Of the 25 restaurants I reviewed in 2023, these are my top eight

reviewed by Sarah Baker Hansen
A quick reminder before we dive right into the year’s best reviewed restaurants: As it has been for many years, my annual best-of list only includes restaurants that I have reviewed in the last calendar year. If you don’t see one of your favorites, that is probably why.

Want me to review that favorite, or a different restaurant, in 2024? Send me an email.

Check the graphic I’ve shared as part of this story – and on all my social media – to see the full list of 25 reviews I wrote in 2023.

Happy New Year.

1. Ota

It should come as little surprise that David Uttterback’s Ota is my number one restaurant of the year.

When I reviewed it earlier this year, I said it was the best sushi between Chicago and Los Angeles. Yesterday, the Washington Post called it the best sushi in America.

Bam.

I’ve been writing about Utterback’s restaurant and his omakase since 2018, when I first reviewed Yoshitomo for the Omaha World-Herald.

From day one, Utterback created a dining experience that didn’t previously exist in our city. He served fascinating bites of fish most diners in Omaha had never tasted before. He presented them gorgeously. He made dishes of his own creation that have now become the restaurant’s signature bites.

And he shared his massive knowledge, in his super-approachable and friendly way, with each small group he encountered during each omakase dinner. For the uninitiated, “omakase” translates to “I’ll leave it up to you,” and that’s just what diners do: put their fate, and their dinner, in the hands of the sushi chef. The experience lasts for several hours, includes more than a dozen courses and usually only includes a small handful of diners.

It doesn’t hurt that Dave is a wonderful host and conversationalist, and his team are hospitality experts.

Now, with Ota, which is his mother’s family name and translates to “big rice patty,” Utterback has expanded his footprint in Benson. He has taken his omakase to that proverbial next level – a level that would have been unimaginable in Omaha or Nebraska if he hadn’t made it our reality.

It is difficult to summarize what Ota is in just a few paragraphs. Instead of making that attempt. I’m going to simply direct you to my full review, which I wrote in March, and end it with this: one of the country’s best food experiences is happening right here in Omaha, in our neighborhood, and I strongly suggest you take a seat at this bar, if you can swing it financially and manage to score an increasingly hard-to-get reservation. Utterback and his team are playing on a national level. And the truth is, that pronouncement isn’t really bold at all. It’s simply true.

Ota
6011 Maple Street, inside Yoshitomo
https://www.exploretock.com/YOSHITOMO/
402-916-5872

2. The Boiler Room

Since 2009, when it opened its doors, The Boiler Room has been one of the city’s most forward-thinking, consistently good, truly creative restaurants that we’ve ever seen as a food-loving city.

It remains that today, a decade into chef Tim Nicholson’s tenure. I have always been quick to praise the restaurant’s seafood and the fresh fish, the house-made bread and charcuterie and the experience I said you wouldn’t find anywhere else: Where else, in fact, have you ever been able to order a pig’s head terrine? And then there’s the top-notch craft cocktail bar, the gorgeous dining room and the exceptional service, friendly but knowledgeable, proper but still comfortable. All of that has always been the case at the restaurant. But the menu? That’s ever-changing.

I am still thinking about Nicholson’s Yorkshire pudding, which was on the first plates menu one night, and which I don’t recall ever seeing on a fine dining menu in Omaha in the last decade.

The pastry, which had risen tall, had a tender, just-chewy finish. Inside its bowl-like center was a rich, seasonal filing which I was shocked to realize didn’t contain any meat. Instead, it was made of dates, gorgonzola cheese and smoked pecan, topped with tangy pickled mustard seeds, a vegan aioli and a rich mushroom demi glaze.

Large enough to be a main course, and certainly filling enough to be one, the dish had the kind of savory flavor and wonderful execution that made it an original. If it comes back, I will surely order it again.

Nicholson cooks protein to perfection. Beef arrives perfectly medium rare; the pork is always tender and juicy. And in my experience, the same goes for the fish on the Boiler Room’s menu, which is always flaky and light.

While the restaurant isn’t Italian, it knocks out some great homemade pastas, often with hearty Bolognese or braised sugo sauces, which are just excellent.

Service at the restaurant is top-notch. The staff hits the right note between formality and friendliness. Their level of comfort makes the diner feel comfortable, too.

Some restaurants age better than others. The Boiler Room is one that does. Nicholson hasn’t ever lost sight of the upscale French concept the restaurant originated with, but he’s confidently made it his own during the past decade.

It’s hard to hit the right balance between chic and cozy, fancy but hearty, new but familiar, and somehow, the restaurant executes that on each and every level: atmosphere, drinks, service and most of all, food.

The Boiler Room
https://www.boilerroomomaha.com/1110 Jones Street
402-916-9274

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday

3. Semo Fremont

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.

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.

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.

Chef and co-owner Drew 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.

