Another post from our staff writer, Kendall Sussman, on her “planes, trains and automobile” tour across the American west. This time, she found herself in Omaha, Nebraska.
Traveling around the country, some places just feel like home. Omaha embodies the personality of America’s favored son: one whose work-calloused hands know how to throw a spiral, clean a fish and salute the flag, one whose eyes are not too dull to look forward and hope for a better tomorrow, one whose senses are not so ingrained with the scent of asphalt that the memory of the smell of the earth in spring has disappeared. Known for cattle and corn, Omaha nevertheless generated one of the most sophisticated financial minds of our time in Warren Buffet. Built on the spinal cord of railroad expansion, it also houses the U.S. Strategic Air Command Unit. Starting with nothing more than a location on the Missouri River, the city planners of the late 19th century strategically bid for the right to serve as the crux of the western railroad expansion, securing a permanent distribution network for the area’s agriculture. The Union Stockyards were established near the tracks in 1884, deliberately marrying the needs of the rural areas to the success of the city. Faced with a troubled economy at the close of the century, the city countered with open hospitality, hosting an international exposition and a Native American congress to bring vitality and commerce to the area. The personality of the city has not changed; today Omaha still welcomes bursts of culture and commerce, serving as the site of the College World Series and the initial rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, while still maintaining its midwestern identity and foundation.
Omaha was historically divided into districts defined largely by function. Today the Capitol District, a newly renovated office and entertainment area and the Old Market district are the most clearly defined. Intriguing historical legends still whisper around the blurred boundaries of others, like the Gold Coast which opulently housed the city elite and the Sporting district, home to shady Prohibition-style intrigue. The Old Market is an undulating, cobbled, latticed checkerboard of wide avenues tumbling over with bars, eateries, and boutiques. A nostalgic candy store aisle wraps you into a maze of vintage records and comic book figures cluttered into the adjacent antique shop. Stepping out, you find yourself on the doorstep of a French bakery redolent with fresh oven aromas. The shops peek from beneath a brim of blossoms edging the awnings.
Old Market is best navigated on foot, but the intermittent strings of public bikes offer the perfect way to explore the rest of the city. Most of downtown is under heavy construction. Entire blocks have been cratered for new commercial and entertainment opportunities centered around the Missouri river banks, generating towering heaps of sand and concrete. We gamely dodged the cranes, barriers and potholes of the Mario Kart board and wound our way through the Capitol district which, at its heart, boasts a modern town square lined by eateries and entertainment. Just beyond downtown, we stopped at the Culprit Cafe, a daytime coffee shop with a limited but delicious menu that transforms into a lively music and bar scene on certain nights. We tried their pesto drizzled quiche and a tasty burger on crispy garlic toast followed by a sweet, creamy cheesecake.
Down the road waited Creighton University’s peaceful, lush campus, one of six colleges and universities in Omaha. From there, it was a downhill coast to the renovated river area offering miles of trails on both sides. A new pedestrian bridge snaked us across to Iowa and a generous park area.
Scattered throughout Omaha, we visited three unique chocolate shops each with its own artistic temperament. Chocolat Abeille was opened in 2017 in the Old Market area by Tina Tweedy, a self-taught pastry chef on hiatus who saw the empty storefront and seized the opportunity to open a family business. Flavored with unexpected natural ingredients like mushrooms, lavender, saffron and home-harvested honey, her chocolates are brushed with bright swaths of color, sweet miniature Cezanne canvasses. She also offers more traditional flavors of truffles and creams as well as 3D gift objects like painted high-heeled shoes and cowboy boots, all decorated with bold impressionistic brushstrokes. Her shop opens into a side salon for hosting elegant gatherings, teas and tastings.
The Cordial Cherry owner Melissa’s style bears more resemblance to the work of a modern, whimsical glass sculptor. Using either maraschino cherry cordials or truffles as her base, she uncovers the hidden character in each wedge of chocolate, creating charming and fanciful collections for a variety of holidays, occasions and penchants. Waiting impishly inside the box in her polar collection are a tiny reindeer with shaped antlers and a button nose, a portly lost little polar bear and a chubby, quirky penguin. They sit alongside glittering snowballs and carefully painted miniature ornaments. The cordial base is a delicious blend of crisp lively chocolate, sweet cherry and the perfect burst of tangy syrup. Although, I must admit, I could only bring myself to try the side pieces, the three characters are still nestled safely in the box. These are elegant, luxury items and priced accordingly. She also sells dipped cherries and cordials and will ship her products if projected temperatures at the destination are below 70 degrees.
Farther out in the Papillion suburb, Chocolaterie Stam is one of very few US storefronts offering the delectables of a fourth-generation Dutch master chocolatier. The flavors and shapes here are more traditional, reminiscent of classic French cuisine, deeply defined by adhering masterfully to the basic techniques, using the highest quality ingredients with a confident distrust of fads. The classic flavors are comfortably present here, all made with a delicious, expertly refined, velvety chocolate filled with heavenly, buttery cream or ganache centers. The subtly rich cream base was divine in its pure form, but we also loved it accented with both cherry and marzipan. The other basic center, a gorgeous ganache, was weighty and innately satisfying. The shop carries gelato, coffees and seasonal gifts. Her prices are reflective of the high-end offerings, but not outrageous.
Visiting Omaha was comfortable like a family dinner with a lively young man whose ears are open to the call of adventure but still hear the harmony of home.