.”

Malm says he has been “very, very fortunate” in finding the team to do that.

“Everyone seems to be really excited about their role in this,” he says. “So I quickly found out that my best role is really to enable them to just dive in.”

This enthusiasm extends to the front of the house, where bar manager Brian van Egmond works to create original cocktails using ingredients made in house.

“It’s a fusion between speed and craft,” he says. There will be a couple margaritas available on tap, but the fresh juices are added after they’re poured.

So far, van Egmond says they’ve made their own orange brandy, orange liquor, syrups, and crème de cassis. He is currently working on a strawberry tequila for their strawberry margaritas. They also have a hibiscus-infused reposado, which is used to make the Roselle cocktail.

“That’s one I think both Negroni and Cosmo fans will appreciate.”

Van Egmond says they also have a well-curated spirits list, and plenty of beers to offer, including many from local breweries. There are also several wine options.

Of course, if what you’re really looking for is some straight up, premium tequila, Hook & Lime has you covered.

“Tequila is my favorite thing to drink,” Malm says. “It is my favorite thing to drink,” he repeats, laughing. “And I’m a fairly recent convert.”

But once he fell in love with tequila, it became a little bit of an obsession. He talks excitedly about touring tequila distilleries in Mexico with his wife. He says they toured five different spots, including Cuervo and Herradura.

The restaurant’s offerings reflect his enthusiasm, with more than 100 tequilas on their list and four different styles of flights available if you want to do a little sampling before you commit.

“They say there’s no zealot like a convert,” Malm says. “And that is definitely true when it comes to tequila.”

Undoubtedly, Hook & Lime will do their share in creating converts, both to tequila and to a greater appreciation of top-quality Mexican food.

Hook & Lime is open Sundays through Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

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

Foraging and Fermenting Wild American Grapes

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

If you’ve ever been interested in making wine from wild grapes, Frank Sobetski says this is a good year to start.

For nearly 25 years, Sobetski has been supplying local winemakers at Fermenter’s Supply & Equipment (84th and J streets in Omaha, behind Just Good Meats). He sells kits, equipment, and supplies to experts and novices alike. He also offers useful advice on foraging and fermenting.

Blue ribbons hang on his back wall, behind the counter of the small, tidy shop. The ribbons recognize the proprietor’s mastery of oenology (i.e., the study of wines).

Sobetski has tasted a variety of local wines as the superintendent of the Nebraska State Fair Winemaking Competition for the past 33 years. He knows what to expect from local vintages.

He has cultivated grapevines year-to-year since the mid-1980s, and he opened Fermenter’s Supply & Equipment in 1992. Sobetski has been serving winemaking wisdom soaked in his scientific knowledge ever since.

Foraging Wild Grapes

Wild American “fox” grapes differ from store-bought table grapes and wine grapes, which are largely of European origin. Wild grapes are more tart and less sweet than domestic varieties used in commercial winemaking. Fox grape varieties are known for having an earthy and sweet muskiness. The distinct aroma is called “foxy.”

Nebraska’s wild grapes are predominantly from the vitis labrusca and vitus vuplina species of American grapes. They are hardier than European vitis vinifera grapes associated with European, South American, and Californian wines. Nebraskan vitis labrusca and vuplina can better withstand Nebraska’s frigid winters and brutally hot summers. Concord grapes are a well-known cultivated variety of vitis labrusca.

The ripening of wild grapes is known as “veraison” in viticulture and véraison in French. In Nebraska, veraison generally occurs from August to September.

Harvest enough grapes and, with a bit of effort, aspiring winemakers can produce a unique wild grape wine that is unlike any familiar European wine. 

In July 2016, Sobetski predicted a good year for wild grapes in Nebraska because of “fortunate rainfall.” In early fall, the ripe blue-black clusters of wild grapes begin sagging from vines stretched between fence posts and tree branches.

The low-hanging fruits can easily be collected by hand. Wild grapes are often found near rivers and streams, or associated woodlands. Plant guidebooks or a Google image search can assist with identification, and grapes are typically plentiful once located.

Understanding Fermentation

Sobetski says that in order to produce a palatable wine from wild grapes, the “must” (i.e., the juice solution) should be made chemically like European grape juice, which remains the standard.

