The Benson Brewery hasn't figured out who it is yet.
It's a brewery, but fewer than half of its 15 beers are on the menu.
It's part pub food — burgers and brats — and part $15 entrees.
We saw bright spots, including some creative dishes that stood out from the other basic choices and an atmosphere that's pure hip Benson. But the scattered focus meant that much of what the restaurant set out to do ended up lacking.
That contrast came into focus one evening during dinner, when we had both the best and the worst entrees we tried during our three visits.
A house-made craft sausage platter was the star of the show. With a seasonal, spicy flavor, a great texture and a nice chew, it pleased on every level. A side dish featured the unusual mix of tomatoes and tart pickled cherries; pickled soshito peppers added another layer of flavor. The contrast and creativity were spot on. A side of roasted potatoes were texturally a bit too dry, but otherwise the dish was the kind of creative comfort food I expected from the restaurant.
The tofu picatta, one of the brewery's vegan offerings, didn't even look like it came from the same kitchen as the sausage. Chunks of heavily breaded tofu had a strange crumbly inside and lacked flavor — the chunks mostly tasted “fried.” The only nod I saw to classic picatta was a scattering of capers in the pile of cooked kale underneath the protein, and the greens came off too salty and chewy.
Chef and co-owner Matt Taylor, who came to the restaurant after a stint at the Lied Lodge and Conference Center in Nebraska City, said the spice in the sausage came from reclaimed chai spice that's dehydrated and ground — it's the same spice the restaurant uses in its chai beer, called Karha-T. It's a cool idea, blending the beer with the food in a place that's got “brewery” in its name.
But the tofu dish, he said, isn't where it should be. He suspected the dish we had may have been prepared incorrectly, and the sauce with the kale should have tasted of lemon, white wine, shallots and garlic. I got none of that.
The contrast between basic and creative wasn't always as stark, and many of the other dishes we ate fell in the middle.
We liked the trotter tots appetizer, two oversized tots that tasted richly of pork and had a nice contrast between the soft inside and crispy exterior. But we both could have used more of the creamy sauce with the two tots, which needed something for dipping.
Another appetizer, “jars and jumblers,” came in three jars filled with different vegan dips. They were prettily arranged between pickled grapes and peppers and on slices of toasted bread. I liked the salty olive tapenade and the small bit of bright pesto, but the hummus — what should have been the easiest of the three to pull off — was crumbly, bland and ice cold. I liked the juicy, pickled grapes, but the pickled peppers left a bitter taste, and the bread was toasted to hardness.
Taylor said the restaurant is changing how it makes hummus.
The wagyu burger, with its fried pickles and layer of bacon jam, was creative, though in some bites the flavor of the toppings overwhelmed the beef. We ordered our burger medium rare, but it arrived closer to medium. We liked dipping the house cut fries in vinegar, the suggestion of our waiter.
I liked the atmosphere in Benson Brewery, with its warm reclaimed wood floors and modern light fixtures in different styles that lent a glowy light. The music, with bands such as Spoon and Radiohead, played at a volume that still allowed for conversation. Acoustics in the restaurant can be bouncy, and when it's crowded, it gets loud. An outdoor street-facing patio has just a few seats but was popular — even on chilly fall nights.
Eventually, Benson Brewery will have 15 in-house beers, but on our visits, the most it ever had on tap was five. Taylor said that was because of technical problems and the full line should be ready in early December. My favorite of the five was Karha-T, a chai beer. My husband preferred the nuttier, medium bodied Alt-er Ego.
Benson Brewery's beers are mixed in with the non-house-made beers on the list, which leads diners to search through the fine print to locate them. Taylor said the restaurant chose to arrange all the beers together on one list categorized by flavor profile. The restaurant is working with its servers and bartenders to make sure they're knowledgeable about each of the house-made beers and can make suggestions to diners unfamiliar with craft beer.
“This is a craft beer market,” Taylor said of Benson.
Taylor said the fish tacos have been, by far, the best-selling entree on the menu — a fact that surprised him. Two flour tortillas are filled with a pile of slaw, two breaded whitefish fillets and a corn salsa. I appreciated the vinegar kick of the slaw. I would have liked more citrus or spice, or both, in the tacos, which were just OK. For the fall, Taylor plans to retool the slaw with smoky chipotle.
Benson is becoming one of the city's new food and drink destinations. Omahans are savvy. And after eating Taylor's food at the Lied Lodge last year, I think he's capable of conceptualizing and pulling off creative pub fare that uses the local, high-quality ingredients he — and many diners — are passionate about.
* * * *
Where: 6059 Maple St.
Hours: Monday to Wednesday, 4 p.m. to midnight; Thursday and Friday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 1 a.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to midnight
The brewery has plans to open a beer garden next spring. Co-owner and chef Matt Taylor said the beer garden will have tables imported from Germany and an entrance from both inside the restaurant and an outside entrance.
Taylor said a friend of his who owns a vineyard sold the restaurant some old wine barrels and he hopes to do some barrel fermenting down the road. He also has plans to try his hand at ancient Egyptian fermenting techniques.
Benson Brewery has a “Meatless Monday” special that includes a three course, themed vegan meal for $25. Omaha-based vegan chef and cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz kicked off the series, and now the brewery has continued to offer it on its own.
Benson Brewery has released a new menu for fall, which includes more of Taylor's creativity: a take on crab cakes that is made with rattlesnake, a chicken pot pie, a homemade sausage sampler and a cheese plate with blood orange marmalade and lavender honey are a few of the new offerings. Taylor said he's taking the menu more toward elevated pub food this time around.