What's Not to Like?

Innovative appetizers, hearty main dishes, lively and refreshing combinations highlight Thai Pepper menu

THAI PEPPER

631 N. 114th Street (east side)

402-445-9490

 

Hours:

Mon-Fri: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sat: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sun: closed

 

By Jim Delmont

 

Thai Pepper, a friendly little family-owned spot in Miracle Hills, offers tasty Thai fare as hot as you may like it (a star system for heat, from 1 to 5 stars, stopped at 2 for me - moderate heat - but can go all the way to 5, but be warned, 5 stars is described as “Thai hot, extremely hot.”  Hot is not the only flavor enhancer, as sweet, salty, and sour influences are standard in Thai food. The little six page menu runs the gamut from very interesting appetizers such as flower shells with avocado, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice, to standard noodle and rice dishes, to multiple curries, stir fry selections, and complete chicken, fish or salmon dinners. Desserts, $6 each, are lively, sweet, and original.

 

The room, with its red walls and a large picture of a golden Buddha, seems small but seats about 60. Table service is friendly and prompt and servers will gladly ask the chef questions about ingredients, if you are so inclined. Most seating is at tables, though there are a few window booths. A nice touch is the decoration of the ceiling with multi-colored wood and paper umbrellas.

 

Flavor and variety are the bywords here. Almost every dish seems interesting – the lettuce wraps ($10), in a serving for several diners, combine minced chicken, cilantro, onions, crispy noodles and ground peanuts with sriracha, a Thai hot sauce (like a chili sauce). Rolled into the crisp lettuce, it is a delightful flavor combination. Another appetizer favorite is called Golden Flowers ($7.50), delicate little pastry shells with a filling of avocado bits, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, jalapeno and lime juice. The avocado is a dominant flavor, given a sprightly boost by the lime, as in a Mexican dish. A really offbeat appetizer is the Golden Nests choice ($7.50), a julienne of sweet potatoes fried to a crisp in a spicy batter and served with a honey-chili sauce and ground peanuts. Also in batter are shrimp dipped in coconut batter, served with the same sauce ($9.00). A Thai standard, chicken satay on little bamboo skewers, are served with a peanut sauce and cucumber relish. There are also Thai spring and summer rolls and fried tofu.  This appetizer list has a lot of variety, subtlety and mixed flavors – culinary fun.

 

Everyone gets the house salad, a toss of shredded carrot, slaw, a few green onion slices and a few raisins with a refreshing, lively, honey-sweet chili sauce that provides a touch of heat.

 

There is a clutch of other salads: Thai salmon cake with avocado; Thai beef salad with charbroiled beef, cucumber, mint leaves and the citrus fragrance of kaffir lime leaves, a standard Thai ingredient; minced chicken salad; papaya salad; and sometimes a Thai tuna salad – all with oil-free dressing and all meal-size, ranging in price from $9 to $15. There are a couple of soups, too – hot and sour, and a very tasty chicken coconut soup ($6.50), a popular choice, which sports chicken nubs, tomatoes and zucchini in a lovely and lively coconut milk broth scented and flavored with kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and a secret ingredient: galangal, a Thai version of ginger which is more aggressive, herbal and spicy than ginger. This is a winner.

 

They have half a dozen curries, which are a bit light on curry powder, but have agreeable, varying combinations of bell peppers, zucchini, peas, basil, potatoes (in the yellow curry only), shallots, carrots and even pineapple – all with coconut milk, of course – and you choose chicken, shrimp, tofu, beef, mussels, or a vegetarian version (mostly $13 to $16, but mussel and shrimp comes in at $22).

 

The main dishes are in three sections; rice, noodle, and stir fry. The pepper steak stir fry (chicken also available) offers tenderized steak chunks, with crisp red and green peppers, small onion slabs, garlic, and a light soy sauce ($13). There are others, including a vegetarian version, but the lemongrass chicken and ginger chicken are both worth a try. Of four rice dishes, the Spicy Seafood Rice ($17) is engaging: shrimp, mussels, egg, onions, peas, carrots and tomatoes with rice. The noodle dishes are better, on average, with the Broccoli Noodle a special treat: a full meal of lean, thin beef slices, broad noodles, scrambled egg, carrots and broccoli in their own juices, but enlivened with just a dollop of oyster/soy sauce to blend. The chicken version is also delicious, and a dollar cheaper at $12. Shrimp and tofu versions are available, too. The Ba-Me noodle dish, a traditional one, is also lively: tender chicken nubs with crunchy shredded cabbage, crisp carrots, bean sprouts and ground peanuts in a honey-chili sauce. Also available with beef, tofu or shrimp ($12 for chicken). The Pad Thai noodle dish, best known of all of them to Americans, is unexceptional, but all the noodle dishes are interesting and filling.

