Omaha’s historic Dundee neighborhood has been undergoing a rediscovery and reclamation, with new businesses and restaurants opening in many of the original buildings. In March 2012, the beloved neighborhood grocery store, Wolhner’s Grocery, was transformed into an exciting new restaurant featuring Chef Jennifer Coco. J.Coco’s is Chef Coco’s namesake restaurant, opening her own space after an accomplished stint at the Flatiron Cafe. Chef Coco is another jewel in Omaha’s culinary scene, was recognized in 2011 as a semi finalist in the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef:Midwest while at the Flatiron Cafe.
Mrs. Nom and I made reservation using Open Table for a Friday night. We arrived right on time and were able to find parking in a lot directly behind the restaurant. We entered the airy glass fronted main dining room and were quickly greeted by the hostess. We were walked thru the main room into a small back room. The room had 4 tables, and an open view into the kitchen. The room was quiet and very intimate, and excellent for a nice date night. For foodies like us, having a window into the kitchen is always a bonus, as seeing a well run working kitchen can be a fascinating experience (not to mention a nice sensory experience when the truffle oil is poured on the pommes frites!)
The cocktail menu features re-imaginations of classic cocktails, some house made specialties, and a nice selection of wines to compliment J.Coco’s upscale comfort foods. The cocktail selections intrigued both of us when we looked at the menu online earlier in the day, so we decided to skip the wine and try the cocktails. Mrs. Nom selected the Dig a Fig, a cilantro and fig infused vodka with lime and ginger syrup cocktail. The cilantro and fig vodka is house made, herbaceous and slightly earthy with a dark caramel undertone from the figs and has a wonderfully rich brown color. The flavors are well balanced, resulting in a smooth flavorful cocktail.
I chose the Re-Fashioned, a twist on the classic old fashioned. J.Coco’s version of the old fashioned uses a classic rye rather than a bourbon, and the fruity spiciness of the rye combines with the orange bitters to create a pleasantly smokey drink with a fragrant citrus aroma. The combination of orange and lemon garnish gave a nice bright splash of color to the rich caramel colored cocktail. Served with an oversized square ice cube, the Re-Fashioned is exceptionally smooth and aromatic and well crafted.
After making our cocktail selections, we turned our attention to the appetizers. J.Coco’s selection of starters reflects Chef Coco’s philosophy of modern upscale comfort food, featuring updates on classic appetizers like scallops, calamari, grits or spring rolls. Mrs Nom and I were trying to decide between the crispy pork belly and grits and the yellowfin tuna spring rolls, but the siren call of pork won over us, so we chose to go with the pork belly.
The pork belly arrived,sliced into thin strips and served over a creamy bed of grits. Wild mushrooms in a mushroom jus are drizzled over the top of the slightly charred pork. The crispy outer skin of the pork belly covered deliciously rich inner layer of melted pork fat and a tender layer of salty pork. The thin strips were perfectly sized to allow for quick easy bites, perfect for sharing. The wild mushrooms were well cooked, soft with just a bit of bite and smothered in a slightly sweet and tangy jus reminiscent of a port wine sauce. The sweetness of the jus and the salt of the pork enhanced the buttery creaminess of the grits causing us to make sure we scraped the dish clean.
For our entrees, Mrs. Nom had narrowed down her choices down to the cedar plank grilled salmon or the petite beef medallions, while I decided on the Iowa lamb two ways. Mrs. Nom consulted our server, Justin, about which of the two choices he would recommend. His recommendation was the cedar grilled salmon, as I was having the lamb, so as to best allow us to sample the wide range of cuisines. He also suggested adding a roasted stuffed acorn squash as a side dish to share. In addition to the entrees, we both decided on a second round of cocktails as the first round went down quite easily.
Our drinks arrived just before the main course, once again excellently crafted cocktails. Mrs. Nom’s Rum Club was smooth, slightly sweet with a sour finish. She liked it, but wished it had a little bit more sweetness. My blood and sand cocktail, one of the few cocktails to use a scotch, had a fantastic reddish brown color, the hint of sweet cherry and orange with a peaty smoky bite giving a nuanced, warm and balanced cocktail.