Balancing the must is complicated by a number of factors. Wild grapes are more acidic and contain less sugar than European grapes. Sobetski says this condition can be ameliorated by adding water and sugar to the must

The equipment generally needed for the initial fermentation stage is a primary fermenter (an airtight container to which a fermentation lock can be affixed), a fermentation lock (a simple device through which gasses may escape but not go back through), and a mesh sack to hold grapes in the fermenter. Measuring cups, spoons, and scales are also necessary. A length of food-grade tubing and sealable bottles are needed to bottle the wine.

A hydrometer—a buoyant glass tube that is calibrated to measure the amount of suspended solids versus straight water in a solution—is “the most important tool in winemaking,” according to Sobetski. Reading a hydrometer can tell a winemaker when fermentation is complete. Sobetski says that one can make wine without a hydrometer, but to pursue the hobby in earnest, a hydrometer is essential.

“Sanitization is the most important thing,” Sobetski says. “Soap and water is not enough.” Phosphoric acid is a safe, nontoxic sanitizer that can be used. Diluted household bleach sanitizes effectively as well. Everything that may come into contact with the wine must be thoroughly sanitized or the wine is at risk of becoming infected. Infection will ruin a batch of wine, effectively destroying an entire grape harvest.

Making Foxy Wine

Making wild American grape wine is not difficult. First, sanitize all of your equipment. Then remove your grapes from the stems and wash them. Place the grapes in a mesh sack. Place the mesh sack in your primary fermenter. Crush the grapes in the sack, releasing as much juice as possible. Add water, sugar, pectic enzyme, and yeast nutrient. Add the crushed Campden tablet and mix thoroughly. Cover the primary fermenter.

After 24 hours, pitch the yeast into the solution, attach a fermentation lock, and seal the fermenter. Wait a few days. If you are using a hydrometer, fermentation effectively stops when the density reading (known as “specific gravity”) reaches below “1.000.”

Further fermentation in secondary and tertiary fermenters before bottling would improve the wine’s quality. But the additional steps can add several months (or years) to the process. Then, the wine can be siphoned into bottles using a small length of tubing.

Store a few bottles. Share the rest. They will run out fast. The sweet, “foxy” tartness pairs well with autumn weather and is sure to please your holiday guests. They will never forget their first sip of wild American fox grape wine, and neither will you.


Wild American Grape Wine Recipe

Frank Sobetski recommends the Winemaker’s Recipe Handbook as a starting point for wild fruit wine recipes. The brief handbook costs less than $5 and is easy to read. Sobetski says that this book “assumes the reader has knowledge from other sources,” including knowledge of fermentation processes and equipment. Nevertheless, a novice winemaker can follow these recipes and expect “reasonable outcomes,” says Sobetski. His recommended wild-grape wine recipe is derived from the handbook. The following recipe makes one gallon of wine:

6 pounds wild grapes. Forage them.

6 pints water. Avoid tap water if possible.

2 pounds white sugar.

½ teaspoon pectic enzyme. This breaks down the fruit fibers and releases the juices.

1 teaspoon yeast nutrient. This is a fertilizer for yeast. Sobetski says it “makes yeast happy.”

1 crushed tablet of Campden. This is a pre-measured sulfite dose that kills off wild yeast. Sobetski notes that it is impossible to make a sulfite-free wine, as yeast naturally produces sulfites.

1 package wine yeast. Montrachet is recommended for most wild-fruit wines. For grape wine, Pasteur can create a redder wine due to better extraction.

All supplies can be obtained via Fermenter’s Supply.


Visit fermenterssupply.com for more information. OmahaHome

Grapes

Winning at Wine

November 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In a spacious home in West Omaha live a pair of wine lovers.

“I open a bottle while I am cooking, and then my husband comes home and we have a glass with dinner,” says the lady of the house. “He will often have two glasses with dinner. I love to cook and pair wine with food.”

Along with a love of fermented grapes, the couple have a love of travel, and that wanderlust has led to the purchase of a lot of wine.

“We have a trip in November to Santa Monica,” the homeowner says. “We’re in Napa or somewhere that we can buy wine at least twice a year.”

They also belong to nine wine clubs, which ship the couple’s favorite drink a couple of times a year. Thus the bottles began to stack up. The homeowners bought a wine fridge, then graduated to a rack that held 400 cabernets, pinots, and Burgundies. They kept accumulating.

