One of the best meals I’ve eaten this year is in one of the most unexpected places: Fremont’s main street.
Semo Pasta + Wine, which chef Drew Statz and his wife, Michelle, opened in downtown Fremont last spring, is what he calls “European-inspired Nebraska cuisine.”
After two visits, I think it’s one of the most interesting spots to open in the Omaha suburbs in years, serving carefully crafted, high-end Italian with an often adventurous bent.
“This has been the goal from day one,” Statz told me after my visits. “The first time I ever walked into a place, I wanted 100 percent say in everything. I fell in love with it. I wanted to be able to put my spin on every corner of the business.”
It seems that’s what he’s done at Semo, named after semolina, the coarsely ground wheat used to make pasta.
The quality at Semo hit me several times over: first when I tried the blood sausage on polenta, during our first visit — a dish I hardly ever see anywhere in Omaha outside of its periodic appearance at La Buvette. It hit again after I got a look at the homemade slab of pate on the cheese plate, and again when we tried a remarkably well executed Alaskan halibut with elements of hot and cool throughout the plate.
To be honest, I wasn’t terribly surprised, because I liked Statz’s food when he was one of the team of chefs that opened Monarch, in downtown’s Hotel Deco, and again when he became executive chef at Dante. My visits to Semo were not the first time I’d seen Statz shave almost an entire truffle over a pile of creamy, decadent and buttery tajarin pasta, which you should absolutely have him do, if it is on the menu the night you visit.
The menu at Semo is separated into three neat sections: starters, pasta and protein. Generally speaking, for two diners, one from each of the two sections and two from the protein list is more than enough food.
Over the course of two visits, once with two diners and once with four, we tried much of the menu, though the protein list changed almost totally in the month between our dinners.
The aforementioned blood sausage, a thick, back link with plenty of depth and a crumbly, homemade texture, came served over a bowl of creamy polenta and amarena cherry, a surprising but very good, sweet contrast.
Halibut crudo is excellent, the gentle flavor of the fish contrasting with hot calabrian chili, spicy radish and bright lemon. A seasonal kale and beet salad, in an eye-catching color combination of red and green, has varied textures of crisp and crunchy, punctuated with walnuts and a bright apple cider vinegar kick.
Don’t skip the bread and butter, made by Michelle, who is both a pastry chef and sommelier. The focaccia in particular, crisp and oily, is notable. But the rest of the basket is good, too, particularly when served with salty butter. It’s great when paired with the cheese plate, a pleasant mix of soft and firm cheeses, pickled vegetables and a hunk of country pate with the distinct flavor of liver.
All the pasta at Semo is homemade, and diners will find a variety of shapes and many different sauce offerings — Statz was quick to point out that these dishes aren’t Italian American staples like white alfredo or chicken Parmesan.
Instead, they’re much closer to what a diner finds on the menu at Dante: All sorts of pasta shapes — tagliatelle, ravioli, spaghettini, mafaldine — with slow cooked pork and short rib ragu, a classic wagyu bolognese, a thin white wine sauce or a rich carbonara made with pork guanciale and pink peppercorn.
Almost all the pastas we tried were great, a mix of al dente pasta with well seasoned, well executed sauces. Probably the crowd favorite was the mafaldine and bolognese topped with a generous shave of Pecorino Romano and a drizzle of olive oil. Its long-simmered depth of flavor and chunky meat finish is stick-to-your-ribs good. Probably the only one I didn’t love was a basil spaghettini with Dungeness crab finished with white wine and parsley. The crab read too dry for our liking, and we wished for more basil flavor from the dish.
Semo is inside a historic building in Fremont, and Statz lives close enough to walk or bike to the restaurant in around 11 minutes, which he says he does almost daily.
Statz said he expected most of the clientele at Semo to be from Fremont and other surrounding towns like Valley and Cedar Bluffs. Instead, he said the bulk of diners have come from west Omaha and Elkhorn.
“Seventy percent of the business is Omaha,” he said. “They don’t mind coming out for truffles.”
When Statz has enough, truffles are almost always on the menu, in particular on top of that creamy, buttery tajarin pasta, which is absolutely delightful, rich and earthy. In the past week, the restaurant played host to a truffle dinner, to the tune of $225 a diner. Presumably, more events like that one will be forthcoming.
There’s lots of wagyu on the protein menu, and the wagyu short rib and polenta I ordered was melt-in-your-mouth good, Creamy polenta, earthy mushrooms and long-simmered meat make for an alluring combination, full of flavor and perfect for the seasonally cool weather.
Another night, a wagyu hangar steak arrived perfectly cooked, with oversized, giant gnocchi that Statz told me later are a work in progress for the kitchen. I found the concept fun to eat and cool to look at, though I wished they had been a bit more tender.
Statz said he’s letting the guest drive the menu at Semo, and it’s different from even what he initially expected.
“I thought we were going to have to be more casual,” he said. “And then the stuff we put on the menu that fit that more casual audience wasn’t selling. What sold was the wagyu. The nice seafood.”
It takes confidence, I think, to let the guest take the lead. In this case, the guest’s desire and the chef’s skills end up coexisting to create one of the more intriguing dining experiences I’ve had in some time.
Weds – Sun: 5p to 9p
Mon & Tues: CLOSED