The new Midtown Crossing location of Brix, a mashup of retail wine store and restaurant that originated in west Omaha, was hopping on a recent weekday evening.
Music blared. People chatted. And the wine flowed like water from the state-of-the-art wine machines for which the restaurant is known.
Everything I sampled at dinner on my first night there — the wine, an appetizer, two entrees — was delicious.
My husband said his entree was one of the best he'd eaten in recent memory. An appetizer and another entree were great. I'd been to the west Omaha Brix and this topped it.
But on two subsequent visits, things weren't as successful. Chef Erik Rickard, who is in charge of the kitchens at both locations, is taking classic dishes and making them his own, but it's not always working. The good was really good. Much was uneven.
Brix has changed the way customers pay for wine from its wine machines. For the uninitiated, here's the drill: Users slide a Brix-issued plastic card into a slot, push a button above the bottle of their choice and the machine dispenses a small pour, a medium pour or a full glass. Now, instead of receiving a blank card at the beginning of the night and paying your tab when you leave, users pay up front and drain the card, a setup like the one for coffee at Starbucks.
I loaded my wine card with $20 and started with a glass of Broadside Cabernet, on special for $5, normally $10 for a full pour. Glasses of wine from the machines are half-off on Monday nights, which accounted for the packed house. Later, I had another $5 glass of wine, a Zinfandel from Cakebread Cellars in Napa Valley. I was familiar with both wines and knew I liked them; both were tasty, and the price was unbeatable.
The setup at Brix in midtown is intentionally different from the original in Village Pointe. There, the restaurant and wine machines are separate from the retail store. In Midtown, diners sit in the center of the U-shaped store surrounded by wine, spirits and beer. The wine machines are scattered around the walls, and in the center of things is a long bar, which was packed. To the east, large windows overlook a view toward Turner Park and downtown.
Owner Dan Matuszek told me in an interview later that the layout change was a response to customer behavior.
“Over the past 2½ years in Village Pointe, a lot of people gravitated toward sitting in the store,” he said. “But they also like the wine machines. We designed a store that basically dictated what they liked.”
The atmosphere is vibrant and fun, and it almost feels like eating in a grocery store, in a good way. After one dinner, my husband and I browsed the aisles and took home bottles of wine and whiskey.
The one thing we didn't love was the music. On the first visit, the smooth jazz was too loud and seemed out of place. And on our next two visits, the music was softer but still out of place — think the greatest hits of the 1970s mixed with disco.
The baked brie appetizer, though, pleased us both. I don't see baked brie on many menus, and I ordered it because it's one of my favorites. The round of melted cheese was encased in a thin but flavorful round of pastry topped with a tangy cranberry port sauce, candied walnuts and savory lahvosh crackers for spreading. It was decadent and classic.
Rickard told me later that a spring version of the baked brie soon will replace this fall version.
My spinach salad with a soft poached egg, bacon vinaigrette, onion, fennel and a piece of seared salmon was fresh and tasted like spring. The salmon was nicely cooked and moist, and I'm always a sucker for a soft poached egg. The yolk layered especially well over the savory, salty bacon dressing.
My husband's pan-seared chicken, though, was the star of the night. Layered over squash risotto studded with sage, toasted pumpkin seeds and asparagus, the dish was a delightful seasonal bridge. The risotto, which can be tricky, was perfect, creamy and light at once, and the chicken moist and crispy.
Rickard said the risotto in the dish takes the place of a sauce, and he was absolutely right.
“I didn't want to overcomplicate it,” he said. “I tried to keep it simple.”
That's what Matuszek said of Rickard, too.
“He doesn't overthink the food,” he said. “He likes to take simple flavors and take his own twist on them.”
My expectations for our second visit were high after our first dinner.
I enjoyed a grilled flatbread appetizer topped with basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, portobello mushrooms, blobs of fresh mozzarella cheese and balsamic. Instead of being overly dressed, the flatbread was covered with a nice balance of ingredients that kept the paper-thin crust, made in-house, from getting soggy. I liked the mix of sweet and savory, and was glad it wasn't overloaded with cheese.
Rickard said it's one of Brix's most popular appetizers, and I can see why. It's simple and pairs well with wine.
My entree, the Bruschetta pasta, is another popular choice, Rickard said. It struck me as an unusual mixture of an Asian ramen noodle dish paired with an Italian appetizer.
Long, thin noodles floated in a brown broth loaded with umami. Bruschetta came through in the form of three extra-crispy pieces of baguette, shavings of basil and diced tomatoes on top. The combination surprised me; it was light but still filling.
We were less pleased with my husband's short ribs. The beef ribs were deboned, formed into a patty and breaded. They weren't as tender as we expected, though my husband said he didn't mind the breading.
But what really ruined the dish for us was the polenta beneath the short ribs, which tasted almost sour with a flavor we couldn't identify. A pile of frisee greens on top were too salty and the sauce, made from the meat braising liquid, wasn't flavorful enough.
“When I order short ribs, I want them to melt in my mouth,” my husband said. “I want to be able to cut every bite with a fork.”
I asked Rickard about the dish and he said he was surprised because he gets lots of positive feedback about it.
Rickard said the ribs are braised in red wine and veal stock, then the meat is removed from the bone, shredded and pressed into a large pan to cool. The kitchen cuts the ribs into portions, breads it with egg and bread crumbs and cooks it in a pan.
The flavor in the polenta, he said, could have been the mascarpone cheese in it, though it didn't taste like it to me.
Service on our first visit was fast and friendly; it was slower on our subsequent visits. We sat without water for a good 15 minutes while our server chatted with friends during one visit.
When we returned for Sunday brunch, we waited 15 minutes just to get menus.
The salmon, which was again perfectly cooked, was the best thing about Brix's Salmon Florentine Benedict. The soft poached eggs came on a pile of soft cooked spinach served on a soft biscuit — the texture was monotonous. Instead of being in the Benedict, the salmon was served in between the stacks on the plate.
But the worst part was the red wine Hollandaise sauce, which tasted more like an overly sweet brown-butter sauce than anything else. I was glad I ordered the sauce on the side.
Rickard said he's not a fan of English muffins, the classic Benedict pastry. That's why he used a biscuit. And he created the red wine Hollandaise because the restaurant wanted to incorporate wine into many of its dishes. He said he makes a red wine reduction and then mixes in the classic Hollandaise emulsion along with a hint of sugar and clove.
My husband's Spanish hash brown was a take on classic diner food: A massive, crispy patty of hash browns topped with chorizo, pico de gallo and eggs.
Rickard said the brunch menu still is in flux. His sous chef at Midtown, Brittany Chung, is taking over the brunch menu and will make some changes.
When Rickard keeps it simple, his food shines. Some of his variations on classics, though, went too far in terms of flavor or texture or seasoning.
I like that he's trying to be original — it fits well with the concept behind Brix, which is certainly original. But to pull it off, the twists need to be better and the food more consistent. With refinement, it will be more than just a place for a wine and appetizers after work — it will be great.
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