* * *
Winner: Brother Sebastian's
Omaha still is a steak town.
It's still the kind of town where restaurants thrive in spite of windowless dining rooms with dated decor and a member of the Rat Pack crooning over speakers in the background.
It's still a town where it's OK to eat a large piece of perfectly cooked corn-fed meat at noon.
In this town, a slice of the past is alive and well as part of the present. Our most recent Food Prowl team encountered it at seven old-school Omaha steakhouses we visited in December and January to kick off the second year of the series and pick the city's best steak.
Our team pondered the tradition of mostaccioli and french fries on the same plate. We almost always wished we'd saved room for pie or spumoni. During one memorable lunch, we bumped into Warren Buffett.
We toured some of the city's oldest eateries, eating great steaks and not-so-great steaks, braving mysterious salad dressings and old-fashioned sides. Eventually we chose a winner; one that might surprise you but that certainly — trust us — won't disappoint you.
In our humble opinion, the best steak in Omaha is the ribeye at Brother Sebastian's.
Our team — my boss's boss's boss's boss, Terry Kroeger, publisher of The World-Herald and CEO of BH Media Group; and Jennifer Coco, a James Beard-nominated chef who runs midtown's J. Coco; and yours truly — assembled twice in December and five times in January to eat steak lunches.
The low, humming voices of monks met us on speakers in the parking lot at Brother Sebastian's, where we met for our final lunch on decision day.
We sat in a small, dark room near the back of the restaurant, right next to a fireplace. It was hard to gauge the crowd that day, because the dark restaurant is divided into lots of small, dark, fireplace rooms. The monastery music doesn't continue once you get inside — Sinatra and Dean Martin take over — but the theme comes across loud and clear. Even the wait staff wears brown, monklike outfits.
Our room was nearly full of diners.
We ordered the most expensive steak so far — the $29 ribeye — and it arrived grilled. Jenny took a bite and looked at me, brows raised.
I took a bite and though I'm not comfortable with hyperbole, it melted in my mouth, just like butter. I'm not kidding.
After a few bites, we knew the contest was over.
I liked the steak at Brother Sebastian's best, hands down. It was Terry's favorite, too.
Jenny said she was impressed with both the quality of the beef at Brother Sebastian's and how it was cooked, this time grilled.
“The seasoning is just enough, and the texture is amazing,” she said, “This is how a ribeye is supposed to taste."
Jenny urged me, after she saw I'd eaten most of the lean middle section of my steak, to try a few fattier bits of the outside. Even though I was full, I did. Those bites were almost too much. They were silky, soft, creamy corn-fed beef at its best; exactly what you're looking for when you want a steak — the best steak — in Omaha.
1350 S. 119th St.
The other contenders:
2121 S. 73rd St.
If we came into the Prowl with one thought, it was that the Drover had a good chance of winning.
It was so crowded with diners at noon that we sat at the bar. We ordered three of the restaurant's whiskey steaks, for which they are known all over Omaha and beyond on the Travel Channel's “Man vs. Food Nation.”
At least two men at the bar sipped Old Fashioneds as they waited for their steak lunches under the twinkly rainbow Christmas lights. We heard talk of meetings and clients as we ate salads off ice-cold metal plates and wondered how people could go back to work and be functional after taking a page from “Mad Men” character Don Draper's cocktail handbook.
Jenny told us how she got into the restaurant business: waiting tables, then getting into the kitchen at V. Mertz for five years and then 14 years at the Flatiron Cafe. It turned out that both Terry and Jenny, Omaha natives, went to Westside High School.
Our whiskey sirloins — two medium rare, one medium — arrived fairly tender but also overcooked. Terry's medium steak was especially overdone.
Jenny said she liked the char on the meat and the flavor of the whiskey-based marinade, but she thought the marinade could have sunk more into the meat. Mine tasted more salty than anything else. It turned out our prediction may have been off base.
11732 West Dodge Road
We met at Jerico's, a surprisingly old-school place in a non-old school location, a strip mall off West Dodge Road.
