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Review: At M's Pub, it's in with the old and out with the new

Review: At M's Pub, it's in with the old and out with the new

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In the six months since M’s Pub reopened, it has settled comfortably back into its position as the Old Market’s living room.

Its atmosphere, recreated almost exactly as it was before being destroyed by fire in 2016, has, against the odds, the same singular vibrancy. Its menu features all the same dishes you’ve had, and the kitchen executes them at the same level. I’m happy to have those reliable dishes back, and judging by the large crowds still filling the restaurant, others are, too.

But there are a few things I must note. The first is that after the restaurant reopened, it added new menu items. Over my three recent visits, only a few of those new items worked.

I felt the same way after trying the pricier entrées off the rotating specials list. Two of those specials were good. The other two were bad enough that I’ll likely avoid the list entirely down the road.

I like M’s because I’ve always liked M’s. It’s as comfortable as my favorite pair of sneakers. But it’s not perfect.

The restaurant’s atmosphere post-fire has been recreated almost to a T by owner Ann Mellen and architect Gary Bowen. Bowen worked on the original interior with architects John Morford and Cedric Hartman in 1972. They rebuilt M’s after the fire using the original plans — and it’s shockingly similar.

A staircase in the restaurant’s front that jutted out of the wall is gone, the restrooms are on the first floor and the kitchen is larger. The floor is new, and, as of yet, there’s no Nouvelle Eve to see through the window on the south wall. Otherwise, it’s the M’s we all know.

Mellen said customers have re-entered the space with awestruck faces because it is, indeed, just like before.

“(To reopen the restaurant) is the best decision I have ever made in my life,” she said. “It is the most beautiful restaurant in Omaha. People feel very at home here.”

She’s right. The restaurant remains packed with old and new faces every night, she said; I saw that on my visits, too. Some of the most familiar faces you’ll see are those of the staff. If you dined even semi-regularly at the restaurant before the fire, you’ll note that much of its staff is back, serving with the same casual but efficient service that, in my experience, is always friendly and welcoming.

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Among the familiar favorites on the M’s Pub menu are the crabcakes, at top. From left above are the new bacon cheeseburger version of the classic lahvosh, a halibut special that’s since been rotated off the menu, and tartine, a new appetizer topped with tomato, cucumber, avocado, pickled onion, cured salmon and herbs.

The menu will look familiar, too. The crabcakes are chockablock with meat and come served on crisp greens drizzled with a spicy aioli. The M’s baked dish, with shrimp, escargot or mushrooms slathered in crisp-edged, melted havarti: still great. Don’t skip dipping your roll in the wells of garlicky oil.

The fish burger’s nicely cooked mahi mahi still comes on soft brioche with a slather of tangy tartar sauce. The M’s Greek sandwich, a throwback if there ever was one, has crustless wheat bread stuffed with a mix of ground turkey, walnuts, mayonnaise and lemon, satisfying in its retro-ness.

The side salads still come with a side of sweet but bright raspberry vinaigrette; the Buffalo chicken soup is still inexplicably delicious; dense pound cake on the dessert menu is still best topped with whipped cream and, instead of the rum glaze, the strawberry sauce that’s also on the flourless chocolate cake.

These are dishes that have always been “my” dishes at M’s. These I like in the same way I like my mom’s meatloaf best, and my mother-in-law’s version of Toll House pan cookies best. They’re delicious because they’re familiar.

The signature lahvosh list is mostly the same, save for a new one: bacon cheeseburger. Though the toppings are heavy — bacon, hamburger, red onion, tomatoes, cheddar, secret sauce and pickles — the crisp cracker crust didn’t suffer.

Another new appetizer, the tartine, is a take on fancy toast. Here it is topped with dill cream cheese, tomato, cucumber, avocado, pickled onion, cured salmon and chopped herbs. I really liked the freshness of the toppings, but I wished the bread were heartier. There’s plenty of local examples of this dish done better (look across the street to Le Bouillon for an example.)

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M’s Pub chef Bobby Mekiney

The only stinker off the iconic M’s black menu was the crunchy salad, which I thought was new, but chef Bobby Mekiney, an M’s alum who returned after the fire, told me it was actually an original dish.

Instead of being crunchy, my dish was soggy, heavy with dressing and light on flavor. Vegetables and lettuce came topped with cold chicken; Mekiney said that chicken is now warm. He also said it’s a dish that will probably be eliminated on future menus.

The special menu rotates every two weeks, and the dishes I tried are now gone, replaced with a new list. The best two were a nicely cooked halibut glazed with tequila and lime served in a bowl with black beans, brown rice, smoky jalapeño bacon and a peppery bouillabaisse; and a bone-in pork chop stuffed with prosciutto and fontina, though its bed of gnocchi had a crispy instead of fluffy texture.

A beef tenderloin was just so-so, with a texture tougher than we would have preferred, especially at $40. And the worst was a piece of duck surrounded with condiments that, to me, made no sense: sticky rice flavored with lemon and thyme, a pistachio granola filled with raisins and a perplexing lavender cream sauce that seemed to go with nothing else on the plate.

Mekiney later told me that it’s been scary to add new menu items to the list, especially because they have to fit with what M’s has done for the past 40 years, and the restaurant’s customers are notoriously anti-change. He said all the new items are still in flux, and some may still be replaced. The classics will remain the same.

As for the specials menu, he said he’s sharing the duties of creating with that list with other chefs in the kitchen, with the intent of introducing a wider range of flavors and cuisines. He said specials sell best Monday through Thursday — I saw a lot of single diners at the bar, presumably business travelers, ordering off the list during my visits. But on the weekends, the classic dishes on the black menu prevail, he said. That has to be locals ordering their old favorites.

To that end, I might recommend that special list be refined and narrowed, to only the best dishes the kitchen can serve. If less variety means a better finished dish, I’d understand.

So yes, I ran into a few issues at M’s. But in the end, I’m not convinced it matters. M’s is the same in the most important ways: the atmosphere, the classic dishes it does best. The service. The friendly faces. The long, green bar.

M’s Pub belongs to Omaha. I’m glad it’s back.

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