“Then we built this,” the homeowner says, spreading her hands in a shy “voila” gesture.

“This” refers to a basement cellar, a temperature-controlled private room with glass doors leading to a dizzying array of dark glass vessels stacked neatly on top of one another. There are no whites inside…the grigios and chardonnays fill two wine fridges in the basement kitchen.

Cellars are becoming a popular home feature, according to Nancy Pesavento, ASID, of Interiors Joan and Associates. Pesavento says there were many factors to be decided in creating this space.

“When a client wants to do a wine cellar we need to understand the extent to which they want to go. Are they collectors, or do they just want an architectural feature in their home? We need to know how it is going to be used. We have seen extensive wine cellars like this that are temperature controlled, and we have seen built-in racks for displaying just a few bottles. Some people like cellars that you can entertain in.”

“We originally wanted it kind of dungeony-looking,” the homeowner says. “We wanted it to be dark and heavy, but then Kent and Nancy convinced us otherwise.”

“I actually designed a wine cellar to be in that corner where the bar is, and (the homeowners) say we’d like to have more of a cave feel, moving it away from the bar,” says Kent Therkelsen of KRT Construction. “In the end, it is maybe like more of what you see at a winery.”

The cavernous expanse became lighter by incorporating grey stone throughout—from the fireplace to the walls and all the way around the room. Wood enclaves broke up the wall to create a warmer feeling while highlighting a non-standard-sized shuffleboard table sitting between them.

“I was trying to highlight the stone, and when I had the original drawings it looked like it was too much, so I said ‘how about some display cabinets?’” Therkelsen says.

The wood isn’t exactly cherry…or oak…

“It was a custom stain that they created for us,” the homeowner says proudly. “I wanted a hint of red, but not too much. I wanted a hint of brown, but not too much.”

The actual wood is birch, stained reddish-brownish.

The hard edges of the rocks were broken up with geometry in the form of arches lit with a series of two-inch lights.

“Most lower levels are boxes,” says Pesavento. “I think bringing in a soft element like the arch gives it an architectural element and breaks up the boxiness of it. She has a very traditional interior. By stoning those arches, it gave her the traditional elements she wanted.”

The homeowner realized the usefulness of a basement kitchen last year after restoring her main floor cooking area.

“I realized I don’t really need a stovetop, I just need an oven, a fridge, and a microwave,” the homeowner says. “And a dishwasher.”

This basement is designed for entertaining, with four high stools at the kitchen counter where people can converse while one creates culinary delights, and a comfortable seating area with a television for others.

The basement also features such furniture as a couch upholstered in a buff-shaded leather and throw pillows with eggplant-colored (some might say shiraz-hued) accents.  An overstuffed chair and a half also features this purple-red tint.

“It’s my favorite color,” the homeowner says. “I really wanted to incorporate it.”

Also bringing in a touch of claret “color” without being claret-colored is the table and stools created from wine barrel staves.

“The thing is that every wine cellar is different, I’ve never built two the same,” says Therkelsen. “They’re a one-of-a-kind thing that is really defined by size limitation, space limitation, the kind of wine people want to store. There’s a uniqueness to it.”

Visit interiorsbyjoan.com and krtconstruction.com to learn more.

WineCellarBasement1

Painting the Town

October 20, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dinner, movie, drinks, repeat. Dinner, movie, drinks, repeat. When it comes to planning an evening out, it is easy to get stuck in a routine. Those looking to deviate from the norm might be pleasantly surprised by a new-ish concept that has made its way to the Omaha area.

Paint-and-sip studios and storefronts have been popping up throughout the metro, mixing up the social scene with the combination of wine, painting, and socializing.

Briana Lau was a little hesitant when she felt the brush in her hand at her first paint-and-sip outing at the Twisted Vine in Papillion.

“I have absolutely no artistic ability,” Lau chuckles.

But, with careful instruction, her nerves were soon calmed and the creative juices started flowing, along with a little bit of wine.

“I actually walked out with a piece of art that I plan on hanging in my bedroom. I was so surprised how it turned out and the whole process was so relaxing. You just sip a little wine and do a little painting. I could do it every weekend,” says Lau.

