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Friday, March 31, 2006

F.O.O.D. Meeting - March 2006

posted by snekse
Just a quick report on the March Foodies of Omaha Discussion (F.O.O.D.) Board meeting. The theme for this month was a little difficult to nail down in a short concise sentence. The best I can come up with is "Adult Dining for Kids". Basically, what restaurants do you consider primarily aimed at adults, but are still "kid friendly"? Let me lay some guidelines for what does and does not fit in this category.

First off, the restaurant should be geared towards adults who want to have a nice night out. Things you might expect to see at such a restaurant might include cloth napkins, words on the menu that a non-foodie might not recognize, wines that can only be ordered by the bottle and quite possibly the lack of table tents. Things you're unlikely to see are a drive through, waiters singing or wearing "flair", and oddly enough - a hamburger (at least on the regular menu). Upscale casual is the closest term I can find to represent this class of restaurant.

Second, the restaurant must still be kid friendly. This is a little bit trickier to define within the context of the first guideline. It was interesting to realize what actually made a place kid friendly; I think the term actually gets modified to mean a place that you wouldn't hesitate to bring your kids, versus a place that goes out of their way to be a family friendly environment. So what attributes would you look for in this reclassification?

Though I didn't initially think of it, price is actually very important for this distinction. The French Laundry may make your kid feel like a prince or princess, but do I really want to pay $100+ for them to eat gourmet Mac & Cheese? Granted this is something that will come into play at varying degrees dependant on your child, their tastes, and your bank account, but it's still a factor to consider.

Another interesting aspect to consider was portion size. Tapas bars are surprisingly kid friendly because it's like you have 30+ kid menu dishes to choose from. And if the restaurant actually has a kids menu, all the better. This one actually surprised me a bit. I had associated restaurants with kids' menus as not being adult friendly, but having one doesn't make a restaurant a kid magnet, it just makes it a little easier on the parents.

So those are just some of the things that we considered when making our list of eligible restaurants. With those parameters in mind, this is the list we came up with.

Carrabba's
Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill
Kona Grill
Upstream

The winner of this list was Firebirds.

Firebirds is basically a woodfire grill house which isn't as ubiquitous in Omaha as it is in other regions. The Firebirds spin on the concept is to add Southwestern Rockies flair to their food and surroundings (which somehow they relate to Aspen, CO). I'm not sure how much of that is really achieved through the food, but they do a decent job of it through decor without being a tired theme restaurant. I could delve into details here, but since I said I was going to keep this short, I'm going to jump right into the food.

This was about my third time at Firebirds and with emotional confliction, I can truly say this is one of the better restaurants in Omaha. I have no problem with it being part of a chain, but it pains me that there are so few upscale casual restaurants in Omaha, thus chains will probably be our only choice for some time to come. It also saddens me because if I'm honest with myself, the term "better" should really be "best", at least when comparing local restaurants of the same caliber.

So what makes Firebirds one of the "best" restaurants in Omaha? Well, aside from the fact that I like the atmosphere (which is admittedly a little too dark), I believe they have set the bar for food a notch above what we had previously seen in the area. They have both creative concepts and consistent execution that decidedly puts them in the upper echelons of the Omaha food chain (no chain pun intended). If I had to compare them to other restaurants in the metro, I'd say they are closest to Jams or Upstream. Some example menu items include Espresso Encrusted Sirloin, Pasta with a Chile Asiago Cream Sauce, a side dish of Fried Spinach leaves, and a chocolate cake that was moist and fudgie without being overly sweet. I do, however, have a couple of gripes about their menu.

My biggest complaint is that the menu is just too small. If you take off the appetizers and salads, you're left with about 25 dishes. If you take off all of the stuff that is standard fare that you can get at Outback, you're down to less than 15 dishes. If you want me to be a repeat customer, you need to give me some more options or at least differentiate yourself enough that I'll seek you out for the food I can get nowhere else. And if you're overly sensitive to spicy foods, you can pretty much write-off about a third of their menu which features a lot of southwestern influenced tastes like mango habanero chutney. The only other thing that bothered me was the price of their side salads. Overall their prices were pretty reasonable ranging from $13 to $24 for entrees. Regardless of what they charge for their entrees, I can't understand for the life of me, why they think they can charge $4 for a Ceasar Salad that is small, drowned in store bought dressing, and just unappealing. At least make your own dressing or something...

Well, since I have yet to keep this brief, let me try to get back on track by talking about the main focus on our theme this month - the dining with kids experience. Since I don't have kids, I can't say too much about the kid friendliness, so I'll just touch on some points that I thought were interesting from a bystanders perspective.

First off, I think they need do a little more training with their staff about how to handle tables with kids. We had a party show up a little after we had been seated. None of the kids who arrived in this party received a kids menu. This is like the sin of all sins, to not give a kid something that other kids have. That's just asking for it.

Second, I hate when a restaurant stringently adheres to their "no reservations" policy. If you have a group that's coming in with more than 8 people, they are arriving a little after 5:00, they've made the request 2 weeks ahead of time, they've explained that it's for a Foodie meeting and they've reconfirmed their arrival 2 hours before their requested seating, then for heavens sake, just give them a reservation and set a table aside. Even after doing all of the above, we still had about a 10 minute wait for our table. Not a big deal when you're with a group of adults, but it can be torture on a kid.

As for the kids menu, this was the most impressive kids menu I have ever seen. When was the last time you saw a kids menu with steak on it? All kids menu entrees also came with a choice of two sides and a "sweet treat". The sides included items such as fresh fruit and carrot chips, along with the more standard potatoes, mac-n-cheese or cinnamon apples. If I recall, the dessert item was a small prepackaged pouch of name brand treats - Oreos in this case. I've never seen such a wide selection on a kids menu with actual food that I could see serving my kids at home and maybe even myself. The prices were reasonable with an average price just under $6. The only downside I saw to this menu was the lack of options for portion sizes. If I have a 3 year old, it's doubtful they are going to eat all that food, so it would be nice to be able to save a buck and get just a single side dish.

Man, I've been writing this for so long I don't even remember if there were other things I wanted to discuss, so I guess I'll wrap-up. Overall, I thought it a decent place to bring kids. There are few places in the upscale-casual arena that I would choose above this to bring a child to. Once the California Pizza Kitchen and The Cheesecake Factory open, one could argue that these restaurants also fit into this category, but I think they are a notch below Firebird's in the "upscale" department. I'll admit that it's unlikely most people would bring kids here very often, but it's nice to have the option for when the occasion calls for it.

I should also mention, to end our evening we made a stop at Cafe Gelato for some sweet treats. I can't say that it's the best gelato in Omaha, but it's not too bad and I think it's gotten better since they first opened. They also have expanded their menu to include soup and sandwiches.

For more thoughts on going out to eat with kids in tow, check out this quick summary of 10 useful tips for dining out with children.

Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill
Village Pointe (168th and Dodge)

17415 Chicago St.
Omaha, NE
(402) 359-1340

Hours of Operation
Lunch & Dinner
Sun - Thurs 11:00 am - 10:00 pm
Friday & Saturday 11:00 am - 11:00 pm

Cafe Gelato(NOW CLOSED)
Pepperwood Village (156th and Dodge)

(402) 445-4460
597 North 155 plaza
Omaha, NE

Hours of Operation
October - April
Sun - Thurs 11:00 am - 9:00 pm
Fri & Sat 11:00 am - 11:00 pm
May - September
Sun - Thurs 11:00 am - 11:00 pm
Fri & Sat 11:00 am - 11:00 pm

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