Semo Pasta + Wine
https://www.semofremont.com/414 N. Main Street, Fremont
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Closed Monday and Tuesday

4. Kinaara

It’s almost strange to think that Kinaara, which moved from a Millard hole-in-the-wall to a chic spot in Regency in 2022, hasn’t always been there, with its creative, high-end Indian food served in an atmosphere to match.

I couldn’t be more thrilled for us diners, or for owners Ashish Sathyan and Kimberly Harris, who I first met when I reviewed Kinaara way back in 2021, and then again later that year when I put them on my Eater essentials list.

I stand by what I said then: the restaurant is serving some of the most singular Indian food in the city, and since the move, which also included a lot of menu upgrades and the addition of a wine and cocktail menu, it’s gotten even better.

The excellent tandoori chicken is made with half of a bird from Plum Creek Farms, a well-known local producer, and that quality makes it shine. Each bite is tender and juicy, with plenty of spice and a generous side of smoky tikka sauce for dipping.

Since my review, I’ve recommended the Wagyu beef coconut fry to several friends and family members, and eaten it several times myself. It’s one of the menu’s gems.

High-quality hunks of wagyu chuck from Morgan Ranch, in Burwell, Neb., are swathed in a complex, herbaceous sauce made with ginger, garlic, red onion, coconut slices and garam masala, a classic Indian spice blend. The beef is crisp-tender and the sauce is wonderful, and even once I was full, I kept sneaking bites.

Kinaara has some dishes that are truly unique to Omaha. Chef Ashish Sathyan’s devotion to sharing his family’s recipes and his Southern Indian heritage are delightful; now, he’s doing that work in a space that matches such an adventurous attitude.

Kinaara
kinaaraomaha.com
Regency Shopping Center
(402) 895-3463
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., closed Sunday

5. Mootz

The first person you’re likely to see when you walk into the new brick-and-mortar location of Mootz Pizza, on the back edge of Countryside Village, is Brent Adkisson, Mootz pizza chef Collin Adkisson’s dad, working at the cash register.

Look around and you’ll also probably spot Ruth Adkisson, his mother, prepping in the back of the kitchen, or clearing tables in the dining room.

Collin Adkisson himself is right there, too, preparing the pop-up turned food truck turned dining room’s signature thin crust, wood fired pies.

To say Mootz, an opening I’ve been anticipating since 2021, is a family affair is kind of an understatement. Collin and his family know what’s what, and Mootz, I am happy to say, does not disappoint.

Two of his recent daily specials – a Philly pizza and a Buffalo chicken pizza – linger in my memory.

The Philly pie, which Matthew and I both thought of as an upscale take on the Nebraska hamburger pie, had plenty of flavor and a clear commitment to good ingredients. It was, in two words, surprisingly refined.

I thought the same when I tried his take on a Buffalo chicken pizza, if you can believe that. Juicy chicken from Western Iowa’s Flavor Country Farms gets torn into hunks and scattered on top of a calabrian chili Buffalo sauce and two cheeses: Fior de latte, which is a pure cow’s milk mozzarella, and Grana Padano. The whole thing gets a handful of “micro celery,” pretty green wisps that bring both color and subtle flavor.

This is a pizza that could have been drowned in sauce, but isn’t. It’s balanced and well-composed.

I have no doubt that Collin will continue to create interesting, unusual and likely delicious pizzas — I can’t wait to try his bacon, egg and cheese breakfast pizza, for example.

“One of my favorite things about pizza,” Collin said, “Is that one ingredient can totally alter the whole pizza.”

He’s right, and that’s great. And how fun for the city of Omaha: we get to be the ones to see what he comes up with next.

Mootz
https://www.mootzomaha.com/
(531) 283-5335.
8725 Shamrock Road in Countryside Village
Hours: Tuesday thru Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.

To-go orders are available for pickup, and need to be ordered over the phone. The Mootz food truck is available to rent for special events, and details are on the website.

6. Lyle’s

I know, I know, more pizza. But ​​Lyle’s is one of those great neighborhood spots that dot the city of Omaha: No matter how long it’s been open, it feels like it’s always been there.

The locally owned New York-style joint, which opened near 52nd & Leavenworth Street in April, has all the trappings of a comfortable, worn-in pizza joint, including a long bar, lots of white subway tile, vintage black-and-white photographs of Omaha and a large, powerful pizza oven.

During my two recent weeknight visits, our experiences were mostly positive: I liked more dishes than not on Lyle’s petite menu, and I found service friendly and prompt and the atmosphere comfortable and welcoming.

The Funghi is one of Lyle’s simplest pizzas, and perhaps one of the best: deeply roasted mushrooms bring a lovely earthiness, and, paired with salty fontina, mozzarella and rich Parmigiano Reggiano. I could have eaten several slices.

