Mercury Rising at Dandelion

"I take doughs very seriously," Tony Knotek tells me. And I am so there for that. With about a year, give or take, under his belt at Mercury, Tony has cracked the code of tantalizing, Instagrammable comfort food -- the kind of gorgeous, eclectic plates that people who spend their lives around food want to be served when they finally sit down after hours.

Given Mercury's impressive wine and cocktail selection, I can imagine all those doughs come in handy at 2 a.m., but they also sounded pretty tempting at 11.30 a.m. when I talked to Tony.

The Mercury menu focuses on big flavors, modern takes on traditional recipes and high quality ingredients. To wit, for Tony's Dandelion, we can look forward to empanadas -- a version with carnitas served with salsa verde, which Tony describes as a really beautiful combination of flavors, and a vegetarian version that is basically a chile relleno bundled up in empanada pastry -- now, where has that been all my life? Tony's also making steamed buns, your choice of braised pork belly or kung pao eggplant. 

"I wanted to make the staples that we always have on our menu, so that people who have never been to Mercury could have a realistic expectation," Tony said, noting that he chose not to take advantage of certain equipment (e.g. the fryer and the flat top stove) in the Dandelion kitchen, because they don't have them at Mercury. "It was important to me not to create a menu that I couldn't create in our restaurant."

 One of Tony's empanada creations. (Photo courtesy of Mercury)

One of Tony's empanada creations. (Photo courtesy of Mercury)

 Steamed buns at Mercury. (Photo courtesy of Mercury)

Steamed buns at Mercury. (Photo courtesy of Mercury)

These sort of self-imposed restrictions reflect the dedication of a self-taught chef who entered the business because of his genuine dedication to the art of preparing artful and memorable food that people love to eat. Before joining Mercury, Tony worked in a blood donation bank for seven years, all the while experimenting with food, broadening his palette and learning from his circle of chef friends. When he saw that the then-new Mercury needed a line-cook, he finally decided to take the plunge into kitchen work. "Within the first week, I ended up being the only person in the kitchen. I worked 15 hours days, six days a week. It was the most stressful and the most challenging thing I've ever done in my career, but it turned out to be the most rewarding," he recalls.

 Tony takes doughs... and triple lindys... very seriously.

Tony takes doughs... and triple lindys... very seriously.

Over time, Tony began to assume more and more responsibility, until he ultimately took over creating the menu. "Mercury's owners, Clark Ross and Colin Breen, have a dream of having really delicious, shareable, high-quality menu items that play on '60s- and '70s-style traditional dishes, like stuffed mushrooms thermidor. My job is to help them fulfill that dream."

Tony humbly credits other chefs, including his friend, founding culinary consultant at Mercury and o.g. Dandelion chef, Tim Maides, with inspiring him to achieve new heights. "The thing that influences me most is watching other chefs," he says. "I'm really proud to be part of the Omaha restaurant community."