Lau credits her success during the painting portion of the evening to Twisted Vine owner and class instructor, Cara Ehegartner.

“Cara is so patient and kind and just explains things in a way that makes sense,” Lau continues. “She gives some general instructions, but each person gets to individualize their work, too.”

Lau’s initial visit to the Twisted Vine was with her mom.

“I was looking for something different for us to do rather than go to dinner or see a movie. It’s great because you get to talk and laugh and even meet new people, which is something that doesn’t typically happen when you go to see a movie.”

She enjoyed the night so much that she quickly returned with a group of friends and for her daughter’s 10th birthday party.

It is that need to do something different that keeps people coming back, according to Ehegartner.

“We see women looking for a new and fun girls night outing, we see co-workers come in for a group outing and even some couples who are looking to liven up their date nights. They are all looking for something new and something sort of unique,” Ehegartner says.

Dan and Jeanne Vlcek of Papillion took advantage of this new concept when planning their latest date night. The Vlcek’s chose to forego dinner and get a little creative instead.

“This date was much more memorable than a dinner or movie date, and we have the paintings to remember it,” Jeanne Vlcek says.

Ehegartner also stresses the importance of keeping the classes comfortable and laid back. She understands that the idea of painting can seem a little intimidating.

“The atmosphere in our studio and store is relaxed. Art is about creativity. People don’t need to worry about being precise and should feel free to add their own touches to their work.”

It’s those unique touches that get groups talking and laughing. Judy Thome of Bellevue attended a class with 12 friends and felt the laughs were the most memorable part of the evening.

“We just had so much fun. We were all getting the same instruction from Cara, but would look at each other’s work and would laugh at how different each of our paintings looked. It was obvious some of us were more artistically inclined than others, but it didn’t matter. We all had fun.”

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Restaurant Review: Lot 2

November 7, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Benson is fast becoming one of Omaha’s most revitalized old neighborhoods. Maple Street now offers some of the best dining and nightlife experiences in the city. In May 2012, Brad and Johanna Marr opened Lot 2, and in doing so raised the bar for fine establishments in Benson and throughout Omaha.

The space itself is simply stunning. A beautiful brick wall lines one side of the restaurant and an inviting wood bar lines the other. In between are attractive wood tables and a lavish wood-paneled ceiling. There is also a nice patio seating area in the back. I really like the look of this place. Neither over-designed nor over-decorated, it is just plain comfortable and warm.

Meat and Cheese Boards

Meat and Cheese Boards

Executive Chef Joel Mahr is seemingly a big proponent of the “buy fresh, buy local” movement since he sources pretty much the entire menu from local farms and producers. The slate of offerings changes frequently and has something for everyone’s taste, including a variety of sandwiches, appetizers, main dishes, meat and cheese boards, and desserts.

On a recent visit, my dining partner and I started off with one of their often celebrated meat and cheese boards ($9) that included two local cheeses and their house-made pork rillette, along with spiced nuts, garlic confit, tomato jam, Dijon mustard, stuffed dates, and Le Quartier baguette. It’s easy to see why they these boards are so acclaimed. If I had known the serving was going to be so substantial, I probably would not have also ordered the crab fritters ($12) as an appetizer. But it’s a good thing I did, for I would have otherwise missed out on these crispy morsels with a spicy jalapeno aioli and cool cucumber salsa verde. The combo was fantastic.

The Bourbon Chocolate Malt

The Bourbon Chocolate Malt

For entrees, we had the bangers and mash ($14), which was perfectly cooked house-made sausage, lumpy mashed potatoes, and a tasty, stout onion gravy that perfectly complemented this dish. We also had the Truebridge Farms pork chop ($23), which had been brined, making it very moist and nicely seasoned. It was topped with a cherry pistachio relish and served with creamed leeks and a potato confit. I give this dish my top marks. At this point, I must admit I was getting very full, but as an unselfish service to you, the reader, I persevered and also sampled a dessert. The bourbon chocolate malt ($6) is a decadent concoction with small chunks of rich chocolate brownie suspended within. Yum!

Brick and rich wood hues set the tone at Lot 2.

Brick and rich wood hues set the tone at Lot 2.

I have to admit that the wine list at Lot 2 really surprised me. I was not expecting such an extensive and well-curated selection from so many growing regions and varietals. The beer list is also quite remarkable and, like most of the nicer places in Omaha these days, Lot 2 also had a good selection of craft cocktails.

