While we don’t have a ton of restaurants here in Little Rock that routinely offer diners a tasting menu or chef’s tasting, two restaurants, Ciao Baci and South on Main, can certainly accommodate folks looking for this unique dining experience.
For starters, what is a tasting menu? Well, it’s a multi-course progression of small plates that typically allows the chef to flex his or her creative muscles and really gives the diner a true essence of the menu. The chef can either pick and choose from dishes already on the current menu or they can go totally off-menu … or even do a combination of both. In short, you put the meal in the hands of your trusted chef, and to me, it doesn’t get any better. In bigger cities, chef’s tastings are fairly common, but in Little Rock, this is unfortunately not the case.
In terms of Ciao Baci and South on Main, you can expect each restaurant to offer very unique tasting menu experience. Ciao Baci advertises its tasting menu right on the actual menu. It’s a 5-course tasting typically devised from the current seasonal menu. I’ve done this tasting on two separate occasions over the past six months and can tell you it’s not only an amazing value but the food is nothing short of spectacular. My recent dinner included courses like mussel chowder, gravlax, a slow cooked egg with salmon roe, and a cherry upside down cake. Chef Owen, who, in my opinion, is now one of Little Rock’s best chefs, is a stickler for detail … and that shines through in his sophisticated plating and overall execution of each dish.
South on Main’s tasting menu is a tad different from Ciao Baci’s in that it’s not publicized and you can tailor the meal to more of your specifications. You’ll need to contact the restaurant a few days in advance and let Chef Bell know the number of courses you desire and any ingredients you’d like to shy away from. Outside of those things, you really put your meal in the hands of Bell and his staff, as I did last Saturday night, when they decided to go completely off-menu with a Creekstone Farms Beef tasting. This included a short rib carpaccio dish with fried leeks, shiitakes, and an olive oil powder that was truly the best dish I’ve eaten at South on Main. It was an absolute work of art. As was the case with Ciao Baci, every course from the South on Main tasting was spot-on, like the beef cheeks with twice baked potato, grilled steak with poached shrimp, and the donuts with peanut butter powder.
Please remember, a chef’s tasting is a true dining experience, one that can last up to three hours … so take your time, enjoy, drink some good wine, and let the restaurant treat you to its best work. I think you’ll find it makes for a truly memorable occasion.