At a moment when most of Omaha's high-end restaurants are staffed with the young and serving the innovative, there's something comforting in knowing at least one old-school bastion of rich, expensive fancy food remains.
Though I might argue with the idea of encasing a tender, buttery scallop inside a case of breading, I liked how it tasted.
The splash of Coke as one ingredient in a whiskey cocktail might have raised my eyebrow in this era of hand-crafted drinks, but I found a sip agreeable.
And I didn't turn away a bite of one of the most politically incorrect of meats — veal — nor a taste of the upgraded potato salad snugly nestled on the same plate.
There's one place in Omaha where all of this is alive and well: the Flatiron Cafe. And while it might not be modern, it sure is enjoyable.
Upon entering, a man takes your coat at the door and hangs it on a rack between red fox furs and long black wool.
He escorts you to your white-shrouded table, sparkling with silverware, and pulls out a heavy wooden chair for you. He hands you a giant menu and smiles.
And this dance isn't just for the food critic. He does it for every woman in the restaurant, because that's the kind of place the Flatiron Cafe is. (For the record, this debonair man's name is Lance Temple, and he's been at the Flatiron for 12 years.)
The restaurant looks like romance. The lights are dim, candles flicker and the big windows glint with the light of passing cars. Next to V. Mertz, it is one of the city's most charismatic eateries.
At the Flatiron, the bread is warm and the butter soft. The cocktails — an Old Fashioned and a Bourbon Smooth, topped with that splash of Coke — are stiff and tasty. There's no ice spheres or wacky drink names; there's mostly just booze. There's also lots of wine. I enjoyed a by-the-glass Argentinian Cabernet.
The menu is rich with caviar and lobster. There's veal and beef and duck. There's truffle, of course, and lots of cheese.
None of this — not the service or atmosphere or old-school menu — is by accident.
“It's not that we don't want to be cutting-edge,” said owner Kathleen Jamrozy. “I love what's happening in the Omaha restaurant scene. But that isn't our food. There is a place for that, but we are not that place.”
Jamrozy said after veteran chef Jennifer Coco left to open her own restaurant in 2011, the Flatiron's menu changed, and its regulars weren't thrilled. Now, she's hired chef Rob Hill, an alumnus of the now-closed French Cafe. He's created a sort of “greatest hits” list of the restaurant's most beloved dishes along with some of his own creations.
“This is how the public wants us,” Jamrozy said.
For the most part, I agree with the public: There is much buttery goodness to be had at Flatiron, and only a few dishes felt more dated than classic.
A bowl of French onion soup tasted familiar to me for a reason: It's the same soup that was served at the French Cafe. Jamrozy said as soon as the other restaurant closed, she added it to the Flatiron's menu. It's a beefy, salty, caloric bowl topped with a soaked round of bread and copious amounts of cheese. It's worth the splurge.
A scallop appetizer included three large rounds encased in a thin crust of potato breading and served with a choron sauce, a tomato variation on the classic Bearnaise, and hackleback caviar. I would have liked the scallops better without the crust. They were huge, buttery and perfectly cooked, just crispy.
My baked dish, a gratin of sliced shiitake mushrooms, blue crab, garlic butter and Havarti, was tasty but too dry to be spread on the bread, yet it didn't taste quite right without the bread. Plus it was cumbersome to eat.
Servers whisked away used plates, swept away crumbs, replaced used cutlery throughout our meals. Our waters got refilled after almost every sip. Questions were almost answered before we asked.
Nearly all the entrťes were hits. A tender veal rack chop served with buttery Brussels sprouts and a warm bacon jalapeŮo potato salad brought no complaints. A big hunk of tender poached lobster sat atop creamy risotto made with truffle oil and crab meat. It was as decadent as it sounds.
And even the lowly chicken got the over-the-top treatment, with an almost cream cheese-like filling, sweet corn and white pepper sauce. A fried polenta cake on the side read a touch bland to me in spite of its herby appearance.
The orange-glazed duck, the clunker of the group, disappointed with its too-sweet glaze. It was basically straight orange marmalade. It was a pity, too, because duck is one of my favorite proteins, and this one sans-skin was savory, juicy and not greasy, like duck can be. A side of vegetable won tons tasted prepackaged and sat on top of a sticky pile of jasmine rice.
Jamrozy said the duck remains as it is on the menu because it's a traditional customer favorite.
The chicken on the menu is local, from Plum Creek Farms in Burchard. Jamrozy said many of the other ingredients are also local, including greens from Squeaky Green Organics in Omaha, organic coffee roasted locally and trout from Blue Valley Aquaculture in Sutton. Eventually, she'd like to buy duck locally, too.
It's worth noting that the carrot cake on the dessert tray is not just a family recipe, it's one that Jamrozy makes herself for the restaurant. It's spiked with pineapple with an extra moist crumb between layers of cream cheese frosting, and we enjoyed every bite.
Don't go to the Flatiron looking for innovation. There's other high-end Omaha restaurants where you can find cutting-edge cuisine.
The Flatiron isn't fussy or for new-school foodies. It's unapologetically rich — there's nothing to cut the cream.
Sometimes, no twist turns out to be the most unexpected twist of all.
* * * * *
THE FLATIRON CAFE
Where: 1722 St. Marys Ave.
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Hit: The poached lobster with crab meat and truffle oil risotto is as decadent as it sounds.
Miss: The too-sweet orange glaze on an otherwise tender roast duck was more dated than classic.
Drinks: Vast wine list, smaller list of house cocktails
Price: Expensive, with most entrťes in the $30 range.
Service: Top-notch, white tablecloth staff.
Noise: Lively on weekend nights, but still intimate enough to have a conversation.