As you might have deduced by now, I am a big fan of Lot 2’s food and beverage. That being said, I think it is possible that the service is its best feature. The style of service is warm, friendly, and casual. The level of understanding among the service staff regarding their array of food and beverage is unmatched anywhere else in Omaha. If this sounds too good to be true, then go check it out for yourself. Just be sure to make a reservation because the word is already out on how good this place is.

Cheers!

 Lot 2
6207 Maple Street
402-504-4200
M-Th/4-11pm, F-Sat/4pm-12am, Sun/10am-2pm
lot2benson.com

 RATING (5 Stars Possible)

Food & Beverage: ****
Service: ****
Ambiance: ****
Price: $$
Overall: ****

J’s on Jackson

October 28, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ask Jay Siers what the best thing is on his menu.

“Our filets.” This is said with finality.

The owner of J’s on Jackson will have his medium rare, thank you. Carrots and asparagus on the side, please, with a little seasoning and butter. Possibly accompanied by a glass from one of the Old Market steakhouse’s 300 bottles of wine.

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General manager John Thompson is well-versed in the type of restaurant Jay Siers wants J’s on Jackson to be. Thompson began working with Siers in a consulting capacity last fall for his Norfolk steakhouse.

 

Siers’ confidence in his steaks stems from the fact that J’s on Jackson sources and cuts all of its meat through its own steak-cutting operation, Platte Valley Meats, in Fremont. “It gives us much better quality control than if we just tried to source meat on the open market,” Siers says, “and it’s almost 100 percent Nebraska beef.”

Platte Valley Meats seems a natural addition to Siers’ empire. J’s on Jackson is, after all, his third restaurant. Dedicated patrons can find a J’s Steakhouse and Winebar in both Norfolk and Fremont. “Our core menu’s pretty much the same,” Siers says, “but I wanted this one to be a little different.”

J’s on Jackson manages to have a traditional steakhouse feel (you know the type: dark wood, white tablecloths, heavy bar) without completely closing off diners from the bustle of the Old Market. The dining room overlooks 11th Street, and a small patio affords fantastic people watching on Jackson.

While you’re out there, consider the chef’s patio special of the evening. “It’s usually a unique appetizer, like Chesapeake Bay oysters,” says John Thompson, the restaurant’s general manager. For dinner, try the nightly feature. J’s on Jackson differs from traditional steakhouses in that it serves a composed plate rather than a la carte, so your pork filet might come with a cherry remoulade sauce and a side of pureed sweet potato.

 

Of course, with Zeb Rogers in the kitchen, who knows what will be featured on any given night. “He’s dying to do a stuffed squid,” Thompson comments, “but the market’s a bit high right now.” The restaurant’s executive chef was a sous chef at several restaurants in Minneapolis before moving to Omaha, where he became executive chef at 801 Chophouse and then Mark’s Bistro. He finally joined forces with Siers and Thompson at J’s in 2012.

“He’s been here since we opened,” Siers says. “He’s an amazing guy, and he has full latitude over the menu. He can do whatever he wants.”

That’s another twist at J’s: Even if you’re not in the mood for a steak, chances are you’ll find something to tempt the palate. The restaurant offers seafood fresh from Omaha’s own Jacobson Fish Co. and makes its gnocchi and pasta sauces in house. “It’s not that we have so much,” Siers says, dismissing the idea that the menu’s variety would indicate a lack of focus. “We don’t have 16 chicken dishes. We just tried to cover everything.”

And if it’s still not quite what a diner needs?

“They’ve never said no to a special request,” says Kim Kanellis, a regular at J’s. As a sales and marketing rep for an insurance company, she frequently entertains clients at the steakhouse. “If they have it, they’ll do it.” During one particular business lunch, a fellow diner wasn’t finding a vegetarian option on the menu that appealed to her. “So they asked her some questions and made a Portobello sandwich up for her,” Kanellis recalls. “Fabulous service. That’s what it’s all about there.”

It doesn’t sound like Siers is willing to rest on his laurels though. When asked if he has plans for a fourth restaurant, his quick response is, “Always.” The details are still being hashed out, but look for something in the way of a raw bar in southwest Omaha sometime this spring.

