Bryce Coulton spends his days with slabs of meat.
Every morning around 7, he gets to the French Bulldog, the much-talked-about Dundee restaurant where he's the head chef.
He straps on a black apron, sharpens his knives and swiftly begins separating fat from lean. He grinds. He salts giant hams for curing.
The charcuterie he creates each day won't be eaten for months and, in at least one case, years. So he plans.
“Prep work is isolating, in a good way,” he said one recent afternoon. “It gives me time to think.”
After two recent reviewing visits to the Bulldog — and quite a few more on my own time — it's clear to me that Coulton has thought a lot about what appears on the restaurant's succinct, meat-heavy menu. Coulton and his partners, Phil Anania and Anne Cavanaugh, have clearly pondered everything: food, wine, cocktails, atmosphere.
The restaurant's opening was one of the most anticipated I've experienced since I began writing about food a year ago. As a Dundee resident, I was as excited as everyone else.
I thought the French Bulldog would be Dundee's version of La Buvette, a quaint, dark and charismatic French bistro where Anania and Cavanaugh both worked. Instead, the French Bulldog is brighter but not too bright, modern but not sterile, younger and more contemporary in its meaty menu.
Like La Buvette, it's a place I want to hang out at as often as possible.
The restaurant's menu is small and, not surprisingly, heavy on Coulton's handmade charcuterie. It's focused only on dishes that the kitchen can perfectly execute, the owners said in an interview. Don't come here looking for a giant plate of pasta or a sautéed chicken breast. Instead, come with an open mind.
Our first visit began with a drink from bartender Chris Engles: a classic Manhattan he made using a small batch of brandy he'd infused with plum, paired with bitters, dry vermouth and a Granny Smith apple slice for garnish. He advised us to soak the apple in the spirits until we were done, then eat it. We also tried his bulldog rye, an incredibly accessible but still complex whiskey drink.
The drinks were appropriate companions to a delicate bresaola crostini appetizer. Bresaola, air-dried salted beef filet generally aged about three months, was cut thin enough to be nearly transparent, then folded on a crisp slice of bread. A pickle-relish-laden sauce added a hint of salt and brine. The Italian meat — subtle, slightly greasy in a good way, rich — was just a hint of what was to come.
Anania's wife, Kate, is responsible for much of the restaurant's design, which is both memorable and instantly comfortable, especially on these recent fall evenings when darkness comes early.
The back wall is decorated with brown and cream tiles arranged in a zig-zag pattern, the east wall with reclaimed barn wood that Anania and Coulton took from an Iowa farm that had been knocked down by a tornado. The bar is made of butcher block and cherry walnut, and its tall seats are some of the restaurant's most popular: They give diners a direct view of the action at the kitchen area just behind the bar.
The restaurant's most notable feature is a window on the back wall that looks into the meat cooler, where Coulton's creations hang for months on end. He said he saw a similar window in a butcher shop in Brooklyn and wanted one in Omaha.
Netted salamis and sausages, hams slowly turning into prosciutto and other delicacies are on display, a preview of what diners will find on their plates in the months to come. Sitting at the table next to the cooler may be the best non-bar seat in the house — it's certainly the most interesting.
The restaurant is the furthest thing you can imagine from the Subway that previously occupied this space on Underwood Avenue.
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“From the first day, it felt like we had been doing this for a million years,” Cavanaugh said.
On both visits, my husband and I shared a meat and cheese plate. I have a documented love for meat and cheese plates; the Bulldog's version is among the best. This is where Coulton's talent and thoughtfulness shine.
We tried three meats and three cheeses the first time. The plate runs $23, and the portions have been increased since the restaurant opened. It's enough for two to share as a meal. It included a ramekin of rillettes, tender shredded pork belly flavored with brown sugar and juniper; a spicy-savory chorizo cantimpalo, a Mexican pork sausage flavored with hot pepper, garlic and fragrant rosemary; and a creative anisetta, another pork sausage that tasted deeply of anise seed and dried chiles with a hint of white wine.
We paired them with chevre, a soft, light goat cheese; English hard cheddar; and Italian taleggio with a washed rind. Housemade grainy mustard and sweet berry jam complemented each component but never overwhelmed. My husband fell hard for the rosemary-spiked chorizo, while I was having a love affair with the thinly sliced anisetta. The sheer creativity of these meats, and the mastery with which they were prepared, pushed them beyond most of the charcuterie I've had in Omaha.
I'll pause here to note that service at the Bulldog is excellent. Each time, our wait staff made great wine and cocktail recommendations. They described each dish on the menu flawlessly and recommended great meat and cheese pairings, including the combination we had on our second cheese and meat plate.
That one was smaller, with two cheeses — a French brie and a beautiful Italian ubriaco with a dark reddish rind — paired with a classic salami cotto, full of peppercorns, garlic and coriander.
Coulton told me he mastered the basics of making charcuterie at his last two jobs — at the Boiler Room and Pitch Pizzeria. Now he's getting creative, retooling those basics and doing things like taking Cold War era recipes from Poland, mastering them, then playing with ingredients and spices to turn them into something modern.
Plates at the French Bulldog are sized for sharing, and every entree can be paired with a meat and cheese plate or one of a few crostini appetizers. Prices are reasonable. Sandwiches are around $8, sausage plates $11 and snacks $4. It's also worth noting that most wines by the glass hover around $6 and beers go as low as $3. Cavanaugh said they didn't want the Bulldog to be a place where you had to spend a lot to get a nice meal.
The restaurant's “Greens” menu is unusual. It features a couple of true salads, but most aren't what diners might expect. A pork pie appears on the list, and mine came with two savory, herby pork meatballs each surrounded with a tender pastry crust. A subtle squash puree and a pile of blue cheese worked amazingly well in both flavor and texture. Though the pies were small, I was full after just one.
Though I didn't try it, Coulton told me later that his favorite dish on the menu is the roasted acorn squash, also on the greens menu.
My husband devoured the pork belly sandwich, which is the current sandwich du jour. He liked the savory, rich meat, tender but not too soft, and a horseradish mustard sauce that tasted sweet and tangy.
The entrees we sampled forwarded the theme of classic comfort food ideas transformed into something that felt new.
I expected the Bulldog to be the reincarnation of La Buvette in my midtown neighborhood, and I wanted that, because Buvette has wormed its way into my heart with its bohemian charm and very French menu.
Now, for different reasons — thoughtful, beautiful food, an amazing wait staff and a chef who is on his way to becoming a master of the art of charcuterie — the French Bulldog is nestled there too, a more modern take on an old favorite.
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