 

There are four “house special” dinners ($16 to $18): ginger fish filet with vegetables; spicy curry fish with peppers; grilled salmon with spicy fried rice; and the “Chiangmai” dinner - named after a city in Thailand it offers grilled chicken with honey chili sauce and papaya salad with sticky rice. They do not have the famous Thai dinner offering, Larb (ground meat mashed with lime juice, cilantro, fish sauce, chilis and shallots). Maybe in the future?

 

The desserts (all $6) are terrific:  I loved the sticky sweet rice with a soft eggy custard and coconut milk. Others include sticky rice and ice cream; fried bananas and ice cream; sticky rice with mangoes; and a warm, moist mango cake with ice cream, the cake with a crunchy cinnamon topping and the ice cream topped with whipped cream and a cherry-  another choice that won’t disappoint.

 

Thai Pepper has both wine and beer, but beer generally is a better companion to spicy Asian food and the beer list is a good one, with cans and bottles at $5 or $6, including North Coast Red Seal Ale, with its caramel-amber tone and agreeably hoppy aftertaste with a passing mild bitterness. Other choices include the well named Lucky Buddha, Strongbow, Brickway, Lagunitas, Singha (a pale Thai lager), EOS Hefeweizen (Bavarian style and from Nebraska), Red Seal Ale, Stone IPA, and Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (Belgian style). For those who prefer wine, there are a handful of choices, glass or bottle (most bottles $30 or less).

 

So, with this carnival of beer choices, diverse and innovative appetizers, hearty main dishes, lively and refreshing combinations of sauces and flavorings, delicious desserts, and very friendly table service, what’s not to like about Thai Pepper? I don’t know how they would do if slammed, but servers have been especially prompt and caring on all of my visits.

Popular Chef Returns

Brushi opens in Linden Hills Shopping Center

BRUSHI

Linden Hills Shopping Center,

132nd and West Dodge Road

402-884-6878; info@brushiomaha.com

Lunch 11-2; dinner 5-10 p.m.

Closed Sunday and Monday

 

By Jim Delmont

 

Chef/owner Paul Braunschweiler, the Swiss-trained master chef, is back at his original location in Linden Hills shopping center – originally Spanna in the early ‘90s, it is now Brushi (Paul’s nickname in his youth). After many good years at Spanna, Braunschweiler moved to larger quarters at Prima 140, near West Center Road, and brought his menu with him. In late 2010, he closed Prima and plied his trade in California for a while. Now back in his original Spanna location, he offers some of the same dishes that won him a loyal following years ago in Omaha.

 

Paul’s method includes 12-hour work days, perfectionism in preparation and plate presentation, and seeing that the discreet elements of any dish are individually respected, so that freshness and clarity of taste is the norm. His saucing is always deft, light, but assertive, as in a recent sampling of his Shrimp Papardelli ($18), in which tangy tomato, garlic, and the sharp, briny taste of Kalamata olives merge in a delicious broth with the pasta ribbons and crisp fresh shrimp ( a bit of kale adds a rough textural element). Another shrimp dish, the garlic shrimp appetizer ($12) makes a flavor statement, too: a piquant, yolky lemon garlic sauce flecked with tomato bits is perfectly blended, a complement to the shrimp, which are arranged next to a stack of fingerling potatoes – twiggy and crisp - soaking up the sauce if you allow it. The artful plate presentation may fool you into thinking portions are small, but they are not, as the large three-piece veal special proved on a recent visit. You will not leave this restaurant hungry (with or without the rich desserts).