Restaurant Review: Indian Oven

August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In the heart of the Old Market on Howard Street, the Indian Oven has been serving its family recipes for over 25 years. Second-generation owner Binoy Fernandez is now running the show and just completed an extensive remodel in late 2012. The new look is spectacular! The restaurant now features a beautiful, new bar that occupies a large portion of the first floor and has a much more modern feel, yet still works well with the Old Market styling cues.

Along with the new bar, the restaurant now features an expanded menu of classic and craft cocktails. Craft cocktails are a booming trend, and the Indian Oven has an exhaustive list of about 25 of these creations. On a recent visit, I sampled one called The South Side ($7). This gin-based cocktail with soda, bitters, and a hint of mint was extremely refreshing on a hot summer day. My dining partner had the Tamarind Margarita ($8), made with Reposado Tequila, Orange Curaçao, fresh lime, and a tamarind infusion. This one was also outstanding. I should also mention that the new bar boasts a well-stocked beer selection and wine list.

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The food at the Indian Oven has always been great, and I am glad to report that is still the case. The flavors of the traditional Indian cuisine are something that everyone should make a point of experiencing on a regular basis.

My dining partner and I started the evening with a plate of Masala Sliders ($8) and some Barta Ganouj ($8). The Masala Sliders are three tasty, little burgers that are filled with Indian seasoning, topped with caramelized onions, and served on a fresh roll spread with cilantro pesto. The Barta Ganouj is a Fernandez family recipe of spiced eggplant and tomato dip, served fresh with pita wedges. I will never tire of this dish.

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For entrées, I had the Rogan Gosht ($15), which is a traditional north Indian lamb curry. The lamb literally melted in my mouth, and the spices were perfect. My partner tried the Chicken Tikke ($13.50). Chicken Tikke is chunks of chicken breast meat marinated in a lemon, yogurt, ginger, and garlic marinade and then skewered and grilled. I have always felt the IO version of this dish was the best I have ever had. The portions are appropriate, and all the entrées are served with their traditional Indian rice. For dessert, we shared the Kulfi ($4), which is an Indian ice cream. Their version is flavored with pistachio and mango.

The service at the Indian Oven is casual, warm, and friendly. Our server seemed to know the menu well and made some great cocktail recommendations. That, combined with new, great looks, craft cocktails, and consistently good food, make checking out the Indian Oven a no-brainer. If you have never been there before or have not been for a while, you need to make a point to check it out. Personally, I am already looking forward to my next IO meal.

Indian Oven
1010 Howard St.
402-342-4856
indianovenomaha.com

RATING (5 Stars Possible)

Food & Beverage: ***1/2
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***1/2
Price: Moderate
Overall: ***1/2

Light Up Your Summer

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Mid-America Expositions

Nebraska may not be stereotypical wine country (Hello, California), nor does it play host to the world’s largest hot air balloon festival (that’s reserved for Albuquerque, N.M.). However, that hasn’t stopped Mike and Joe Mancuso from hosting a unique summer’s end event that combines the two in a family-friendly way. On the fringes of Omaha, wine is poured and balloons soar at the Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival.

Attracting thousands of people each year, this is the event’s seventh anniversary. Happening August 9 and 10 at the Coventry Campus, just south of 204th and Q streets, this year promises an expanded event, with more wines to taste and enjoy and more family fun. The festival begins at 5 p.m. on Friday and 3 p.m. on Saturday. General admission adult tickets can be purchased at the entrance for $7 and children 12 and under tickets are $5.

“Part of the success that we’ve seen with the Taste of Omaha event is the high interest in doing an event in the western part of the city,” says Mike Mancuso, president of Mid-America Expositions, the producer of both the balloon festival and foodie event. “We thought the best atmosphere would be with hot air balloons, which turned out to be a positive and enjoyable part of the event.”DSC_1341_web

Half the festival’s namesake focuses on wine and the ever-growing popularity of wine tastings. Wine connoisseurs, wine lovers, and those interested in trying something new interact with chefs while sampling the various Cornhusker state wines throughout the duration of the festival. A special wine and food presentation will be given at 6 p.m. each night. Tickets can be purchased prior for $12, and includes five wines to taste and a souvenir wine glass, or they can be purchased at the festival for $15.

