Multi-tasking is a way of life for John Ursick, executive chef and partner at Stokes Grill & Bar.
The Omaha native and Creighton University graduate has been with Stokes since it opened about 15 years ago in Miracle Hills Square. He's been a driving force behind its Southwestern menu. Stokes opened a second location in the Old Market four years ago and that's where you can usually find Ursick, 46.
We caught up with him while he was making dessert for a special party at the restaurant. There were tart shells in the oven and he was whipping up a zabaglione — an Italian custard — for the filling. We chatted while he whisked a bowl of egg yolks over simmering water.
Q. What's going on at Stokes?
A. The most exciting thing about this year is that we opened the party room and that has created an opportunity to cook some different dishes. Catering professional Avesta Saaty has been great about booking new parties for us.
We took over the space previously occupied by City Limits; they moved down the street. We knocked down the walls, made it into two banquet rooms and wired it with audio visual equipment for presentations.
It's (the menu) very different from what we typically serve with our Southwestern. It's kind of cross-cultural. We've been doing osso buco, short ribs, bacon-wrapped dates, bacon-wrapped chicken livers, hummus. Hummus has been very popular. We have a hummus platter with three kinds: a white bean with sun dried tomatoes and rosemary; a black bean with jalapeno cilantro and lime juice; and a traditional.
Q. Why party rooms?
A. We had so many calls for parties, rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions we thought we could really use a party room. It came together really quick. We opened June 1 so we had people in there for the College World Series, meetings and other events.
We've had a number of couples who had their first date here and they have their rehearsal dinner here.
Q. So people don't order from the menu for special parties?
A. Sometimes they do and sometimes they use the menu as a springboard. One party had Sharon's chicken enchiladas (a big-seller on the menu) and filet mignon (not on the menu).
The enchiladas are named after my mother. She made these when I was growing up, with poblano-cumin sauce. We drizzle a little poblano-cilantro-sour cream across the top and serve them with our frijoles charros — "cowboy beans."
Q. Has your philosophy of cooking changed over the years?
A. My cooking has evolved from the mid '80s. It's lightened up and it's gotten more local. We try to highlight the ingredients and let the food speak for itself.
I worked for some French, Greek and German chefs early in my career. It was all about the sauce and making composed dishes.
Now people want fresher, local, organic. I've changed, too. I have run six half marathons and participated in the first Omaha triathlon two summers ago. My wife and I ran in an adventure race at UNO earlier this month. We try to stay healthy and that's reflected in my cooking.
Q. Does that mean less cheese and less sour cream?
A. Sharon's enchiladas, with cheese and sour cream, is something I eat to reward myself. I can't eat it everyday. Sometimes I have the black bean soup which is completely vegan. I'll eat the food off the grill; the tacos carbon is a wonderful skirt-steak entree.
Q. What are some other items that are lower in fat and calories?
A. Our wood-grilled chicken. The portobello tostada. The fish tacos with tilapia. In fact the fish tacos are one of our most popular items. It runs neck-and-neck with Sharon's enchiladas.
Q. What are some of the more indulgent menu items?
A. Sharon's enchiladas. Johnny's Big Plate (chicken and cheese enchiladas with white sauce and poblano sauce). Los Alamos Pasta (chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms in sherry cream sauce).
Q. Are there any changes on the horizon?
A. We're getting ready to do a major overhaul of the menu at both locations. We're finding people are dining differently at the downtown and Miracle Hills locations.
We're looking at an update for the decor of the original Stokes. We're really going to take care of our first restaurant. We're very excited. We're very honored that we still have some of the same customers who were there on the first day.
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