Opening a coastal-focused oyster bar and seafood restaurant in landlocked Omaha, Nebraska, isn't easy.
Some might call Flagship Restaurant Group — the owners of the successful Roja Mexican, Blue Sushi and gastropub Blatt — crazy for even trying to open Plank Seafood Provisions, its latest effort in the heart of the Old Market.
But Omaha diners want to eat seafood, and Plank has been the most successful opening of a Flagship restaurant to date, the chef told me after three recent dinners.
I get it when it comes to the oysters, which were fresh and simple. I also get why people want to hang out at Plank: Its atmosphere is modern and quirky, like all the other Flagship outfits.
But what I don't get is why four of the five entrees we tried — all hovering around $20 — tasted so dated, with sauces that overwhelmed and fancy plating that belied a lack of creativity.
The oysters are what Plank is all about, so we'll start there. Selections change daily. When I ordered fresh oysters, the staff advised me to try what was fresh that day, so that's what I did. I'm a big fan of oysters, and the ones I had at Plank held their own.
Salty but mild Peter's Point oysters were medium-sized and earthy, and a half-dozen Moon Shoal oysters were smaller but popped with citrusy punch. The descriptions on the card that lists the oyster's flavors and levels of salinity — saltiness — were spot-on. All came with a thin ginger dipping sauce, a spicy cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish and a wedge of lemon; I liked the sauces but prefer my oysters with just a squeeze of citrus.
The shellfish were all shucked properly, and I didn't get any funky bits or sandy bites. My only consistent gripe was that I wish each plate had come with two cocktail forks instead of one — my husband would have liked one, too.
Tony Gentile, Flagship's corporate executive chef, said eventually the wait staff should know more than just which oysters are fresh that day, the spot where my servers' knowledge ended. The goal is to have the staff know what each oyster tastes like, how each is harvested and whether it is wild.
The barbecue oysters, served in their shells topped with a tangy, vinegar-based sauce, were good, too, especially for those a bit squeamish of raw shellfish. The sauce lent a brothy texture and didn't overwhelm the oyster's mild flavor.
We also tried the Oysters Rockefeller, a classic Southern dish I ate this summer in New Orleans. Plank deconstructs the dish. The oysters sit below a bit of cooked spinach, nubs of thick bacon, buttered bread crumbs and Parmesan that form a light crust. It's not the classic, which is both heavier and smoother in texture, but I liked the lighter version's blend of crispness and saltiness.
The best of the entrees I tried was one I would never have ordered on my own but did on the advice of a server. Blackened Mississippi Catfish at Plank comes topped with an old-school, spicy Creole beurre blanc sauce, the top studded with crawfish bits and grape tomatoes. Delicious dirty rice, with bites of spicy sausage, sat next to al dente green beans. Catfish can be mealy and soft — that's why I avoid it — but this blackened fillet, which Gentile said actually is from Mississippi, came firm, white and well-cooked.
“Those Cajun and Creole references on the menu, those are all from me,” said Gentile, who is originally from Houston. “People have responded really well to it.”
We also liked the lobster roll, which clocks in at $20, high for a sandwich and a side of fries. We doubted that price until a few bites in; the sandwich's filling was thick with lobster and not overwhelmed by mayonnaise, celery, tarragon or citrus, instead harmonizing with the dressing and a buttery, grilled hot dog bun.
Gentile said knuckle and claw lobster meat are in the sandwich because they lend the best texture — moist and slightly shredded.
The atmosphere at Plank is fun, cool but not kitschy. Bright orange booths and pale turquoise decor felt like a nod to “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” the sea-focused Wes Anderson movie.
A huge, wooden boat-shaped sculpture is suspended from the ceiling in the dining room, and modern silver lamps, silver chairs, lots of wood and a big, busy oyster bar complete the space. An outdoor wrap-around patio lends an excellent spot for Old Market people-watching.
We liked hanging out in the space each time we were there, including for one dinner outside, and when filled with diners, the restaurant has a happening din. Service was efficient across the board. The rest of our meals, though, were less impressive than the atmosphere and staff.