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place. Nebraska is known for having great soil and producing great crops. Why not grapes and making great wine?” Mancuso says.

Mac’s Creek Winery & Vineyards, out of Lexington, Neb., has been participating in the festival since day one, seven years ago. Joining as a way to reach the Omaha wine market, the high attendance and exceptional running of the event kept the vineyard coming back, says Seth McFarland, owner and vineyard manager.

“We have vastly different wines [from California]. We have different grapes, which gives us a different starting point in terms of behavior growth,” says McFarland. “We’re also Nebraskans, so we’re not afraid of hard work. That, combined with the unpredictable weather, promotes exceptional flavors.”

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place.” – Mike Mancuso

With more than six million spectators attending hot air balloon festivals each year nationwide, Nebraska is throwing its hat into the ring as a premier hot air balloon destination. At the festival, guests can take a hot air balloon ride, as well as see the balloons dance to the musical beat of live performances and witness a balloon light show. The balloons launch at 7 p.m., with the “Balloon Glow” light show beginning at 9 p.m.

Veteran balloonist Mark Enholm will conduct these balloon rides and light shows. Returning this year to serve as balloonmeister, Enholm has been with the festival since its inception. “My job is to coordinate the different balloonists and balloon events,” he says. “All of them are commercial pilots, meaning they’re licensed to carry two or three guests per flight. The first year, we had five balloons participate. This year, we’ll have nine or 10; most are local, though we’ve added one from Des Moines and another from Missouri.”

Enholm credits Mother Nature for contributing to the festival’s growth over the years. “We’ve been very lucky with the weather,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get—rain, tornadoes, hail…In six years, we’ve been very successful in both our flights and the glows.”IMG_8070_web

He says the professionalism of the balloonists is also a factor. “The pilots go out of their way to make the rides fun and enjoyable. We don’t want riders white-knuckling it. The safety of our passengers is paramount.”

New to this year’s event is the Vintners’ Lunch. This special lunch, from noon until 2 p.m. on Saturday, focuses on supporting local businesses. Fresh, local foods will be paired with Nebraska wines by Omaha’s best chefs to provide a homegrown food experience for luncheon guests.

“Our VIP food and wine tastings have been so popular…we wanted to add another opportunity to add the wine to the food,” Mancuso says. “We thought since the vintners were staying with us overnight, it would be great for them to do a lunch before the last day of the event.”

That’s something Omahans can raise their glasses to.

For more information regarding the Vintners’ Lunch and the event itself, visit showofficeonline.com/nebraskawineballoonfestival.html.

Restaurant Review: Louie’s Wine Dive

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Wine should be fun” is what it reads on the staff’s t-shirts at Louie’s Wine Dive, and I have to say that I couldn’t agree more. So often, it seems that people are put off by buying wine, ordering wine, or going to wine bars because of the “snooty factor” that is perceived to come along with it. At Louie’s, they’ve done a good job of making wine more accessible to the masses and keeping the snobbery out of it. For that, I commend them.

The Shops of Legacy in West Omaha, has a large selection of very good restaurants. The location that Louie’s now occupies has been home to a couple of restaurants over the past few years, which should be a clue as to how competitive this area is for the West O dining dollar. If the success this small company has had in its Des Moines and Kansas City locations is any indication, then it’s safe to say that Louie’s has a good shot at making it here. The restaurant is very attractive and far from what I would call a dive, but they do have some “divey” features, such as chandeliers made from liquor bottles and mismatched chairs. I would describe the atmosphere as casual and comfortable.

After studying the wine list for a few minutes, it quickly becomes obvious that great care has been taken in the curation of the selections. Most growing regions and varieties are well-represented, and there’s not a dog in the bunch. The food menu has a little of everything as well: creative gourmet food with interesting twists on familiar favorites. There are appetizers, bruschettas, sandwiches, comfort-food entrees, pasta dishes, and salads.

