The necessity of trying their famous “mac-n-cheese” first brought me to Marks Bistro almost six years ago. After trying their steak variation, I was hooked.  It was like a cheesesteak (without the bread) in your mouth – flavorful meat and four different cheeses melting together to form a perfect union. It was one of my first loves moving to Omaha.

So when I had heard that the restaurant had made three chef changes in the past year, I wanted to check in. Their current chef, Zeb Rogers previously worked at the Paxton Chophouse as well as the now closed Loft 610, and has been with Marks since August.

Founder Mark Pluhacek credits Rogers with helping the restaurant finish one of its best years despite the changes. Pluhacek’s calls Mark’s a bistro not so much because of the menu, but in its casualness, not terribly expensive or a cheesy chain. Think La Buvette and M’s Pub in a renewing midtown business district they helped turn around. “We’re a neighborhood place,” said Pluhacek. The mix of quality meals, place and friendliness, targeting a clientele that cares about their dining as well as their community, is a personality Pluhacek says Mark’s strives for in its “service, aesthetics and food.”

Co-owner Molly Romero describes Marks as “an American bistro that aims at food moderately priced that is exceptionally well done, with an extensive wine list.”  The busy and beautiful Dundee staple with the expansive patio and faithful clientele is known for helping to pioneer tasteful comfort food in Omaha’s culinary scene.

Grazing the updated menu, we started with the familiar spinach and artichoke dip. The crostini pieces were perfect, and kitchen-prepared artichoke and spinach are featured, but the dip was missing one crucial element – cheese. Our waitress noticed our untouched appetizer and asked for our honest opinions. When she brought our entrees, she told us not to fill up because the chef wanted to give us a free dessert — a polite and generous move. 

Both pasta dishes are new additions. The Blue Lip Mussels and Lobster Claw in a butternut squash puree over fettuccine had seven mussel shells, but only four actual mussels. I searched in vain through the pasta to find the remaining ones. Though the four were cooked perfectly and tasted flavorful, the lobster claw was a bit overcooked. The squash puree added a unique rustic taste and the pasta was cooked al dente.

The Rustic Pappardelle pasta with crimini mushrooms, leeks, almonds and breaded chicken breast in an asiago cream sauce was also uneven. The chicken was crisp and cooked properly; but it couldn’t enhance the flavor of the dish because the pasta tasted too heavy and bland. The mushrooms were so few that the dish seemed empty rather than rustic.

We chose the pistachio chocolate torte for our promised dessert – a light, creamy and enjoyable ending to a lack-luster meal with  excellent service.

Talking with Romero later, she decried our timing.  “Those two have been on the strike from the menu list, we almost took the Mussells off last week!”

I couldn’t just let go of a first love, so I went back.  On my second visit, I brought my husband. Old love meet new love – let’s see if you two get along. Dinner is different than lunch at Mark’s with the low lights, candles and a specials list that reaches almost to $30. It seems more fine dining than neighborhood restaurant. The service went in the other direction.

Our waitress greeted us with a mouthful of chewing gum and had to read the board to tell us the specials. When we asked her about the chef’s additions to the menu, she yelled over to the bartender to ask him. We ordered the cheese plate and we couldn’t wait to hear about each one. She delivered the plate and immediately walked away. We were unenlightened, but the cheeses were tasty, flavorful and each a variation from the other.

For our main dishes, we ordered two specials, Pan Seared Sea Scallops and Tenderloin Solfrino. With only three scallops served on gnocchi and spinach, a tart lemon flavor made all the ingredients work together, but overshadowed the seafood. The Tenderloin Solfrino was served with a beef-based sauce of shallots, cayenne, tomato and lemon – a delicious combination of flavors that enhanced the meat immensely. That was helpful, because the meat could have used some more basic seasonings to boost the flavor. The brie and potato gratin was a nice compliment to the beef.

Pluhacek, a self-described meat snob from his days in the butcher’s department at Broadmoor Market when his family ran it, expressed disappointment at the experience. “We take the best cuts of tenderloin from Omaha Steaks. It’s a very lean, tender meat without much marbling, [we] just season with salt and pepper.”

First loves can stumble, but I hope my luck improves or that Marks works out the kinks in its menu and service from my dining experience, because I would love to go back and happily experience all those first love flavors again.

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