 

The Brushi menu has remained steady for some time – with 11 appetizers and 15 entrees, but there are lots of specials in all categories: soups, appetizers, and especially, entrees and desserts. The regular menu has many delights, reasonably priced (and prices have risen only slightly in recent years, as Braunschweiler remains loyal to his regulars). In this respect, Brushi is like Taxi’s, both in the same general neighborhood of northwest Omaha. The gnocchi entrée ($14)  has been on the menu since the beginning at Spanna: soft, nublike nuggets made with a potato-egg-Parmesan cheese mixture, with nutmeg and butter, now served with baby peas, Shitake mushrooms, carrot and tomato bits. Paul is something of an alchmest with sauces – gnocchi used to come with a cream sauce. One of his best sauces is the wild mushroom sauce, versions of which have been on the menu for a long time; other sauces created over the years have included white clam sauce, stone-ground mustard sauce, lemon/clam broth with sweet basil, juniper berry sauce, pine nut garlic sauce, a red wine herb sauce with lemon zest, and a roasted jalapeno Chile dressing (with crab cakes). The current version of crab cakes ($14) comes with a roasted red pepper salsa, with Spanish rice, the cakes thick, with a heady crab flavor.

 

Some great dishes have disappeared: the Burgundy snail stew, the superb mixed grill, the Kansas City veal stew – terrific, the alligator won tons. Some have survived the years: the Onion Soup Normandy, with rosemary and gruyere cheese; lemongrass soup with coconut, ginger, and shrimp triangoli pasta; the butternut squash soup; the wonderful entrée, Whiskey Chicken ($16), in its own juices – a broth made from marrow and reduced stock, with mashed potatoes and el dente vegetables (all vegetables here are crisp and just brushed with butter); the beautifully seasoned paella ($18), one of the best entrees: bay shrimp, salmon and grilled chicken with saffron rice, Spanish olives, cauliflower, enlivened by basil, cilantro, salt and pepper, a sea-salty treat; the braised beef short-ribs, more of a cold weather dish, but delectable any time - tender beef in a Pinot Noir reduction demi-glace, with creamy polenta and al dente veggies ($18); seared sea scallops, always good; and even a $12 hamburger. 

 

Specials abound. On a recent Saturday night (the place packed by 6:30), extra offerings included broiled Canadian duck breast with demi-glace and polenta ($27), breaded veal cutlets with a lemon caper sauce ($23) and grilled red snapper with a hazelnut cream sauce and capers ($26). Paul has always done excellent veal dishes, at times having as many as three offerings. The veal special had three good-sized cutlets, lightly breaded, in a subtle brown sauce, touched with lemon and capers, very tender, and served with a swirl of whipped potatoes accented with two strategically placed homemade potato chips.

 

The red snapper was just as good – artfully presented on the plate in three sections with small sliced potatoes, crisp broccoflower, sliced Brussel sprouts, snap peas, sliced orange pepper, thin green beans, and crunchy hazelnuts - the sauce a clear, potent caper lemon conconction. The medallion-like snapper servings were crisp with grill lines on the outside, tender and flaky inside.

 

Another big winner was a soup special, broccoli with cheddar cheese – again subtle but with an assertive vegetable flavor.

 

Blackened grouper, pork flatiron steak, lamb chops, mahi mahi, sea bass, and Ahi tuna are likely to show up as specials, too.

 

Dessert specials included a rarely offered fruit tartlet and Pauls’ always amazing bread pudding: a soft bread-custard pudding with imbedded fruit (golden raisins, pear bits – maybe something else), topped with a vanilla bean ice cream scoop and raspberries or strawberries – a delicate melding of flavors in a dense, rich offering that can be shared if you are counting calories. The regular desserts on the menu were down to three: chocolate mousse cake, banana split, citrus panna cotta ($6 to $8 each).

 

Wines are mostly from California, but with some imports: 20 whites, most in the $30 per bottle range, and 23 reds. Beers include a decent sampling of craft, imports and domestic. A light, sprightly Warsteiner was a good match for many of the dishes.

 

Brushi is a European-American bistro and lives up to its name: Euro sauces and discipline from Pauls’ strict training in Switzerland, combined with American nouvelle cuisine in an attractive two-room bistro with a bar up front, lots of banquette seating in a handsome interior in shades of salmon. It is relaxed, informal, affordable – and popular. Reservations are essential on weekends. This is one of Omaha’s best restaurants and the prices would be much higher for this level of cuisine in Kansas City, Denver or Minneapolis.  

