Lot 2, Benson's newest restaurant, is an instant classic.
It's a neighborhood spot that already has regulars after six weeks in business because it's doing everything restaurants are supposed to do well.
The atmosphere is vibrant. The value is unbeatable. The service is impeccable.
And then there's the food: simple but modern, served beautifully and creatively. During two recent visits for this review (and a handful more on my own time), I never encountered a misstep. And it's my job to look for them.
In short, Lot 2 is one of Omaha's best new restaurants. I'm placing it among some moderately priced classics: M's Pub. Dario's Brasserie. Taxi's. It's that good.
Lot 2's interior is simple, with stark, clean lines and a soothing palette of sage green and cream warmed up with a long exposed brick wall, wood floors and ceilings and butcher block tables.
A bar stretches nearly the length of the dining room on the east side, and on both of our visits the high seats were full.
It can get noisy. But instead of bothering us, the noise told us diners at Lot 2 were having a great time.
We started our first meal with two appetizers: the house cheese and charcuterie tray and the arancini, deep-fat-fried Sicilian risotto balls stuffed with meat.
Lot 2's cheese tray now is one of my favorites in town. We selected Parmesan and tres leches cheeses and the pâté grandmere — French pâté with pork shoulder and chicken livers — and tęte de cochon — housemade head cheese — for meats.
The two cheeses complemented each other well, one hard, one soft. And the pâté and head cheese, while similar, were different enough to keep us entertained. The smooth, rich, dense pâté contrasted nicely with the chunkier, airier head cheese.
The dish is artfully arranged on a thick slab of wood. Housemade condiments such as tomato jam, pickled vegetables, cornichon pickles, tangy dijon mustard and curried spicy mixed nuts separate the small mounds of meat and cheese. I dare you to stop munching those nuts.
The arancini has an interior thick with creamy risotto and a pork sausage-filled center. A flavorful, bright green pesto sauce complemented the fried bites perfectly.
Our waitress could not have been more helpful. She answered questions about the menu, described wines in detail and made recommendations and refilled our water glasses again and again.
I also sampled a flatbread pizza loaded with housemade, truffle-oil-spiked ricotta cheese, pancetta, rosemary and potatoes. It reminded me of the lahvosh I love at M's Pub in the Old Market, and with good reason. Co-owner Johanna Marr worked at M's for years. Her husband, co-owner Brad Marr, worked at Sullivan's Steak House. Chef Joel Mahr worked at V. Mertz. These people know what Omaha likes to eat, and it shows.
My flatbread at Lot 2 was crisp and the cheese subtly flavored with truffle oil, one of my favorite ingredients. Rosemary lightly permeated the dish.
My husband's bangers and mash — a traditional English dish with the restaurant's house made Italian sausage and mashed potatoes — proved just to his liking. The dish hit all the right notes: flavorful sausage, chunky potatoes, rich gravy made with stout. It's high-end comfort food at its best. Brad Marr told me in an interview later that the sausage is housemade with pork from Aberdeen Farms in Aberdeen, Iowa.
Lot 2 gets a lot of its food from local producers.
"It's a really traditional dish," Marr said of the bangers and mash, "but when you use fresh products it makes a huge difference."
Lot 2 offers a number of main dishes as half orders, and they're priced accordingly. A half order of bangers and mash is just $7. You could spend the same at a chain sub sandwich shop and get much less for your money.
I asked Brad Marr how the restaurant keeps costs down while still shopping with local farmers. He said it's all about thinking of creative ways to use the products.
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"The chef is all about honoring the entire animal," Marr said. "When we get the pork we use it for the sausage, for the pork chop, inside the arancini, in the scallops.
"In this economy, people are very sensitive toward pricing," he said. "It's important to us."
The restaurant was just as crowded during our second visit. We started with two appetizers again: the onion gratin, sort of like French onion soup in a baking dish with shredded meat on the bottom, and the faux gras, a menu item I was itching to taste.
The faux gras is a vegetarian version of foie gras, and it comes served on a board arranged much like the charcuterie and cheese tray, with toasted bread, pickled vegetables and spiced nuts and a little jar of the dip, which has a base of olives, butter and nuts and a meaty, earthy flavor. I would have killed for a jar of this during my vegetarian days.
My husband went with steak frites, and I felt a pang of jealousy looking at it — until I tried my chicken confit. The smoky flavor of the steak, cooked a perfect medium rare, matched wonderfully with the slightly greasy, slightly salty, mostly crispy frites. Be sure to try the chunky housemade ketchup.
The steak frites also includes a pile of Lot 2's kale salad — a modern take on the old-school broccoli salad your grandma used to make. This one has shredded kale, raisins, walnuts, capers, a creamy yogurt-based dressing and shredded Parmesan. I've been craving it since I last ate it.
My chicken confit, cooked slowly in its own fat, tasted incredibly moist and tender with a layer of crisp skin. Flavorful charred Brussels sprouts with hefty pieces of pork sat under the chicken. An accompanying grey mustard sauce seemed bland, but that's me nitpicking. The chicken is another locally sourced ingredient: It comes from Plum Creek Farms in Burchard, Neb.
Lot 2's owners and chef all have experience working in some of the city's best fine dining establishments, and they've brought the best parts of those experiences to their restaurant, along with a hefty dose of hip atmosphere. The restaurant might be one of the best values in the city right now. And the food, to put it simply, is delicious.
Get to Lot 2. You won't regret it.
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