A friend of mine in the audio industry told me that he likes to drive from his home in Central Wisconsin out to Denver for the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Festival each fall. His reasoning, he told me, was so he could spend the night in Lincoln, NE going to and from Denver and have dinner at his favorite Indian restaurant - The Oven. With that kind of dedication and drive to center his travel plans around going to a restaurant, I wondered how good The Oven was. On a recent overnight stay in Lincoln, I had the chance to give The Oven a try.
Ngawang Rinchen is a native of Bhutan and he was the former chef for the 4th Bhutanese King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Rinchen cooked meals for the King, his four wives (all sisters), and their children. In 1978, he made his way to the United States cooking in Bhutanese and Indian restaurants. He ended up in Omaha in 1984 as the head chef at The Indian Oven restaurant. In 1988, he was recruited by Steve Gordon to help open and be the head chef at The Oven in Lincoln's Haymarket entertainment district.
Rinchen eventually bought out Gordon and became the sole owner of The Oven. He opened a second location in east Lincoln in 2007 and in 2012, Rinchen took the empty space beneath his restaurant and turned it into a wine bar/cafe by the name of The Cellar. The Cellar features self-serve wine dispensers and a wine list that features some of the best wine selections in the Midwest. Wine Spectator magazine has awarded The Oven/Cellar with their Award of Excellence for their superior wine list for 11 years in a row.
I was staying at the new Hilton Garden Inn in the Haymarket district on a cold late fall night. The Oven is on the corner of N. 8th St. and P St. in downtown Lincoln. (see map) To get there, I walked down two flights of stairs, out a back door to the hotel, across the street and down a block and a half. It took me about three minutes to get to the front door of The Oven.
There, I was met by a hostess who sat me in a banquette seat in the back corner of the restaurant. The place was fairly full of people around 7:30 with more coming in. The decor was tasteful and didn't have the garishness that you find with some Indian restaurants.
My hostess had left off a menu with me and my server for the evening, Audrey, came over to greet me. She asked me if I wanted anything to drink and I asked her for a Kingfisher. They had two sizes of Kingfisher at The Oven - I didn't know that until she brought back the larger of the two bottles. If she would have asked me if I wanted the 22 oz. or the 12 oz. bottle, I would have gladly told her to bring me the 22 ouncer. She must have read my mind.
The menu at The Oven is a combination of Northern Indian and Bhutanese dishes with Rinchen's twists added to some of the food. They had Kheema Matar on the menu, but instead of ground lamb, they made it with ground beef at The Oven. They had seafood entrees with an Indian flavor, as well as a lot of biryani dishes to choose from. The Oven also has a large selection of vegetarian dishes on their menu, as well.
I was just thinking about getting lamb vindaloo that evening - a hearty meal with a bit of a spicy bite to help warm me up on that cold evening. That's what I ordered when Audrey came back to take my order. I also ordered some garlic naan to go along with the vindaloo. Audrey informed me that I also got a bowl of mulligatawny soup with the meal. I usually don't order the mulligatawny, but I was happy it came with the meal that cold evening.
The mulligatawny had a pleasing flavor to it. The pureed lentils were mixed with a multitude of spices to give it a good taste. A dab of rice and some cilantro leaves were part of a garnish on top of the soup. It was a great opener to the meal.
The lamb vindaloo and the naan came out not long after I finished up with the mulligatawny. Tender chunks of lamb were in a heavy tomato sauce that had just a hint of a bite of spicy curry. I tasted hints of ginger, tamarind, and paprika in addition to the curry. Along with a big bowl of steamed rice, it was a hearty comfort food meal. After eating about half the vindaloo, I realized that it had more of a spicy kick than I originally thought. I had to take my napkin and wipe my forehead a couple times as it was causing me to sweat a bit.
The garlic naan came with a spicy mint chutney that had a nice little bite, as well. The naan had a very forward garlic and cilantro flavoring to it. It was light and chewy, and it went well with the vindaloo sauce when I would dip it in the serving bowl.
The food at The Oven was exceptional. I was thoroughly impressed with my meal and thoroughly full because I couldn't stop eating - it was that good. Was it the best vindaloo I've ever had? Tough to say. It was some of the best I've had. Audrey's service was very good, she was accommodating and on top of things. I liked the atmosphere of the restaurant and I can see why it can get packed with a waiting list on the weekend. I'll have to tell my buddy that I tried The Oven and can see why he would make the effort to stop there when he drives to and from Denver.