This week’s announcement that Petit & Keet Bar and Grill, a new “polished-casual” restaurant and bar located at 1620 Market Street, will be opening on May 18th got me to thinking.
Is this area around Market Street/Rodney Parham suddenly one of Little Rock’s culinary hot spots? Before you start giggling, think about it for a second.
With city limits now extending way into the Chenal, this area is pretty much Midtown. And sure, it’s still not considered a trendy area of town (like a Hillcrest or Heights), but look at all of the eateries within a few blocks of each other. Some are old and some are new … but one thing is for certain, there’s a ton of variety.
Just a stone’s throw from Petit & Keet is Table 28, one of our more upscale restaurants in town, serving up anything from bone marrow to seared scallops to quail lollipops. Sure, Flavor or India just went belly-up, but the renovated Market Street Shopping Center just down the street from Table 28 is home to the iconic Franke’s Cafeteria, as well as take-home meal specialist Diane’s Gourmet, and Mickey’s Cakes & Sweets.
There’s even a Starbuck’s, but, hell, there’s a Starbucks on every corner.
For those digging buffets, Asia Buffet recently opened and the ever popular Al Seraj is only a 1/4-mile away. While The Pantry West isn’t on Market Street, it too is extremely close by, and, as we all know, rivals any restaurant in town. Heck, don’t forget about Taj Mahal, a place many consider to be the best Indian food in Little Rock. There’s even Indian Grocers right by the aforementioned Franke’s.
My point is this … there’s a wide range of culinary offerings in a 3-4 block radius in a very centralized area of town. To me, that’s something to get excited about.
When’s the last time you’ve eaten dinner at Ciao Baci? Has it been a while? I bet when you’re thinking of good places to go on a Friday or Saturday night, many of you tend to overlook this Hillcrest gem. If that’s the case, I’m here to tell you Ciao Baci is one of our absolute best restaurants in town, due in large part to the masterful creations coming out of the kitchen led by Chef Jeffrey Owen.
I didn’t always feel this way about Ciao Baci. In fact, a few years back, I was critical of its inconsistent offerings and service. Simply put, I didn’t think the food coming out of the kitchen was truly top-notch on a consistent basis.
I do now.
Whether it’s been a fancy, 5-course wine dinner, a casual chef’s tasting on the porch, or some simple catfish tacos on a Saturday night, the food over the past couple of years can hold its own with any place in town.
Don’t believe me?
Try to the pub-style, $9 Creekstone Burger and tell me it’s not one the best burgers in town. I’ll eliminate the suspense … it is. For diners who enjoy putting their fate in the hands of the chef, the 5-course chef’s tasting is a ton of fun, and, at $45, a great deal. It changes nightly and consists of a variety of small plates. Another nice aspect of the restaurant is the rotating seasonal menu. Currently, the Spring 2017 menu includes dishes like Grilled Carrot Broccoli Salad, Smoked Cauliflower Carbonara, Grilled Beef Hanger Steak, Chicken Fried Rabbit Leg (which I had last weekend and was outstanding), Grilled Atlantic Salmon Chowder, Broccoli Cheese Tots, and even a Grande Cheese/Charcuterie Tasting.
As you can probably tell from some of the dishes mentioned above, Chef Jeffrey Owen’s food doesn’t lack in excitement and creativity. The chef, himself, strikes me as quiet and unassuming, at least inside the restaurant, which seems to be a perfect fit at Ciao Baci … where the food does most of the talking.
Things to Know:
-great wine selection
-one of the few restaurants open late (great for industry folks)
-actually open on Monday night
-Happy Hour/drink specials throughout the week (check restaurant’s social media)
605 Beechwood Street
Hours: Monday-Friday 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Satruday 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; Closed Sunday
Thoughts on my recent eating experiences around Little Rock…
A cool, brisk Saturday morning inspired a visit to the Hillcrest Farmers Market where I ran into many familiar faces, and, of course, purchased several local products. Two that really stood out were the Strawberry Pop Tart at Twiggy’s Treatery and the Lemon Zest & Cilantro Hummus at Geek Eats. The former is this absolutely adorable food trailer that sets up at farmers markets and sells sweet treats, many of which incorporate a variety of local ingredients, including this amazing pop tart with Barnhill Orchards strawberries. The filling was tart and subtly sweet and the surrounding crust was baked just right. I highly recommend checking them out. As for Geek Eats, I’ve always enjoyed his hummus, but this Lemon Zest & Cilantro is my new favorite, primarily because I am addicted to anything with cilantro.
Not to go all gaga over a chain, but when something is good, dammit, who cares whether it’s local or not? Case and point … Everything Bundt Cakes. Those little bundtlettes they sell for $4 are reasonably priced and taste great, especially the lemon cake.
Lunch at Café Bossa Nova was a big success. I ordered the Mahi-Mahi Tacos, which included deep fried mahi-mahi strips with Napa cabbage, pink chipotle sauce, mango radish salsa and fresh cilantro, resting on two lightly grilled corn tortillas. The tacos came with a side of black beans and rice. Simply put, the entire plate was perfection. The fresh, bright flavors of the toppings really paired well with the mild fish. And I could eat a vat, not a small cup, of that rice and beans. Bossa Nova is such an underrated spot, and while I know they have their loyal group of regulars, given its delicious food and prime location, the restaurant should be even more popular than what it is.
Quick … what’s one of the best dishes in all of Little Rock? Answer: The Board at The Pantry. For $21.95, you get a collection of house made meats, including: smoked turkey, Hungarian sausage, bratwurst, cured pork belly, country terrine, and liver pâté, along with an assortment of breads, cheeses, and pickled vegetables. I’ve written and fawned over this dish for years now, and I’ve yet to tire of it. It’s the ideal meal starter for a group of 4-6 people.
The Tuna Poke Bowl at Trio’s is the real deal. It’s a bowl of raw Hawaiian Ahi mixed with soy, ginger, sesame oil and spices, and comes with edamame, mango, warm sushi rice, avocado, watermelon radishes, toasted sesame seeds and English cucumber. It will be on the menu for the next few weeks and I highly recommend ordering it.
I walked into Flyway Brewing last Sunday at 2:30 p.m. to have a beer and watch some basketball at the bar. When I arrived, there must have been 10 people in the entire place. When the game was over about two hours later, Flyway was packed with a line 20 folks deep. It was Tom Petty’s fault.
Dear Arkansas Heart Hospital, I’m writing this short note to inform you I had a lapse in judgment last week. Unfortunately, I strayed and decided to eat the ramen at the Kroger in the Heights. They have a nice ramen station, much like you do, and I had heard some good things, but you’re still my ramen of choice. Plus, they charge almost $9 a bowl, far more than the $5 I’ve foolishly grown accustomed to with you. You’ve spoiled me so. Anyways, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.
Save this list, bookmark it, print it out … do whatever you have to do to file it away and use it as the ultimate reference guide for the best appetizers in Little Rock. Below is a combination of reader response and personal favorites. If there are any glaring omissions, please add them to the comment box. Also, make sure to check each restaurant’s current menu, as some of the appetizers are seasonal items.
Bruschetta, Hummus, or Baba Ganoush at YaYa’s
My Take: A friend once told me about the magnificence of YaYa’s baba ganoush and she was absolutely right.
Brussels Sprouts or Fried Hummus Bites at North Bar
Bacon Wrapped Dates, Truffled Deviled Eggs, House Made Ricotta, Cheese Spaetzle, Pomme Frites, Brussels Sprouts at The Pantry
My Take: In retrospect, I probably should have typed “See the entire Starters menu at The Pantry.”
Skillet Bread, Fried Chicken Livers, Pork Rinds, Fried Oysters or Smoked Oysters at South On Main
My Take: South on Main got a ton of love on this post, as it should, the appetizers are all fantastic. But my personal favorite is the Fried Oyster Steamed Bun, which is listed below.
Pimento Cheese, Bread & Butter Plate, or Smoked Jalapeño Pimento Cheese, or Black Eyed Pea and Poblano Hummus at Lost Forty
Fried Black Eyed Peas or Spiced Pecans at Capital Bar and Grill
My Take: Those spiced pecans are crazy addictive and an absolute must-get on any visit to CBG.
Shrimp Tchoupitoulas, Rose’s Hot Red Pepper Shrimp, Stuffed Mushrooms, Rose’s Fries, Fried Artichoke Hearts, Fried Green Tomatoes, or Cajun Popcorn at The Faded Rose
My Take: Good gracious was TFR mentioned a lot on this thread. All great choices, but give me those wedge fries with the buttermilk dressing any day.
Onion Rings or Fried Green Tomatoes at Cotham’s in the City
Cheesesteak Egg Rolls at Del Frisco’s Grille
Crab Cakes at Sonny Williams’ Steak Room
Yellowtail or Hamachi Nigiri at Kemuri
Burrata at Raduno
Cheese Fries or Quesadilla at Buffalo Grill
Hummus or Baba Ganoush at Layla’s
Hummus with Pita Bread at Mama’s Gyros Grill
Fried Mozzarella Sticks at Dugan’s Pub
Baked Pimento Cheese at Boulevard Bistro
My Take: I’ve written about this appetizer several times in the past and it really is a unique and delicious spin on a Little Rock classic.
Fried Gulf Oysters or Crispy Chicken Livers at Red Door
Calamari Fries, Tuna Tataki, Spinach Dip, Queso Fundido, or Hot Crab Dip at Trio’s
Salsa Trio at Local Lime
Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp at Samantha’s Tap Room and Wood Grill
Tamale Pie at Heights Taco & Tamale Co.
State Fair Fries (with Side of Jalapeño Ranch) at Big Orange
Crab Stuffed Artichoke at Capers
Tortilla Soup at Casa Manana
Heirloom Tomato Plate, Goat Cheese Moouse or Baked Camembert at Brave New Restaurant
Cheese Dip at Reno’s Argenta Cafe
Ceviche Tostadas at El Porton
Crab Cake at One Eleven at the Capital
Grilled Meatballs and Stuffed Eggplant at Ristorante Capeo
Bread and Butter at Bruno’s Little Italy
Fried Portobello Slices or Shrimp & Brie Quesadillas with Mango Salsa at Loca Luna
Falafel, Tabouleh, Hummus, or Baba Ghanouj at Zam Zam Grill
My Take: I’ve heard good things about this place, probably time to check it out.
My Personal Favs
Smoked Trout Nachos at Flyway Brewing
Chicken Nachos at El Palenque
Ceviche at Local Lime
Pupusas at Rosalindas
Fried Oyster Steamed Buns or Cauliflower Popcorn at South on Main
Fried Yuca at La Terraza Rum & Lounge
Pimento Cheese (Toast) or Radishes at The Root
Ceviche at Kemuri
Leeks at One Eleven at the Capital
Triple Dipper at Baja Grill