Jim Delmont was the restaurant critic for the Omaha World-Herald from 1990-99, and for City Weekly from 2004-2010. Jim also reviewed restaurants in New Orleans and Minneapolis. His book, “Midlands Restaurant Reviews,” was published in 1993, and he was a voting regional restaurant judge for the James Beard Society for 17 years.

Authentic Northern Italian

Avoli Osteria in Dundee offers a pleasant place to dine

Avoli Osteria

5013 Underwood Avenue, Omaha

402-933-7400

info@avoliosteria.com

Open at 5 p.m. daily; closed Monday

 

 

By Jim Delmont

 

Avoli is Dario Schicke’s second Dundee area restaurant, just a block or so from his French-accented Dario’s Brasserie. Avoli is an attractive, intimate, rustic Northern Italian restaurant in the vicinity of 50th and Underwood. It opened in 2010, the year Dario was a semi-finalist for best Chef Midwest in the James Beard competition. The restaurant’s name combines the names of Dario’s two daughters, Ava and Olivia. Mom, Amy, is from Kearney and met her chef husband in Munich. They married, moved to New York City and landed in Omaha in 2001, where Dario, originally from Bosnia, worked at the French Café, and – notably – at the Market Basket, where he developed a European evening menu and a range of delicious Belgian beer offerings. In 2006 he opened his Brasserie.

 

Avoli has an L-shaped room, with bar area fronting the street, and the longer side of the L a dining area, with tables, a banquette, and an eclectic collection of nine chandeliers – gilded, cut glass and others in a merry mix – strung across the ceiling. The room has stone and wood accents and is a cozy place. A second dining area is in the rear of the building, with an additional party room behind French doors.

 

The menu is refreshingly limited: a handful of appetizers, a pasta course that includes but five pastas plus risotto and gnocchi, and a second course (“Secundi”) with only five options, including two steaks. The less a restaurant offers, in general, the better the offerings are. This is especially true in a labor-intensive place like Avoli, where almost everything is made from scratch, including the pastas. Judging from online reviews, the appetizers change regularly as do some of the entrees. The menu is a la carte and suffers from the drawback of all a la carte menus – the bill can rise as each item is added on, sides also having a price. A full three course dinner with dessert could easily climb to $60 or $70 with a beverage. Avoli gets around that by offering $20 three-course specials on Tuesday and Sunday nights, a real bargain. Serving sizes are the same as on the regular menu and selection is excellent. For example, in a special, you can opt for one of the two best known pastas – Spaghetti Carbonara or Bolognese Bianco – or a simple Penne Pomodoro. Appetizers, or “antipasti” as they are identified here (“before pasta”), offer a choice from among three of the nine on the regular menu: butter lettuce salad (a good choice), soup of the day, or bruschetta (daily changing toppings on grilled ciabatta bread). Finally, for your $20, you get a choice of gelatos, from a list of eight. These are scoops about the size of a boiled egg and the varying flavors are all wonderful. If you opt for a $20 special, you can add a side or an extra appetizer and still walk away with a bargain.

 

Avoli has a lot of Italian wines: 18 whites and reds by the glass (most in the $8 to $11 range) and 10 whites and 21 reds by the bottle ($35 to $57 for most, but a handful above that). Best of all, is a “Vino da Tavola” (“table wines”) page on which all bottles are $30 ($20 on Tuesdays, an additional incentive to dine that day of the week). The bar does the usual things, including some fancy cocktails, and a brief beer list of six offerings was described as “on tap” – but my Zipline Copper Alt (brewed in Lincoln, though there is also a location in Omaha) came in a can, poured at the table into a fascinating globe-like glass, like a brandy snifter. I have no argument with the can, as it was a delicious beer, heavier than an amber – a cross between ale and lager - but nothing as dense as a stout, though there is just a hint of chocolate (a hint only) in the flavor (caramel, too). Other beers include a German Oktoberfest, an Italian lager (Peroni), a Zipline IPA and two Belgians.