Former Mayor Mike Fahey was in a corner booth and lots of retirees wearing holiday-themed sweaters sunk into the heavy, tan leather chairs to celebrate the season. The menu at Jerico's calls out “the best prime rib in Omaha,” but we again went for the sirloin.
This time, we talked about where else we might prowl and decided to stay firmly within “old school” Omaha. The restaurants would compete on the most even playing field we could create.
Our steaks, once again overcooked from the medium rare Jenny and I ordered, tasted tougher than those at the Drover. Terry's steak was inexplicably thinner than ours.
“I can make a steak taste at least this good at home,” Terry said. We believed him.
Johnny's Cafe 4702 S. 27th St.
Johnny's Cafe has been around for 91 years and feels like a time warp in the best possible way.
It was Jenny's first time there.
“I feel like I've been missing out,” she said, looking around the bar where we were seated and seeing, among other decor, bar stools shaped like saddles, a bull's head with glowing red eyes on the wall, lots of old black and white photographs of the Omaha Stockyards and dozens of sets of longhorns on nearly every wall.
“I feel like Tony Soprano should be here,” Jenny said.
I hadn't been to Johnny's in years so I didn't have any real expectations. What came to the table blew all of us away. Ribeyes tender in texture and topped with a crisp onion ring were spot-on. The juicy, tender meat had flavor from the grill. We had an early leader.
“They've been doing this for a long time,” Jenny said, “and they've perfected it.”
>2202 S. 20th St.
Piccolo Pete's Restaurant was the closest we saw decorwise to another old school place, Gorat's, though that restaurant was recently remodeled after being sold. We sat at a table in the back dining room under massive chandeliers, our plates sitting on a vinyl tablecloth. The light oak ceiling and walls, studded with clear glass windows, gave us a glimpse into an adjacent room that had a massive disco ball. One time, during another visit, I saw it spinning very slowly.
Our steaks weren't so hot. This time, they were seared instead of grilled and it seemed like they may have been cooked earlier in the day, then held for the lunch rush. The insides were a dull, unappetizing gray.
Just as we were finishing, we experienced the kind of Omaha steakhouse moment that people talk about for years afterward. We saw Warren.
Piccolo's is rumored to be one of Warren Buffett's favorites. I think this confirms it.
He greeted Terry jovially; after all, he is Terry's boss. He also knew Jenny — she said he's dined at her restaurant a few times. After a few minutes of chat, he went and sat down, fitting in with the rest of the crowd in his tan sweater and slacks, and ordered an iced tea.
1620 S. 10th St.
Things got more interesting when we met the next week at Cascio's, another old-school Omaha landmark that drew a more blue-collar crowd than the other places. Here we ate tender, perfectly cooked New York strips, which Jenny told us are some of the hardest cuts to cook correctly. Cascio's nailed each one, cooking them perfectly to temperature.
Jenny also noted that a sign on the door said the restaurant serves only certified Angus beef, the best just below Wagyu or Kobe, and we could tell the tender meat was high quality.
7220 F St.
We had our second whiskey steak at Anthony's steakhouse on South 72nd Street. You can't miss the place because of its gigantic parking lot and the enormous black bull on its roof.
On a Friday afternoon that huge parking lot was nearly full — I spied at least three big Cadillacs. People seemed to be dining at a more leisurely pace this day. We saw quite a few glasses of wine next to plates of steak and entree-sized bowls of Thunderbird salad, a house specialty.
Anthony's is old school though it's been gently updated in a seamless way; it was hard to say just what changes the restaurant has made but it felt more modern overall. Service, it's worth noting, was great and there were more unusual options for sides — we had sweet potato fries and a few of those Thunderbird salads, chopped lettuce mixed with tomato, chives, bacon, mozzarella, bleu cheese and a creamy dressing.
Anthony's whiskey ribeye is marinated in Kentucky bourbon. To keep things fair, we ordered two ribeyes and one New York strip. Terry's ribeye and Jenny's New York were cooked to temperature but my whiskey ribeye was closer to medium well than medium rare.
Jenny and Terry both liked their steaks, which were tender, juicy and covered with enough sauce that it was evident, though not overpowering.