On a recent Saturday night at Spencer's for Steaks and Chops, my date smiled, lowered his chin and shook his head.
He'd just sampled the lobster with blood oranges and white asparagus, the second course of the ethereal three-course dinner I'd ordered. He'd opted for steak and potatoes.
“Wow,” he said. “I think I made a mistake.”
I wouldn't go that far. The prix fixe was extraordinary (scallops, lobster and Wagyu) and, at $35, a better value.
But these days, there's nothing regrettable at Spencer's.
You still can get a ginormous steak at the 2-year-old dinner and drink spot inside the downtown Hilton Garden Inn, and you can still spend a pretty penny for it. But there's a wider array of dishes, portion sizes and price points on the menu now — and one of the city's best rising chefs in the kitchen.
Executive chef Clayton Chapman, the Omaha-born culinary talent who left V. Mertz in 2008, introduced a new menu at Spencer's last fall. He added more locally sourced ingredients, found clever riffs within the steakhouse milieu and launched what's arguably the best Friday and Saturday night prix fixe in town.
Two recent visits reminded me of Chapman's enviable skill and remarkable signature: a quiet perfection of flavor that resonates in even the most basic dishes.
The complimentary bread now comes from Orsi's, a fresh flour-dusted half loaf with the Omaha bakery's signature twisted sag in the middle.
And the house salad, which accompanies the otherwise a la carte steaks and chops, is now a mix of romaine and other greens with ribbons of carrot, paper-thin slices of Granny Smith apple, crisp candied walnuts, bits of soft Brie and a wonderfully balanced Champagne vinaigrette.
Care and skill show in other accompaniments, like the butter served with the hot crab and shrimp cakes. Infused with shrimp stock, paprika, cayenne, brown sugar and honey, it had a fluttering kiss of heat. It worked wonders as it melted into the citrus-and-tarragon-spiked cakes and the lovely blanched and grilled scallions beneath them.
Steaks and chops are a rare trinity of quality ingredients, precise cooking and unparalleled seasoning.
A filet mignon we tried had a great outer crust, a tender red middle and an explosive and addictive flavor throughout that made me wonder if it had been injected with something.
Asked later, the chef said he brushes the filets with butter and sea salt and allows them to rest after a blast under the 1,600-degree infrared broiler. He credited the rich flavor to western Nebraska farmers who raise the beef and the 21-day dry aging of the meat.
The Iowa Farm Families pork chop I had was a similar hunk of heaven: a thick double-bone fella with a terrific sear, a juicy middle and just enough salt to make it sing.
With it came a small square cup of dried cherry and caramelized onion marmalade. Its evenly matched sweet-tart and sweet-savory flavors each so very concentrated struck foreign and familiar chords in my brain. And it complemented both the pork and the Chateau Beauchêne we were drinking, a grenache-syrah blend that began with smoke and ended with a mouthful of cherries.
As good as those dishes were, the best ones I tasted came from the Saturday night prix fixe.
The delicate first course involved prettily seared day boat scallops, a smooth mango puree, thick sautéed mango batons, paper-thin slices of mild radish and exquisitely seasoned baby bok choy. Bridging bitterness with sweetness, it made the most of this winter's lovely mangoes and also hinted of spring.
The course that elicited my date's envy involved a thick curl of butter-poached Maine lobster tail, removed from its shell and poised in a pool of white asparagus puree and foam.
Resting in a giant bowl that wafted a sunny aroma, that snowdrift of white was daubed with tomato confit, the segments and candied zest of a blood orange, wilted arugula and sautéed white asparagus tips. A sweet, fruity mash of puréed blood orange juice and pith nestled at the murky bottom.
The lobster was succulent, the candied zest inspired. And something in the combination of white asparagus and citrus reminded me of sweet garden peas, a burst of green flavor lurking in that wintry-looking bowl.
Though the chef told me later that he often offers a dessert as part of his weekly prix fixe, my third course was not sweet. I wouldn't have traded it for anything.
The thick slab of tender Wagyu beef (from Majinola Meats in Panama, Iowa) was seared, sliced and fanned atop soft finger-long logs of sweet potato gnocchi. With it: a few green leaves, a few tart raspberry halves and a bit of raspberry purée. A server poured a hot green potato-leek-romaine soup around the orange and magenta concoction, unleashing an earthy whiff of white truffle.
The combination tasted as lovely as it initially sounded strange. The raspberry purée skewed tart and savory. And, with the fruit's seeds and a few crushed grains of paradise (a black pepper-like spice), it was more like a whole-grain mustard in flavor and feel. The little leaves looked like Brussels sprouts but were actually small circles cut from crunchy romaine lettuce another comment on spring and winter, I gather. And the soup, a version of which recently won the top prize at the Visiting Nurse Association's Art & Soup contest, heightened the earthy flavor of the beef while adding a creamy contrast to its delectable chew.
We ran out of time for dessert that night, but I got my fill another evening, making a small dent in a huge slice of what I later learned was a 12-pound apple pie. Kudos to Derrick Smith, the line cook and jack-of-all-trades who baked it. The wedge we got had a pretty lattice-topped crust that was light, flaky and muffin-tender. Thinly sliced Granny Smith apples tossed with brown sugar, raisins and butter and stacked at least three inches high retained a bit of their toothsome texture. So did the pecans in the accompanying ice cream.
The Naughty Cake was as rich as its name implied: a dense wedge of flourless chocolate cake that fell in on itself and melded with a fudgy sauce at the touch of a fork.
Quibbles were few: A sharable French press coffee wasn't quite hot enough. The Loaded Hash Browns were too heavily laden with white cheddar for me. A dish of fresh spinach and oven-roasted tomatoes in tomato-citrus cream sauce was the opposite: too light. And it was a bit awkward to cut meat at the bottom of those giant bowls.
Aside from one unfortunate trombone solo, the background music was mostly mellow jazz. And I enjoyed the handsome dining room: mahogany and flagstone, comfortable red U-shaped booths, white tablecloths and wine bottles tucked in the high nooks where, were it a lodge, you might expect antlers and wildlife paintings.
Service was professional from coat check to bill, though a tad too leisurely at the start. And there were several thoughtful touches, like the sample of lobster that appeared (unbidden) before my date between his salad and steak, so we'd each have a second course.
When Spencer's first opened in 2008, seasoning lapses and a staid menu made it seem just another pricey option in a field of steakhouses. No more.
This Spencer's is a standout -- not just in Omaha, and not just for steaks and chops.
Contact the writer: