"Wine is such an important part of the dining experience in so many places in the world — why not at an Indian restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska?”
The Oven
Credit: Andy Sipple

Everybody remembers their first fancy meal.

Mine was at a now-shuttered social club in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska. I was born and raised in the capital city, and my father frequently had lunch meetings there. It was a classic fine-dining establishment from a bygone era: deep red velvet window drapes, white tablecloths, gold-plated flatware. At ten or so floors up, the restaurant was practically a skyscraper by Lincoln standards. Here, I was introduced to the magic of medium-rare filet mignon and made-to-order crème brûlée (they used a blowtorch and everything!).

When that placed closed, there was a noticeable dearth of truly fancy dining options in town, but The Oven was — and still remains — the exception to the rule. I’ve celebrated countless birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries at The Oven. It’s where I nursed a broken heart, where I studied for exams, and where I had some of my first sips of wine.

The family-owned Indian restaurant's very existence, in fact, is unlikely — to be honest, my hometown isn’t known for a diverse set of culinary offerings. And yet, The Oven has found massive success within Lincoln’s food scene, which is largely dominated by fast food and chain restaurants. In 2018, the eatery owned and operated by Bhutanese immigrants celebrated 30 years in business.

“It means it’s working,” The Oven’s proprietor, Ngawang Rinchen, says about reaching the milestone. “It was hard those first few years, but things started to grow. Now looking back, it feels good to see all that hard work turn into such a great thing.”

In 1988, Rinchen set up shop in Lincoln’s historic Haymarket neighborhood. At the time, the area was nothing more than abandoned warehouses and 19th-century cobblestone roads.

The Mill, a coffee shop across the street, opened the same year,” Rinchen recalls. “After The Oven was established, businesses started popping up all around.”

And while the food is exceptional — the lamb korma paired with the mulligatawny soup is among my top-five, all-time-favorite meals — The Oven is unique in another respect.

“The restaurant is celebrating its 30th year open, and [Rinchen] has been collecting wine the whole time,” says Charlie Ludwig, The Oven’s wine director and sommelier. “There is so much vintage depth that is so hard to come by. Nebraska liquor laws keep us from buying from auctions or private collections, so everything on our list has been purchased around vintage releases, save for a few library releases from producers here and there. The provenance of the wines are without question.”

The Oven
Credit: Andy Sipple

The Oven’s wine collection currently includes 1,848 options — give or take — and Ludwig isn’t shy about his picks and preferences.

“Syrah, Syrah, Syrah,” he says. “Northern Rhône is my favorite. When the wine has the delicate balance of fruit and savory components, it’s the best red wine across the board with Indian food.”

Other standouts? Pinot Noir with the salmon madras curry. “Madras starts with toasted black mustard seed and ends with coconut milk,” Ludwig explains. “I’m a huge fan of Burgundy specifically, but Oregon and the more finessed California Pinots make this a magical pairing.”

But don’t make the mistake of overlooking white wines, Ludwig says. “Austrian whites are a huge favorite for me,” he shares. “Grüner Veltliner has an ability to pair with many things that people consider hard to pair with. The wine’s bitter complexity helps the intensity of Indian food by bouncing off it and creating a slew of new flavors.”

From the very beginning, Rinchen has prioritized wine at The Oven.

“Wine brings family and friends together in unity before a meal starts," he says. "It’s a conversation, a salutation, a celebration. Wine is such an important part of the dining experience in so many places in the world — why not at an Indian restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska?”

In recent years, The Oven has expanded its reach to include two additional locations. One is on the east side of town, and the other is an hour away in Omaha, the state’s most populous city. The Oven has also grown its original downtown Lincoln outpost and opened up The Cellar, where the restaurant’s vast wine collection is stored and where at least 35 wines are available by the glass at any given time. The collection is among the best in the state.

“People traveling find us, and they’re baffled,” Ludwig says. “How many places in the world is there an Indian restaurant with a wine bar — let alone a wine list of almost 2,000 selections? It blows people’s minds all the time.”

The Oven’s influence in Lincoln — population 285,000 — is undeniable. Ask anyone where to find great Indian food, and odds are that The Oven will be their response. Ask anyone where to find great food period, and it’s just as likely that The Oven will top their list.

“One time, when I was living in Wisconsin, I was wearing my Nebraska T-shirt at the grocery store,” says Elizabeth Cornell, a high school teacher currently living in Kansas who attended college in Lincoln. “This woman came up to me and asked if I had ever eaten at The Oven. She said it was the best Indian food she had ever eaten and was looking for an excuse to go back.”

The Oven
Credit: Andy Sipple

Irina Sulejmanovic, a native Lincolnite who now lives in Chicago, can relate.

“I’ve been in Chicago for more than three years, and I still crave The Oven,” Sulejmanovic says. “Nothing compares — no other place has come close. I’ve celebrated many events there, from my birthday parties in The Cellar, to intimate moments like date nights and my fiancé’s graduation. When I think of The Oven, I think of the memories I created with my friends and family.”

And that’s precisely the atmosphere Rinchen aimed to create all those years ago: a social hub that introduced Lincoln to different international cuisines.

“We may have helped open up people’s minds to Asian food,” Rinchen says. “There’s a large Vietnamese population here, as well as restaurants owned by them. Lincoln as a whole is more interested in ‘exotic’ food than classic French food, per se, and we just maybe had something to do with that.”

Rinchen adds that his upbringing in Bhutan prepared him well for life as a restaurateur in Lincoln.

“I’m from a small town, and we would grow the food that we would eat,” he says. “That was the way of life back home, so being close to people who farm or garden a lot was natural.”

With the Haymarket District hosting its annual farmers market from May to October, The Oven is ideally situated to maintain a short supply chain that gives “farm-to-table” a whole new — and much more literal — meaning.

“The farmers' market is right outside our door, and having that connection to the life cycle of food is such an important thing,” Rinchen says. “And the people here are so nice.”