Our entrees arrived, Mrs. Nom’s cedar plank salmon grilled to medium, flaky and rich, sitting on a bed of pureed parsnip and celery root and grilled carrots, asparagus and green beans. Surrounding the puree is a veal demi-glaze, providing a nice rich addition to the puree. The parsnip celery root puree was similar to whipped mashed potatoes, but lighter and not as full bodied as potatoes. A dollop of béarnaise sauce tops the salmon, the creamy tangy lemony sauce a classic complement to the salmon. A hint of cedar smoke perfumes the entire dish. The salmon fillet had the skin still on, the center of the cut having a crispy buttery seared crust. The salmon, light and flaky, had a clean and fresh flavor, the perfume of the cedar smoke well balanced and complimentary.
My dish was the Iowa lamb two ways, a beautifully plated dish with a half rack of lamb and a shank of Osso Buco sitting on a bed of fregula. The lamb rack was cooked a perfect medium rare, tender with a nice seasoned seared crust. The osso buco was rich and meaty, with a depth from the stock used to braise it. The fregula, a pasta similar to cous cous but slightly larger, was al dente, well cooked with a slight nuttiness. The fregula was prepared in the traditional style, cooked in tomato sauce, slightly sweet and tangy, with a nice herbaceous flavor from basil and parsley. The sauce had a rich depth from the stock used (typically clam sauce, but I’m not sure what was used here.) Toasted pine nuts mixed into the fregula give a nice slight crunch, the toasty buttery flavor a great addition to the pasta. A small dollop of tzatziki sauce was a cool classic accompaniment to the lamb, the cool minty cream excellent for dipping and a nice counter to the zing of the tomato sauce. Grilled asparagus, carrots and green beans finish the dish. The plate was well composed, Chef Coco’s vision of refined comfort food clearly evident.
J.Coco’s offers a number of extremely tempting side dishes, twists on classic comfort foods like mac and cheese, a lobster creme brule, or truffled pomme frittes (french fries with truffle oil.) After our server mentioned the stuff roasted acorn squash would be a nice compliment to our entrees, we chose the squash, especially seeing the combination of bacon and farro, which i have personally found to be very interesting since having farro at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. When it arrived, the squash was overstuffed with farrow and bacon, topped with warm brown sugared pecans. The roasted squash was soft and tender, the natural sweetness of the squash mixing with the nuttiness of the farrow and the salt of the bacon to bring a complex layered flavor with each bites. Chopped green onion bits provide a savory crunch that complemented the nutty farro. The farro was cooked until softened, the outer shell having a slight chewy bite, similar to a slightly undercooked pasta, with a soft inner nut. The thick cut bacon was crispy with a salty sweetness that paired with the sweet earthiness of the squash. The warm sugared pecans were aromatic, the scent reminiscent of the German roasted nuts at the farmers market, sweet with a hint of spice, one of our favorite parts of the whole dish.
We chose to bypass the typical pastry dishes and instead decided to go for the artisan cheese plate with coffee. The cheese arrived on a wooden platter along with a plate of crusty bread and butter. The platter featured three types of cheese, a sharp cheddar with herbs in it, a farmer’s cheese and a wedge of rich Maytag blue cheese. In addition to the cheeses, quince and onion marmalade, pear slices, grapes and a handful of Marcona almonds ( a slightly softer more buttery Spanish almond) present an array of sweet and salty compliments to the cheeses. The crusty bread and butter pairs well with the tart onion marmalade and compliments the cheeses. The cheese portions are generous and rich, the quality of the cheeses right inline with the rest of the delicious high quality food served throughout the meal.
J.Coco’s is a top notch addition to the Dundee neighborhood, bringing Chef Jennifer Coco’s vision for upscale comfort food, crafted cocktails and superb service to a new hotspot in Omaha. Updated classics, innovative dishes and a focus on quality combine in an experience that is hard to beat for the price and location. Mrs. Nom and I will look forward to many more dining experiences at J.Coco’s!
Food Quality: 4/5
Overall: 4/5 – A quality addition to the Omaha culinary scene, a place to go for great food and drink. Recommended!