On a recent visit, my dining partner and I started off with an order of Lobster Poutine ($15) and Louie’s Margarita Bruschetta ($9). This version of poutine is a rich lobster sauce poured over some delicious French fries with chunks of Maine lobster and topped with Fontina cheese. This dish was excellent, and one that I would recommend. The bruschetta was equally good and earned extra points since it was made on a baguette from Le Quartier Bakery, which happens to be my favorite bread in Omaha.20130329_bs_9505_Web

Next, we had a starter version of Emily’s Apple Harvest Salad ($5). This was made with baby greens, apples, cranberries, bacon, goat cheese, and candied pecans. I can promise you that I will order this salad every time I return. For entrees, we had the porchetta ($16) and the Shrimp Diablo Pasta ($16). The server told me that the corporate chef had won awards with the porchetta in the past, and after a few bites I could see why. This Italian-rolled pork shoulder is braised for hours with herbs and garlic so it melts in your mouth. The Shrimp Diablo might be the next one to win an award, as the creamy red pepper sauce had just the right amount of spice and a lovely toasted garlic finish. The shrimp are large and cooked perfectly.

Even though we were full, we soldiered on to try Lemon Pound Cake ($6). This moist cake had just the right relationship between sweet and sour and was topped with some fresh blueberry puree. It was a solid finish to a great meal.

I usually like to give new restaurants a little time to work out the kinks before sharing my thoughts with our readers, but, in this case, I made an exception, as it seemed to me that there were no kinks that needed working out. One of the many advantages a small restaurant company enjoys is the ability to send seasoned staff and managers to help open a new location, which makes the whole process considerably smoother and more enjoyable for the patrons. Our server was very well-trained and made some very good food and wine recommendations.

I think Louie’s Wine Dive will make an excellent addition to the West Omaha restaurant scene, and I am already looking forward to my next visit.

Cheers!

Louie’s Wine Dive
16920 Wright Plz., Ste. 118
402-884-8966
louieswinedive.com

RATING (5 Stars Possible)

Food & Beverage: ****
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Price: Moderate
Overall: ***1/2

Malara’s

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Two elderly gentlemen are just getting up from the table. “We don’t work here,” the one in the knit sweater says gallantly, “but we could probably seat you.”

They probably could at that, if they’re some of the regulars who have been gracing Malara’s Italian Restaurant since it opened on 22nd and Pierce streets in 1984. Caterina Malara, an American by way of Argentina by way of Italy, first put her name to a small carryout shop as a way of providing for her young family. “There weren’t any tables or anything,” says her daughter, Maria Szablowski. “We mostly served sandwiches then.”

Decades later, Malara’s has expanded in both size and menu, and Szablowski is now the restaurant’s manager. “We make pretty much everything ourselves,” she says. Her favorite is the fried cheese ravioli, though her niece, Ashley Gomez, is torn between her grandmother’s lasagna and the Italian cheesecake.20130204_bs_5079 copy

Malara’s serves strictly Italian comfort food, and the food is prepared accordingly. “We’re casual, you know, spaghetti and meatballs,” Szablowski says. Recipes are vague, if there are any at all. “It’s a pinch of this, a pinch of that.” Gomez adds that when Malara teaches her kitchen a new recipe, she’ll say, “No cups! You judge yourself.” With such a home-style method, dishes are surprisingly consistent.

Szablowski says that if Malara had her way, the menu would be constantly filled with new items. For the sake of the staff, they introduce one or two new dishes every so often while keeping on staples like the homemade cheesesticks, chicken parmesan, and ricotta cannoli.

Still, the matriarch is very much present in her restaurant. “She’s here everyday,” Szablowski says. “We can’t keep her away.” Malara still cooks a bit, but is less hands-on. “She watches you like a hawk,” Gomez says with a laugh, but adds that Malara is very patient, especially with her great-grandchildren, a few of whom work in the kitchen.

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The fact that the restaurant is family-run is inescapable, from the daughter waitressing on weekends to the photos of great-grandkids on the wall. Even if staff members aren’t family strictly speaking, they may as well be. Szablowski and Gomez compare notes on which employees have been with them the longest: “Maki, the bartender, has been here for 22 years. Then there’s Marilyn, the cashier, she’s been here for 20. And Amy and Kathy and…”

If all you need to enjoy the cozy ambience is a dessert and a drink, consider having a sour crème puff under the original tin ceiling at the bar. Though Malara’s serves a full bar, wines and beers carry the day. Especially for Malara herself. “Mom loves her glass of Lambrusco every night,” Szablowski says with a smile.

Malara’s Italian Kitchen
2123 Pierce St.
402-346-8001