On my first visit to J. Coco, one of midtown's most talked-about new restaurants, I fell.
Really. I took a spill right in front of the busy kitchen door, where something on the wood floor met the sole of my shoe, knocked me onto my hands and knees and sent my clutch sailing down the hallway. Two wait staff and the restaurant manager helped me up, and another waiter began crazily wiping the spot where I slipped. The color of my face matched my vintage red pants. Aside from a slightly skinned knee, the thing most wounded was my pride.
Luckily things got better from there.
A lot of what I ate at the new restaurant inside the former Wohlner's Grocery Store on 52nd and Leavenworth Streets was great. I experienced service issues early on, but management is dealing with them. And though I encountered a few stumbles — aside from my own — I found enough good to believe that Chef Jennifer Coco may have found a new niche.
Inside, J. Coco is modern. Not much is held over from Wohlner's. The creaky old floors are evened out and the ceiling glows with arty recessed lighting. A long, busy bar anchors the east side and on the south and west walls are two giant black-and-white images of vintage grocery stores — Ben Newman's, the store in the space before Wohlner's, and Coco's grandfather's store, which used to be at 16th and William Streets. The photographs, a gentle nod to the restaurant's and Omaha's past, do a lot for the atmosphere.
Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, almost all the exterior features had to stay the same, Coco said in an interview. The huge windows encircling the front of the restaurant are one of those features, and they bathe the dining room in lovely light. Coco said she wanted to create a dining room similar to the one at the Flatiron Cafe, where she worked for years, something simple, contemporary and “not too crazy.”
“We kept the things that were old, old and made the new things look like new,” she said.
My first visit, on a Saturday night, came with an hour wait — J. Coco doesn't take reservations for parties smaller than eight. But we wasted time pleasantly with bartender Chris Engles making us the kind of cocktails we learned to love when he worked at the Boiler Room in the Old Market.
He's still got it — I can recommend without pause the refreshing Clover Club, a raspberry-infused delight, or my personal favorite, the French 75, a citrusy champagne cocktail.
On one visit, Chris made me a cocktail that's not yet on the menu and doesn't even have a name — a swirl of ginger, whiskey and lime. If it's any indication of what he's concocting, look for creative, tasty drinks on the menu this summer.
We began our meal with two classic comfort-food sides — macaroni and cheese and Brussels sprouts.
The macaroni and cheese, topped with crispy potato chips, was fine, though it didn't blow me away and didn't have the deep cheese flavor I'd hoped for. But the Brussels sprouts really surprised me. They were decidedly old-school, cooked until soft and swathed in a gravylike sauce with sauteed mushrooms. The flavor wasn't bad, but the sauce, for me, was too much. It overwhelmed the fresh sprouts.
When I asked her about the dish, Coco said she wanted to put a twist on the “hated vegetable” that so many chefs have recently made over.
“I hate to admit it,” she said, “but it was a bit of a spin on the green bean casserole. I know a lot of people can wrap their brain around that. Some people love it and some people hate it.”
Coco said the sprouts are partially roasted in advance, and then made to order, sauteed with a blend of mushrooms that could include oyster, cremini, shiitaki and whatever else the restaurant has on hand, and then finished with heavy cream and ricotta.
They're meant to be saucy — the very thing that turned me off.
I also had an issue with sauce on my steak frites. I expected the rich bearnaise, made with clarified butter emulsified in egg yolks and flavored with herbs, and I liked it over the tender strips of beef, cooked a perfect medium-rare. But a deep brown demi-glace that sits under the beef is not mentioned on the menu. Together, the two rich French sauces overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the meat. If I ordered it again, I'd ask for just the bearnaise.
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The side of French fries was serviceable on my first visit. I had them again at a second dinner and liked them more — the outsides seemed crisper and the insides hotter. I loved a tiny pile of simple, savory creamed spinach tucked under the fries, though — in fact, I wish I'd ordered it as a side instead of the mac and cheese.
Coco said the steak frites is meant to be saucy. “I like sauce,” she said.
My husband ordered the lamb two ways, which includes a half rack and lamb osso bucco. The flavorful osso was just a touch dry; he had no complaints about the half rack. A scoop of creamy roasted tomato risotto matched the meat well.
On earlier visits to J. Coco, I encountered some service issues — a dining partner with a food allergy was twice served the food she said she was allergic to. Timing also was off, and an appetizer came after everyone was finished with their entrees. Wine recommendations veered more toward the pricey than the tasty.
Coco said she's working on those things and others with the staff.
“I want the staff to read the customer,” Coco said “I also want to give the formal experience but at an informal price.”
She said her communication with the staff has improved since the restaurant opened, and the staff is learning the menu and the bar.
She also said she underestimated just how popular her eponymous new restaurant would be.
J. Coco won me over for good on my second visit, plying me with delicious, tender short ribs and a pretty amazing hamburger.
The short rib Korean tacos had tender pieces of beef mixed with tart, spicy pickled kimchi tucked into authentic small corn tortillas and just enough heat to make my lips burn. They were so tasty that my husband ordered the short rib entree, and they showed up melt-in-your-mouth tender on a bed of jasmine rice that nicely absorbed the brothy, Asian-spiced sauce. The two rib dishes tasted different enough that we thoroughly enjoyed both — a pleasant surprise.
Coco said the short ribs in the tacos are larger — “Fred Flintstone big ribs” — and shredded before they're served. The entree ribs are smaller, cut crosswise, braised and served on the bone in their own juice.
Coco said the popularity of the Wagyu burger surprised her, but not me. It's fantastic. I ordered mine on the brioche bun (a pretzel bun is available, too) topped with a runny fried egg and a slice of melted smoked gouda. What can I say? I ate the whole thing and loved every bite.
We tried a dessert, a seasonal fruit crisp, that was just OK. It seemed like it'd been microwaved a touch too long before serving. The apples and plums inside reminded me more of fall than spring.
There's no question that Coco knows what she's doing. And there's also no question that the people living in the surrounding neighborhoods are patronizing her restaurant — she said so herself.
“I think the neighborhood wants to be a part of this restaurant,” she said. “I know the neighborhood is going to be the one to support this.”
She's right, but the rest of Omaha should check it out too. Just be careful on your way to the ladies room.
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