We tried two of Lyle’s meat pizzas: the sausage and the tres carne. The first came topped with chunks of fennel sausage, tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy pepperoncini, dollops of goat cheese and a healthy drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey, the pizza ingredient of the moment.

The pie packed a decent amount of spice between the hot honey, the pepperoncini and the sausage itself. Goat cheese was an interesting choice — one I hadn’t expected.

The stretch of Leavenworth that Lyle’s calls home is, of course, next door to the former home of J. Coco. It’s nice to see a new, locally owned spot fill the gap left by the exit of that spot. Though Lyle’s has a different look and feel and a totally different menu, it’s small, vibrant presence brings impact. I know I’ll be back.

Lyle’s Pizzeria
https://www.lylespizzeria.com/
5213 Leavenworth Street
402-763-2125
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

7. The Mill on Leavenworth

Of all the places on this year’s list, the Mill on Leavenworth is the one I have revisited the most.

It was my favorite spot in Lincoln as a college kid in the late 1990s, and now it’s my favorite once again. Coffee culture in Omaha has grown a lot since then — this was when the show “Friends” was still new, my friends — and for me, The Mill fills a niche that’s a mix of nostalgia, comfort, and honestly, simple, good coffee.

The beans are not as complex as the ones you’ll find at Archetype. The drinks are not as finely crafted as the ones I’ve ordered at Rally, in north Downtown. There’s no extra creamy, vegan pistachio latte like the one we discovered at Amateur Coffee, on Cuming Street.

Though I love all those shops, I go to The Mill for specific, easy drinks, like a cup of their gently flavored hot hazelnut brew topped with steamed milk, or a cold brew mixed with house made cookie butter syrup that gives a hint of Biscoff mixed with Trader Joe’s speculoos. It’s divine.

The shop also has the locally owned chain’s first drive-thru, which I have taken advantage of more than is probably acceptable.

Inside, the Mill Leavenworth has an updated version of that worn-in cozy vibe I so loved about the original Lincoln location. Chairs are comfortable and abundant. There’s a trendy but appealing library wall covered with a literal rainbow of books. Lighting is soft and warm. And, after 5, the bar seating area becomes an actual bar, with a menu of beer, wine and house-created cocktails, along with a limited menu of savory snacks.

I’ve spent several hours during the day and in the evening at the Omaha Mill, and I’m not the only one. Every time I visited, the place was packed. Of course, a few people still read newspapers, which I found deeply comforting. But most were like me: headphones on, laptops on, work hours being logged. To that end, I can hardly believe how many wall outlets the shop has, tucked behind curtains or underneath chairs. It’s impressive. Coffee culture has changed, and the Mill has, too.

The Mill on Leavenworth
https://millcoffee.com/3105 Leavenworth St.
402-252-5588
Hours: open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

8. Omaha Bagel Co.

The final spot on the list goes to a bagel that’s been on my mind the entirety of 2023: the French toast bagel at Omaha Bagel Co.

A better version of a cinnamon crunch bagel, the Omaha Bagel Co. version is coated almost all the way around in a thin layer of sweet, brittle-like cinnamon crispy bits. The bottom, coated in more buttery cinnamon, approaches a sticky bun. It’s absolutely delicious.

But all the bagels, really, are good. Tinged with the flavor of sourdough, the inside has the right amount of chew, and the exterior has an impressively bubbly, crisp crust.

They’re pretty, too: softly rounded with a hint of shine, they look handmade because they are. There’s plain, yes, but also many appealing flavors, like asiago cheese, crusty French toast and rosemary sea salt. They’re the kind of baked good that, once I lay eyes on, I simply am not able to resist.

The texture of the bagels is spot-on. I grew up devoted to west Omaha’s Bagel Bin; these bagels have the same chew as the interior of those bagels, but where they’re different is the exterior: the outside almost pops with crispness as you cut into one, and the bubbled finish is thanks to that active sourdough starter the Shields use in their recipe, which co-owner Henry Shields developed.

There’s several savory choices and a handful of sweet ones. Among my favorites: A deeply savory asiago cheese bagel, its outside coated in a layer of browned cheese that has a rich, nutty flavor. A sophisticated sea salt and rosemary combination, where the chunky flakes of salt add to the bagel’s crispy exterior in a pleasant way.

Omaha Bagel Co.
https://instagram.com/omaha_bagel_co
https://www.facebook.com/omahabagelco

Bagel flavors are listed each week on Instagram/FB. Friday and Saturday are the typical baking days, but an effort is always made to accommodate mid-week requests, when possible. Orders must be made before noon on Thursday for pickup or delivery on Friday. Saturday orders follow the same timeline of noon the day prior. Delivery is available within five miles of 96th and Center from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m., and pickup is from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. The address will be provided to pick up orders upon confirmation. A dozen bagels is $24, and plain cream cheese is $4. For more information, or to order, DM via Instagram, text or call 402-706-2529

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