Eating Among Friends

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By Ron Azoulay

Back in November 2013 I jotted down a list of some of my favorite restaurants in Omaha, Nebraska. The restaurants were established within the four years I have been living in Omaha, and they became my favorite places to dine in and take family and friends to. The fifteen or so establishments I wrote down were also places where I felt I was supporting entrepreneurs who have since became friends, and, among others, included Culprit Café (1603 Farnam Street), Kitchen Table (1415 Farnam Street), Lot 2 (6207 Maple Street), Block 16 (1611 Farnam Street), and The Grey Plume (220 South 31st Avenue #3101).

Consistently good, often with interesting ingredients or refreshing and welcomed playful menu items (i.e., the Whole Bird sandwich at Kitchen Table), each establishment has a kitchen you can see into when you walk in, owners and chefs who are enthusiastic about their work, and a knowledgeable staff that can explain, direct, and recommend menu items and specials, as well as suggest wine or beer pairings that are carefully selected for the restaurant. These establishments represent the best part of Omaha, in my mind, which is the ease with which one can build meaningful and lasting relationships with others across the city.

At Lot 2 owners Johanna and Brad Marr and chef Joel Mahr value the ability to build relationships with both ends of the farm-to-fork movement: the guests and the purveyors. For them, a key ingredient to the success of the restaurant has been their strong emphasis on quality ingredients. “For example,” said Brad, “we are currently buying whole ducks from a farmer in Minnesota who can keep up with our demand while meeting our standards for how the animal is raised.”

Lot 2 is celebrating its second year and has helped bring positive attention to Benson, a neighborhood pocket where, as Liz Granger stated in the Chicago Tribune (February 2, 2012), “even the hipsters are nice.” The choice for where to set up the restaurant was very clear to the team from day one. “We chose Omaha and more specifically Benson because we live in Benson and have seen the growth over the last several years,” said Brad. After visiting numerous cities throughout the country, “we noticed the amazing neighborhoods and they all encompassed great bars and restaurants. Benson was the perfect fit for what we wanted to do.”

I have lived in Omaha now for almost four years. I love to eat, and as a global citizen have tried to focus on my power as a consumer to support and advocate for local entrepreneurs who risk financial, physical, and emotional security to start their own restaurants. These individuals provide customers with culinary experiences that are lasting, memorable, and leave one wanting to return and recommend, again and again. For me, the varieties of culinary options, which provide me with adventurous excursions in Omaha, are very appealing. I like getting to know owners, chefs, waitstaff, bartenders, and if I am fortunate, the farmers and growers who drop off ingredients. In Omaha I feel that I when I go out to eat, I dine among friends.

The slow food movement, farm-to-fork culinary experience, and other such defining terminology of restaurants, ingredients, and experiences boil down to two very important things, in my opinion as a foodie: First, the establishment works as much as possible with local farmers and producers to source the finest and freshest ingredients and second, the seasonal products available dictate menus.

The first, building relationships, provide an authentic narrative for the diner. According to Clayton Chapman, chef and owner at The Grey Plume, locally sourced ingredients translate to stories that he can personalize with menu items through which he builds “more authentic and transparent relationships between diners and growers.” In the food world of Omaha today (and many other cities across America), this form of business practice aims to establish positive, durable, lasting, and productive working relationships with all those involved in the food chain.

Colin and Jessica Duggan, chefs and owners of Kitchen Table, say they “have great ingredients because the person or member of the team that grew/raised/cultured the item is the one who brings it to us.” At Kitchen Table most food items are made from scratch using the best local ingredients they can find. The sandwiches are served on house-baked bread, and Jessica and Colin look forward to having the person who brought the food in “return later that day for a bite to eat … featuring what they delivered earlier that day.”

At Lot 2 they “work with a seasonal menu and change things up every three months. This allows us to work with local farmers and ranchers as much as possible… [A seasonal menu] also allows things to remain fresh and exciting.” I, for example, look forward to Facebook updates from the different restaurants to see what the daily specials are. I often learn how to use ingredients, such as black garlic, based on what some of the specials are. (Thanks to Jessica Joyce and Paul Urban at Block 16 for teaching me that there is nothing wrong with matching snails and cream cheese to reinvent crab rangoon).

The community developing around the restaurants I have listed here are helping to transform Omaha into a culinary destination that is worth shouting about (Omaha, Omaha!). There is a renewed sense of collaboration between restaurants and the greater Omaha community. For example, Opera Omaha used Luke Mabie at Culprit Café to feed Carmen and Agrippina cast members and to celebrate the success of the shows. For others like myself, who value the opportunity to discover new friends and the culinary adventures they provide us with, this is truly an exciting time to live and dine in Omaha. I look forward to many more meals shared with my growing circle of friends, and I hope I have inspired you to venture out and get to know those who are feeding your community and advocate on their behalf.

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