Creativity Shines at new Dolce in west Omaha – May 23, 2014.

Chef Anthony Kueper’s earliest culinary memory is eating bowl after bowl of classically prepared mussels traveling with his parents through coastal France.

“My parents said I smelled like butter and garlic for six days,” he said, chuckling.

So it makes sense that the mussels, one of Kueper’s signature dishes at the revamped Dolce in west Omaha, are fantastic. They nod to the classic while coming with the chef’s own creative touch.

We found a lot of that creativity, both in flavor and plating. The new Dolce is higher-end and more intimate than the old one. The food focuses more on local and seasonal ingredients. A few serving snafus and some kitchen mistakes aside, I found a lot to like.

Gina Sterns sold Dolce to Jason Kuhr and Tyler Mohr, who also own JTK in Lincoln’s Haymarket. Kueper came on as sous chef before the new owners took over. They kept him on and promoted him to head chef — a seemingly wise move.

Dolce’s “bread and butter,” Kueper said, is its date night menu, a concept the new owners brought to Omaha from their Lincoln restaurant. Couples can order a four-course meal that includes a choice of one of two base level bottles of wine for $75. For an additional charge, you can upgrade to other wines or sometimes choose other entrees.

The evening we tried the date night menu we arrived before the sun had set, and the new dark film on the restaurant’s large front windows made the atmosphere much more intimate. The bright light that streamed in those windows before was off putting when trying to have an evening dinner.

Local musician Chris Saub played live from a back corner of the restaurant, where he has a weekly gig. I appreciated that it was easy to carry on conversation over the music.

We started with “the taste of the moment,” which that day was a small shared portion of morel and three-mushroom pasta with house-made tagliatelle and cream sauce. Though the al dente pasta tasted great, I dug through the bowl in search of the seasonal morels and didn’t see a single one. Kueper later said that was because the morels were dried, ground and used in the pasta — a detail our server failed to mention.

When chefs forage local produce like morels, its important to have enough of the ingredient to serve before you list it on the menu. I wouldn’t have ordered the pasta dish if it hadn’t featured the coveted morels, in season for just a couple weeks. As it was, I felt short-changed.

The server also wasn’t knowledgeable about the wines. I asked him for a recommendation on two of the red wines on the list and he hadn’t tried either. Instead he suggested a third he said a co-worker liked. While the bottle was serviceable, at this price point, a server should know the wines — especially when they come with a price-fixed dinner.

We liked a root vegetable puree soup, which had a pleasant earthiness. The cheese on a warm goat cheese and beet salad came in large, fried rounds and added a rich textural contrast to the soft beets and crisp arugula.

The plates at Dolce are beautiful. Colorful watermelon radishes stood upright between the crispy-skinned Plum Creek chicken. The inside of each piece was perfectly seasoned and moist. Vinegary bits of kale added pop, beets added color and rainbow carrots and a mushroomy farotto finished the dish.

A T.D. Niche pork chop arrived a touch overdone, and the meat tasted dry about halfway through the plate. But a nice mix of soft-cooked onions and apples made for a pleasant companion to the pork dish, which was inspired by Kueper’s grandmother.

The bread pudding, which I’d recommend, was a classic incarnation of the caramel-and-carbs dessert and the perfect size for sharing.

At the lunch I had at Dolce, everything sung. The mussels were one of the best and most unusual I’ve eaten. The broth was layered with flavors of shallot, leeks, red onion, cilantro, orange zest and sun-dried tomatoes and meshed pleasantly with the chewy seafood. Kueper finishes the dish with a splash of raw tequila, hence the name “margarita” mussels.

The dish comes served with crusty bread and is more than enough for one.

Kueper’s take on a classic New Orleans muffaletta sandwich was memorable. Instead of the classic salami, he fills a focaccia — yes, the bread isn’t perfect, but it’s an interpretation — with house-made pork mortadella, which is a pillowy salami. The flavor of olives permeates the sandwich as they’re chopped up and mixed in with house mayonnaise. If you appreciate a good sandwich, this is one worth sampling.

Kueper said his goal is to serve food on par with the Boiler Room and the Grey Plume, and he’s already spent time working under Chef Jon Seymour at V. Mertz.

If Kueper wants to be on that level, there are some kinks to be worked out in the preparation of the food and consistency of the service. His creativity is worth noting, but to hang with the tops of the top, execution is just as important.

Source: Omaha World Herald