 

The house bread is fine - and free – but you can opt for rosemary focaccia or the bruschetta of the day at a small price. Loving bibb lettuce, I went for the “buttery lettuce salad” (bibb, buttery and Boston lettuces are virtually identical in taste and texture). It was anointed with a sharp vinaigrette made with buttermilk (but not milky), and with sun-dried tomato and prosciutto bits, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Another appetizer, the $13 meatball plate, had three meatballs perched on a thick slab of grilled focaccia bread, topped with a fried egg! Ingredients were a mix of ¼ mortadella (spice-scented smoked sausage), ½ pork shoulder and ¼ prosciutto (Italian ham). These were tasty and one of them made a nice addition to the meatless Penne Pomadoro.

 

The soup of the day ($7) was potato – heavy but silky, too – scattered with lively bacon bits so crisp and salty they had to be Guanciali (pork cheeks) and they were – cured and smoked in house. Other appetizer choices include Burrata (a creamy buffalo-milk cheese) with peas and ham; a beet salad, a chicken Romaine Caesar salad, and grilled octopus. There are also sides, including polenta, that could stand as appetizers.

 

Chefs here make all their own pastas – with imported Italian flour. The main dish pastas arrived in three different sizes for our party of three: the simplest, penne with tomato sauce, was very large; the Bolognese Bianco was medium, and – disappointingly – the spaghetti carbonara was definitely small. Yet the prices were about the same: $15, $18, $15. The penne had a plain tomato sauce, probably from fresh tomatoes, but it needed some zip, some kick – from something. Pastas here are al dente (“to the tooth”), so are likely to be chewy. This worked fine for the Bolognese rigatoni, but the Pomodoro penne were a tad too chewy. For $5 more you can order sausage with it, but we had a meatball left over, as noted. We did order a blanket of mozzarella for $5 extra, and that added some flavor to the dish.

 

The Bolognese Bianco (white) was the best of the three: a hearty pork and veal ragu with pasta – meaty and earthy – a rich concoction of simple meat sauce (no tomatoes) and rigatoni that would satisfy just about any appetite. A topping of hazelnuts and pecorino/Romano cheese made for a nice finish. The larger rigatoni tubes were agreeably chewy.

 

The spaghetti carbonara had some disappointing aspects, though the flavor was delicate, kicked up some by the bacon flavor– bright gleams of Guanciali again. This well known dish is made with pasta, eggs, bacon and cheese - and the pasta is usually spaghetti or linguine. This version had a slimmer pasta than spaghetti, despite the name Spaghetti Carbonara. It was probably vermicelli, as it seemed thinner than even thin spaghetti. The sauce also was thicker than you’d expect, more like a cream sauce. The result was a small, soggy heap, the limp noodles drowned in the sauce (however good the sauce tasted). The menu said that “egg emulsion” was involved. Emulsion is a forced combo of two liquids that normally don’t combine easily (like oil and vinegar). Only egg emulsion and pecorino/Romano cheese are mentioned on the menu, so I don’t know what the emulsion consisted of, unless the cheese was melted in some way. This dish needed a sturdier pasta, a larger serving, and a lighter, less creamy sauce.

 

Nothing negative can be said of the gelatos, which change somewhat day to day. The vanilla bean had the purest vanilla flavor, the mocha a lively coffee tang, the Nutella a touch of the famous hazelnut spread.

 

The menu is divided into traditional Italian portions: Antpasti, Pasta, Secundi (the more expensive meat/fish courses). A suggestion: to encourage customers to order from the third section of the menu (salmon, steaks, chicken, grilled meats) add a two-tier price to the pasta section, as many restaurants do these days. A small portion might be $10 or $12 instead of $15 or $18. Then a smaller pasta would be almost like a second appetizer, or might take the place of an appetizer.

 

Overall, Avoli is a pleasant place to dine – warm, rustic in design touches, with a labor-intensive authenticity in the cooking, excellent table service (in our case from Jake, a waiter well versed in all the offerings),  with a varied and extensive Italian wine list. It is well worth a visit in the growing restaurant neighborhood in Dundee.

 Jim Delmont was the restaurant critic for the Omaha World-Herald from 1990-99, and for City Weekly from 2004-2010. Jim also reviewed restaurants in New Orleans and Minneapolis. His book, “Midlands Restaurant Reviews,” was published in 1993, and he was a voting regional restaurant judge for the James Beard Society for 17 years.