My seat is a sofa, soft and robin's egg blue. The music in the background is hip, though not so loud that I can't talk to my husband. The light is just dim enough to be romantic.
In my hand is a cocktail called the “sparkle and blush,” a fetching concoction of sparkling wine; Lillet rose, an aperitif wine; and Aperol, an Italian aperitif. In our future lies a decadent five-course meal complete with wine pairings, impeccable service, creative food with a local twist and maybe the most mind-blowingly good cheese plate I've had, all prepared by the latest chef in the Midwest to take home a coveted James Beard medallion.
I'm not in Omaha. I'm three hours south, in Kansas City, at a restaurant called Bluestem where a chef named Colby Garrelts won an award that no chef in my hometown has managed to snag.
Omaha diners are savvy, and so are our best chefs. We have craft cocktails and wine programs and local food on our menus. But so far, we've scored a big goose egg when it comes to the “Oscars of the food world.”
The James Beard awards started in 1990 and are named after American chef James Beard, who brought French cooking to the United States in the 1950s. Five chefs cooking the best food in our city have been nominated as semifinalists for the awards, but none has advanced to the finalist round.
But many think our local dining scene has become more sophisticated, and as that continues, they say, our chefs stand a better chance at winning.
Kansas City has always been Omaha's biggest competitor — I've been there at least once a year to shop and eat since I can remember — and I was there again last month, just a week after Garrelts won his James Beard award in the Best Chef: Midwest category. It was his seventh nomination. I dined at Bluestem because I had a question: Is it any better than the nominated Omaha restaurants?
To be sure, some of what we found at Bluestem was in line with any of the Omaha chefs who have been semifinalists: Clayton Chapman at the Grey Plume, Jennifer Coco when she was chef at the Flatiron Cafe, Paul Kulik at the Boiler Room Restaurant, Dario Schicke of Dario's Brasserie and the soon-to-open Avoli Osteria, and Jon Seymour of V. Mertz.
At top, from left: Schicke, Coco and Seymour. At bottom, from left: Chapman, a Wagyu beef dish at The Grey Plume and Kulik.
The cocktails we started with, that “sparkle and blush” and another whiskey drink with a circular ice ball floating in the glass, could have fit in seamlessly with the drinks from the bars at the Grey Plume and the Boiler Room. The casual yet comfortable atmosphere in the Bluestem dining room is on par with the feeling you get at the Grey Plume.
But once we sat down at our table and dinner began, Bluestem started to subtly separate itself into another tier. The restaurant offers a three-level prix fixe menu allowing diners to choose three courses, five courses or a ten-course chef tasting menu. At the server's recommendation, we went with five courses; I added the wine pairings from the in-house sommelier.
A menu set up in this way is uncommon in Omaha. The closest I've seen is the chef's tasting menu at V. Mertz, a similar multiple-course affair.
Before each course, a waiter brought an amuse-bouche — a small bite — to our table. The bread tray was an impressive spread with four choices that included a sweet dinner roll, tiny cornbread muffins, peppery lahvosh crackers that came with carrot butter and mascarpone spread and a classic flour-dusted wheat roll. Garrelts' wife and co-owner, Megan, is a pastry chef.
Flavors and colors of spring permeated the ten courses we tried. They included, among other things, asparagus panna cotta, Missouri strawberries served with a round of foie gras, nettle risotto, spring pea soup and local morel mushrooms with red snapper. Entree courses included local hen and Kansas-raised Angus beef served with sides such as whipped bone marrow, local spinach and blistered carrots topped with a vinaigrette made from the carrots' tops.
Everything we tasted was straightforward and creative at once. The plating was an exercise in beauty.
We had one lead waiter, and throughout the evening, others jumped in when we needed service. The sommelier explained each small pour of wine he brought with each course, telling me the unintimidating basics: where it was from and why it went well with the food.
Garrelts came out of the kitchen twice during our meal to greet customers he clearly knew. One table gave him a round of applause.
