V. Mertz is not what you remember.
It still has a magnetic, romantic atmosphere unlike any other restaurant in Omaha. It still has an exquisite wine program.
But it's not as formal or as stuffy as you might recall. And, during two recent visits, it wasn't as expensive.
That's because in the year that Matthew Brown has been in charge of the dining room and Jon Seymour has been in the kitchen, things at this Omaha landmark have been changing.
It's a delicate process, updating a place that's been known as the city's fanciest and most expensive restaurant for nearly 35 years. Seymour and Brown, with support from owner David Hayes, have tiptoed into it.
Their changes are subtle but striking. They don't turn off regulars, but they do turn on a whole era of new diners.
I'm a convert to this incarnation of V. Mertz. The good parts are there and the new parts are better than what was before.
Service remains immaculate, but it's also friendly. The food, delicious, is also creative, seasonal and, dare I say, playful.
The traditional menu with caviar service and pepper steak remains. But on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, diners can eat from a prix fixe menu that includes three courses: an appetizer, an entree and a dessert for $35. Add $15 to have Brown, a certified sommelier, pair each with wine. For the experience, it's a steal.
V. Mertz veterans still fill seats. But so do younger people dipping their toes into what Seymour describes as a more contemporary take on fine dining.
“We're not changing just to change,” he said. “We're changing to make it better.”
Both Brown and Seymour told me in an interview after my two visits that they don't want to stagnate. They don't want to become obsolete among Omaha's ever-growing list of young, forward-thinking chefs who create interesting food and lots of buzz. An article this week in the Chicago Tribune about dining in our fair city mentioned nearly all the restaurants I've reviewed and enjoyed during the past year. The story mentioned V. Mertz, but in the category of “steaky” restaurants. I'd challenge that designation, especially now.
Both men started their careers at V. Mertz. Seymour, who in 2011 studied under René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark — voted the best restaurant in the world — returned about a year ago. Brown came back to Omaha about the same time after a long period managing Lincoln's Blue Orchid restaurant. Both said they understand what worked and what didn't under past owners and managers, and made changes based on that.
The prix fixe menu is one of those changes. The menu rotates regularly depending on what's in season and what's in the kitchen, and it's highly unlikely it will remain constant between visits. It's also not “steaky” in the least.
When I visited earlier this summer, on my own time, I found seasonal summer food on the prix fixe menu: spring pea soup garnished with horseradish, onion brulee and salt-cured garlic; chickpea gnocchi with kale, pork rillettes, heirloom tomatoes and onion ragout; yogurt panna cotta with summer berries, oat crumbles, white chocolate and purslane, which is a tart, edible succulent.
The menu listed lots of local producers, something Seymour is passionate about.
The dinner was so good, so creative and so beautifully presented that I went back twice more for this story. My husband and I split our prix fixe meals down the middle, and ordered all six items between us.
Our first visit started with an amuse bouche — a single-bite appetizer to whet the appetite — consisting of a spoonful of cooked spelt with a shooter of warm carrot juice almost tomato-like in its flavor. It was our first glimpse into the playful nature of Seymour's food.
Pillowy gnocchi came served in a bowl with an array of gently cooked greens, tender, moist chicken confit and a handful of mushrooms that Brown told us the chef had hand-foraged. The dish had a forest-floor quality, a seasonal earthiness that felt absolutely right for a crisp fall evening.
Sweet, buttery scallops were served on top of layered bits of savory French lentils, pureed lima beans, red cabbage, baked onion and sweet roasted carrots. The dish had that same gentle, seasonal earthiness. It was an elevated version of simple peasant food.
Brown's wine pairings, which I had during both visits, were excellent. He urges diners in an unintimidating way to try something new, and I did. I tried spicy white wine at room temperature. Sweet whites, which aren't usually my thing. Bold, earthy, daring reds. Prosecco. Madeira, a Portuguese fortified wine. Brown is passionate not just about the wine, but about how the wine pairs with food. He's also open to questions, and that makes the experience exciting.
Seymour's playfulness continued into more of the dishes during the second visit. One highlight was a bowl of sweet potato soup poured tableside over homemade cinnamon marshmallows, singed at the table with a butane torch, and served with bits of pecan, dried cranberries and ginger. Think that ubiquitous Thanksgiving casserole. Separately, each ingredient was a bit one-note, but together they were excellent.
Homemade corn nuts popped up on one dish. An Asian-inspired broccoli beef dish put the vegetables front and center, and though the cuts of meat were perfectly prepared, it was the green florets I remembered. Seymour prepared the vegetable four ways. There was a pile of raw broccoli sprouts, raised locally at Squeaky Green Organics in Plattsmouth; roasted stems; shaved whole broccoli that was served raw and seasoned with a spritz of apple cider vinegar mixed with olive oil, salt and pepper; and seared florets, which were my favorite. Somehow, those little blackened bits likened in flavor to a potato chip.
During those two meals, we never felt rushed or intimidated. My husband noted that when we'd dined at V. Mertz in the past, it was fun but also sort of terrifying, including the moment the bill arrived.
On both recent visits, our bill came in around $150. Without wine and before tax and tip, it's $70. A pretty penny, to be sure, but worth the experience.
Seymour told me that the restaurant is like his second home.
“It's stressful, but it's also comfortable here,” he told me. “It's the most comfortable I've ever been in a kitchen.”
I think that's why my husband's note of terror was gone, replaced with a sense of culinary adventure and a sense of comfort that begins in the kitchen and stretches to the dining room. It's a new phase, to be sure, for this Omaha classic.
About V. Mertz
Chef Jon Seymour describes the V. Mertz tasting menu as the “gateway” menu. Seymour and Matthew Brown, front of the house manager, see it as an introduction to more dining experiences. Diners who try the tasting menu once can go back and sample one of the restaurant's two chef's tasting menus. Seymour prepares the courses on the spot, using just what he has in the kitchen that night and tailoring the meals to the preferences of diners at each table.
Some nights, when two tables order a chef's tasting, each may get a completely individual menu. This experience, of course, comes with a price tag: The eight-course grand tasting menu is $100 a person, with an additional $50 for optional wine pairings, and the five-course chef's tasting menu is $60, with an additional $40 for optional wine pairings.
Seymour plans to continue to experiment with dishes on the restaurant's menu. He wants to cook in a way that puts protein in the background and fresh, seasonal, locally sourced vegetables at the forefront.
The restaurant is working with a number of local producers, including Shadowbrook Farm, Truebridge Farm, Plum Creek Farm and Majinola Meats, among others.
Portion sizes at V. Mertz are large larger than I expected, though not overwhelming. I left full after both visits; so did my husband. I talked to Seymour about portions.
“Nebraska is the hardest place in the world to figure portion size,” he said, chuckling. “Some people want a ginormous plate of food, and other people want to go on a jog after dinner.”
He said he never wants diners to leave hungry, but he also knows that some people are put off by huge plates of food. It's a balancing act. The plating at V. Mertz is artful, which can be deceptive visually.
The plates come out beautifully arranged, but once we started eating it became clear that there was more than enough food in the arrangement.
Since V. Mertz introduced the prix fixe meals, Brown said the restaurant has seen an increase in weeknight diners. The restaurant's business suffered during the recession, he said, but has rebounded.
V. Mertz does not have a gluten-free menu but can accommodate people with gluten intolerance. Seymour said he can also accommodate vegetarian and dairy-free diners.
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