Taxi's Grille & Bar surprised me, though it probably shouldn't have.
The owner of the restaurant that's tucked in a west Omaha strip mall is a veritable legend on the city's dining scene. And as soon as we walked into the packed dining room at 7 o'clock on a Saturday night, I knew something here must be right.
During two recent visits, one lunch and one dinner, I found a menu that offered a tasty, updated take on classic comfort food.
Owner Malcolm "Mac" Thompson has been in the business for more than 30 years, and you might recognize the names of his past projects: the Neon Goose, YOYO Grille, Category One and Kitchen Gourmet. This guy clearly knows his stuff.
Taxi's was warm and inviting on a windy and cold evening, and, with a few other couples, my husband and I waited at the bar for about 20 minutes before we were seated. House wines priced right — $5.95 a glass — pleasantly surprised. Taxi's also makes martinis with infused pineapple vodka, and a vat of marinating slices of fruit in a giant clear decanter made an eye-catching bar decoration.
The lighting is dim and the seating is a mix of tables and banquettes. It's cozy, and though I can't say I was a huge fan of the French-inspired artwork and gray wall treatments, the lively vibe at the restaurant made up for it.
We started with what Thompson told me in an interview later is one of the restaurant's most popular appetizers: the Dijon shrimp, a holdover from the Neon Goose menu.
Shrimp is sautéed in butter spiked with Dijon mustard, then placed in individual slots in a small casserole dish, topped with Havarti cheese and baked until the top gets melted with crispy edges. It reminded me of a similar dish at M's Pub that's one of my favorites.
The shrimp was mild and garlicky. My favorite part may have been dipping pieces of white crusty bread into the flavorful oil and melty cheese after the shrimp was gone.
My husband decided to try the pot roast and I went with walleye, one of the evening's seafood specials.
Cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, the pot roast is paired with a pile of mashed potatoes and a rich, brown gravy. It's traditional, but it's also serious home cooking and bursting with flavor. My husband nearly licked his plate clean.
Thompson told me the pot roast isn't called Aunt Kay's Pot Roast on the menu for nothing: It's actually his aunt's recipe. She lives in Florida.
"We'd go visit, and I would always think 'This would be so good on our menu,'" he said.
It's simple to cook, and the straightforward classic is especially popular in the winter months.
Seafood has always been one of Thompson's specialties, and Taxi's is no exception. That's why I ordered the walleye. It didn't disappoint.
Walleye is tender by nature, and the light crumb breading on the three pieces I got was just right: I could taste it, but I could also taste the gentle flavor of the nicely cooked, flaky white fish.
The small filets came dusted with slivered almonds and sitting on a bed of fluffy rice.
Thompson said Taxi's does well with its fresh seafood specials, and he usually aims to offer two or three varieties on any given night.
Both our entrees came with a side of vegetables — broccoli florets and carrots and zucchini cut into matchsticks cooked al dente.
While we waited for dessert, I noticed that many of the diners appeared to know their server. Thompson also worked the floor that evening, bringing out drinks and talking to patrons. The restaurant feels like an upscale version of a friendly neighborhood cafe.
Our vanilla crème brûlée had a super-creamy center with deep vanilla flavor and a perfectly charred, crispy top. Good stuff.
I met my mom for lunch on a weekday afternoon, and the restaurant was more than half full of ladies-who-lunch types and business-casual-clad workers.
We sat in a banquette near the back of the restaurant. This day, our service was slower, though there weren't as many customers as during dinner the week before. Our waitress apologized a number of times for the delays.
Nonetheless, my salmon shrimp burger with a side of mashed potatoes came piping hot, so I can't complain too loudly.
The burger wasn't what I expected — it more resembled a crab cake than it did the fish burgers I'd had elsewhere. But I liked the patty, made mostly of pink salmon dotted with visible white pieces of shrimp and prettily colored all the way through with green cilantro and red pepper bits.
The sauce that came with the burger, a shallot cilantro cream, was an updated take on tartar sauce that I used liberally.
My gluten-free mom ordered one of her favorites, the strawberry chicken salad.
The sizable plate came full of fresh greens topped liberally with moist chunks of grilled chicken, sliced mandarin oranges, thin pieces of strawberry and tasty sweet and spicy pecans. The dressing, cilantro lime vinaigrette, was both herby and tangy but not too sweet.
The salad is liberally covered with toppings, and my mom liked that. She never ran out of "the good stuff," she said. And she said she liked that the mix wasn't too heavy on frisee lettuce, which can become bitter and overpowering.
The food we had at lunch was solid. Thompson said the restaurant caters to a sophisticated lunch crowd with items such as quiche, chicken wraps and the Egyptian chicken salad, another Neon Goose favorite.
But dinner was when the restaurant really wowed me. In fact, it blew away any expectations I had going in. Great service, well-priced wine, creative, delicious seafood and comfort classics meant that I'd be back soon.
And I imagine that many of the people who filled the place last weekend will, too, because Taxi's offers the type of good food and solid service that keeps diners coming back for more.
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