Our meal moved at a pleasing pace — we were attended to in a perfectly choreographed but still leisurely way. The meal ended with that cheese plate, a simple piece of wood topped with three small bits of cheese, each with a perfectly suited accompaniment. Cow's milk cheddar met a blob of strawberry rhubarb jam; sherpa, a sheep's milk cheese, paired with truffled honey; and a blue cheese met a bit of sweet and sour pickled onion.
I got the answer to my question: Bluestem is better.
But it's also not that simple. The restaurant was not so far beyond what I've eaten from our Beard semifinalists that they don't have a chance. They do. They just have to get noticed.
The food at Bluestem was excellent, and so was the service. But I saw glimpses of things I've eaten in Omaha more than once. A soup course reminded me of one I wrote about last winter at V. Mertz. It was served with similar flourish and had similar potently seasonal flavor.
Local meat similar to what we ate, prepared beautifully, is on the menu at the Boiler Room. Like Bluestem, the Grey Plume has expanded its menu to the bar, where diners can eat the same creative food at a lower cost. We saw many diners in Kansas City taking advantage of the lower-priced bar menu made with the same attention to detail.
More restaurants in Omaha are serving those tiny amuse-bouche appetizers before meals like the ones we saw at Bluestem — in Omaha you might get one per meal; at Bluestem we had at least three. More Omaha chefs are learning specialized trades such as charcuterie making and nose-to-tail cooking — diners see this at the Boiler Room — and more are doing things like foraging for local ingredients — this happens at the Grey Plume. More have an in-house sommelier, or at least a staff member working toward that designation, to help diners choose the best wine for their taste.
Jill Silva, the lead food critic and food editor at the Kansas City Star — a James Beard award winner herself for food writing — said Midwestern chefs have an uphill battle standing out in a competition that's focused mostly on the coasts and Chicago. For a James Beard judge to vote for a chef for the award, the judge must eat in the chef's restaurant.
Bluestem's seven years of nominations, as well as features in newspapers and magazines all over the country, gave it clout. That kind of publicity grabs the attention of Beard judges, said Providence Cicero, the restaurant critic at the Seattle Times who is also the chairwoman of the James Beard Foundation's Restaurant and Chef Committee.
“JBF voters who visited (Kansas City) made a point of eating there — or perhaps even went there just to eat at Bluestem,” she wrote in an email.
Omaha's Chapman has been a semifinalist three times and has more press clippings under his belt than any of the other Omaha semifinalists. His restaurant has been featured in Time magazine, Wired, Bon Appetit, Travel and Leisure and the Chicago Tribune, among others.
A pork belly dish prepared sous vide is served with a poached farm fresh egg, coffee puree and powder and grapefruit puree, segments and zest and radish at The Grey Plume in Omaha's Midtown Crossing.
Kulik has cooked at the James Beard House, a private dining space in New York's Greenwich Village owned by the Beard Foundation. Dario's Brasserie, Schicke's restaurant, has been noted nationally for its beer selection, and V. Mertz restaurant, where Seymour got his first semifinalist nod this year, has been a past semifinalist in the Outstanding Wine Service category.
Omaha chef Jennifer Coco was a Beard semifinalist three times while she was the head chef at the Flatiron Cafe. What's on the menu isn't the only thing a chef hoping for a Beard nod has to consider, she said.
“From the front door to the bread to the staff to how the tables are set to the cocktails, it's the total package,” Coco said. “It's not just the food that gets you there.”
The Omaha chefs who have made it to the first round, Silva said, are part of the wider conversation about Midwestern cuisine. Those nods, she said, indicate that someone on the Beard panel is paying attention to Omaha. And as more chefs delve deeper into defining what “Midwestern cuisine” is and work harder to get recognized, more will become Beard winners, she said.
Garrelts, the newest Midwestern Beard winner, will continue at Bluestem, but some of his most interesting cooking is happening at his newest restaurant, Rye, where Silva said he's taking a chef's approach to casseroles, fried chicken, pickles and pies made with lard, among other dishes.
“It's crucial that people on the ground in their cities identify chefs who are doing interesting and cool things,” Silva said. “Omaha is smaller than Kansas City, so it will have an even harder time than we did. It is a lot of hard work, just getting your name out there and getting people to understand — to taste — what you do.”
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