A mustard-and-maple sauce mucked up an otherwise lovely piece of cedar-plank cooked salmon. A too-large heap of overly peppery, underdressed arugula tasted bland. A scoop of saffron-spiked couscous and the sauce, which tasted like bottled honey mustard, both felt woefully out-of-date. The salmon itself, cooked to a perfect mid-rare center, would have been delicious if served differently.
Gentile agreed that the sauce on the salmon is reminiscent of honey mustard but that the sweetness and spiciness from the sauce should balance next to the salmon's cedar flavors.
Another entree, a $25 pan-fried Costa Rican grouper, had deeper problems. The fish itself was off in terms of both texture and flavor, and I got lots of sinewy bites and chewy cartilage. I did like the simple but rich lobster gravy that had bits of seafood, a side of cooked oyster mushrooms and a pile of garlic mashed potatoes, though pan-roasted broccolini felt forgettable.
The grouper has been one of Plank's most popular dishes, Gentile said, and the restaurant has had problems getting enough of the fish to keep up with demand. Because of that, he said, quality has suffered.
I would temporarily remove that item, or make it with a different fish, rather than serve something questionable.
The seared diver scallops came out overcooked and more chewy than buttery. My husband liked the creamy, nutty farro and the braised kale with the dish, but some chunks of crispy braised bacon were too tough and stringy to cut.
We appreciated seeing alligator on the menu, though we'd have also appreciated a more creative preparation. The crispy fried alligator is just that, served on a bed of onion strings and topped with pepperoncini peppers and a small bowl of Creole mustard sauce for dipping.
“In Houston there is a huge gator movement,” Gentile said. “I wanted to introduce it, and though fried isn't the most adventurous, people respond to it.”
The nicely cooked, breaded shrimp in a po' boy sandwich was slightly overwhelmed by a big bun. Topped with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, the sandwich was straightforward and came with fries.
“I just feel like it's too clean,” my husband said. “It needs more spice. It needs to be dirtier.”
Gentile said he agrees on the bun, which is too large, and said it will be replaced in the coming weeks with a different one.
Prices at Plank are on the higher end. The catfish entree is $15; both the grouper and salmon are $25. Oysters ran about $12 for a half-dozen, depending on the day, and appetizers start at $9.
Gentile said there's a reason the prices are higher.
“Fresh seafood, especially oysters and some of the fish we're serving, they have a plane ticket,” he said. “They are shipping overnight from the coasts and being picked up here in the morning.”
Each oyster, he said, can cost the restaurant more than a dollar. Gentile said Plank is revising its menu, to be revamped in the coming weeks, and price is a consideration.
“We're not sacrificing quality,” he said, “but we are more price-conscious.”
Plank is still new, and that's clear. Gentile said Flagship is still working out the kinks.
I will go back to Plank. I'll sit below that giant boat sculpture, take in the people and enjoy the atmosphere. I'll eat my plate of fresh oysters — the best I'm likely to find in Omaha — at the busy bar, drink a glass of wine, and totally feel like I get it. Hopefully, in time, I'll feel the same way about the rest of the menu.
More about Plank
Plank, like Flagship's other restaurants, has an extensive happy hour that runs Monday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and all day Sunday, from noon to 8 p.m. Specials include $1 oysters, $4 and $6 drinks, $3 house wine and beer, and other seafood specials. We tried one of the restaurant's special lemonade-based drinks, “Two If by Vodka,” and liked the refreshing concoction.
Plank also has an impressive beer list that includes many large bottles designed for sharing, something rare at many Omaha restaurants. It includes a lot of respected breweries — North Coast, Lagunitas, Funkwerks and Rogue among them. My husband was especially impressed with big bottles of Funkwerks Saison along with Captain Sig's Northwestern Ale and Hazelnut Brown Nectar.
When it debuts its new dinner menu in a few weeks, Plank will also introduce a full gluten-free menu and a new lunch menu.
The new menu will also include locally produced walleye in a crispy walleye puttanesca, along with an alligator po' boy, baked lobster macaroni and cheese, a lobster wedge salad, smoked beef short ribs and grilled albacore sliders.
We tried one dessert at Plank, a delicious bananas foster bread pudding, a dessert created by chef Matt Moser. It tasted like banana bread and a cinnamon roll in one, and a salted caramel sauce pushed it over the top. Four small chunks of brulee-topped bananas made me change my mind about a fruit I don't always love.