“Omaha isn’t ready for this.”
That’s what Paul Kulik kept hearing when he described the inkling of an Old Market restaurant idea he dreamed of opening. That idea became the Boiler Room, which opened to much fanfare — and a fair bit of skepticism — in 2009.
In 2016, this-ahead-of-its-time restaurant has settled comfortably into its spot in our city’s dining scene. It’s one of Omaha’s most adventurous and creative dining experiences. Its service is precise and thoughtful. Its menu, now under the talented hand of chef Tim Nicholson — Kulik plans to step away from the restaurant at the end of the year — is refined and rustic, confident and full of contrasts.
On my two recent visits, the dining room was packed. And as we ate good dish after good dish, it became clear that the Boiler Room is all grown up, and Omaha’s food scene has grown up right along with it.
Put another way: Omaha may not have been ready for the Boiler Room when it opened. Today it is.
Since the Boiler Room opened, Kulik has opened two more downtown restaurants: Le Bouillon, in the Old Market, and Via Farina, in Little Italy. He’s planning to focus on those in 2017 and, he said, has other new projects on the horizon. Though he won’t be at the Boiler Room anymore, the restaurant will, so it seems, continue on the course he’s set.
The menu is still divided simply into two categories, defined by one star for first-course options and two for entree options. I’ve always preferred sharing at the Boiler Room; the portions are sized to make that easy and it gives each diner at the table maximum opportunities for tasting. Nobody left hungry.
The first evening we split two first courses: tagliatelle topped with a hearty ragu bolognese, Grana Padano and a swirl of olive oil; and the culatello, a salumi that took two years to make in-house, served with silky burrata, salsa verde, a twist of black pepper and a drizzle of oil. “Sublime” might be the right word for that culatello, which matched the burrata with its buttery texture as, bite after bite, they warmed and melted into one another.
A note: you won’t find either of these dishes — or most of what I write about in this review — on the menu at the Boiler Room when you visit. That’s because Nicholson, who has been at the Boiler Room’s helm for about three years, changes the lineup every single day.
To wit: The first night I had a meaty piece of swordfish prepared with chewy black barley, sweet roasted onions, spaghetti squash, tender rock shrimp and crisp, glazed heirloom radishes. The second night, about two weeks later, swordfish was still on the menu, but now it came with potato gnocchi, crunchy roasted turnips, wilted spinach, butternut squash and a savory saffron broth. Both dishes let the fish’s gentle flavor shine through, but otherwise couldn’t have been more different. Nicholson had moved the preparation I’d had the first evening onto a new fish; it appeared instead with a Scottish steelhead trout. Another night, he sent out a braised wagyu beef cheek atop a parsnip purée with local wild rice, braised cabbage and pumpkin pastrami. I asked Nicholson later about that “pumpkin pastrami,” especially after I had another version a different night using butternut squash as the base. He said a vegan diner came in one night requesting a tasting menu. He took it as a challenge, and ended up creating a vegetable version of pastrami, where he takes a vegetable, brines it, seasons it and smokes it.
“I wanted that diner to have the same level of experience as everyone else,” he said.
Vegan or no, if you spot a pastrami-ed vegetable on the menu, take note. It’s terrific.
The butternut squash “pastrami” came with some of the best duck I’ve had in a long time, meaty and juicy with a layer of crispy golden skin. Bright red beet purée sat between carrots and local wild rice; chili aioli swirled over the bottom of the plate.
Nicholson’s presentation is precise but rustic. Take the pig’s head terrine, with carefully placed triangles of meaty pate placed next to halved, oozy balls of burrata, each one topped with a glistening leaf of mache, a cold weather salad green. The dish, by the way, is worth trying, even for those a bit worried about pig’s head. Smears of bright sauces and bunches of wild herbs and greens make plenty of appearances throughout plates.
The Boiler Room’s cocktail program is one of the best in the city, and Alec Candelaria, the current bartender, upholds the bar with an ever-changing list of drinks. Yes, he’ll make the classics, and do it well, but it’s worth trying the original creations; our favorites included the Scotch and Campari-forward My Bloody Valentine and the Madeira and absinthe-focused Forbidden Fruit.
Service at the Boiler Room is second to none, easily some of the best in the city. I especially noted the firm but friendly guidance from Timothy Siragusa, a longtime Boiler Room fixture who will guide even the Boiler Room newbie through the menu with a knowing hand. He’s one of the best.
The Boiler Room has figured out how to remain relevant when more and more new Omaha restaurants are doing what it does: local and seasonal, craft cocktails, wine pairings. It’s done that by, more than most, knowing what it wants to be. Kulik and Nicholson, together, have made a fantastic team. I’ll be staying tuned for Kulik’s new plans, of which I’m sure will bring Omahans more culinary adventures. Until then, I remain excited to see what comes out of Nicholson’s Old Market kitchen in the coming years; his talent, and the experience of dining at one of our city’s finest, are not to be missed.
The Boiler Room Restaurant
Address: 1110 Jones St.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., closed Sunday.
Hits: Proteins are cooked to perfection across the board, including in dishes featuring duck, beef, pork and seafood. The cheese board, presented as a dessert option, never disappoints.
Misses: The gnocchi that came with a swordfish entree had texture a bit chewy.
Drinks: One of the city’s best wine lists and a wonderful selection of house craft cocktails