LITTLE ROCK Hope and change. Not just a political mantra, it’s a business prayer: Somebody takes over a good thing and changes it. And everybody hopes he doesn’t screw it up.
The dust, literal and metaphorical, has pretty much settled at the landmark restaurant in Hillcrest’s Ice House Center, 2601 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock. And while it’s not the place it was, it’s still pretty darn good.
The restaurant has had many names over the past three decades. Most recently, it was named Ferneau, after its ownerexecutive chef, Donnie Ferneau Jr. Now it’s called Twenty One — or, to be formal and completely accurate, Rocket Twenty One. New owner Frank Fletcher reportedly named it after a racehorse.
Fletcher has brought in managers from his two other restaurants, the Riverfront Steakhouse and Benihana, in his Wyndham Riverfront in North Little Rock.
But Ferneau remains the executive chef, which is important. Fletcher certainly recognizes that; he has emblazoned the information, along with a small styl- ized drawing of the horse (above and to the left of the new name), on the front awning.
Inside, he has ditched Ferneau’s original decor, the earth-tone walls specked with intriguing flares of mosaic tiling, for darker colors, solid blues and reds, with “Blue Dog” prints and paintings by George Rodrigue dominating the walls.
Actually, they’re more than dominant — they’re ubiquitous, starting with the “Blue Dog” welcome mat. (There’s an encomium to art and artist on the restaurant’s new website, twentyonerestaurant.com.)
Fletcher has also fulfilled a promise to reduce the bar seating area, rebuilding and extending the bar (which now shines with an inner glow), and to separate the bar area from the dining room, with a cool-looking glass-cabinet wine storage on one side and a huge fish tank on the other.
Two- and four-top tables are still topped by black tablecloths; framework chairs now have comfortable black pads in the seats. On the tables is the same uber-cool, scimitar-shaped silverware, ergonomically designed for right-handed people but a challenge for lefties; now, to match them, there are similar, sloping Tower of Pisa water glasses.
Twenty One still has two patios, one on the Kavanaugh side, the other facing Walnut Street. Hot as it has been, we’ve actually seen folks eating, or at least smoking, out there.
Ferneau and Fletcher have resolved their to-be-expected tussle over the new menu. It’s no surprise that it largely reflects Fletcher’s choices. But Ferneau gets to decide how they’re executed. And he has the freedom to offer specials of his own creation.
Ferneau has spoken often of trying to better educate local palates. Fletcher’s new menu takes that out of the equation; it leans more toward solid American than New American fare. For example, steaks are now “Twenty One’s Specialty,” and you can get ’em with a side baked potato that Ferneau says he initially opposed, but is now proud to offer.
The centerpiece of the lunch menu is a big ol’ burger, also initially not Donnie’s choice. In fact, Twenty One has gone pretty much all out for lunch, something at which Ferneau had not previously succeeded. Lunch business is now pretty good and building, and you get a pretty good value in terms of portion and quality vs. price, as well as some unexpected pleasant surprises.
A few items have survived the menu transition, mostly appetizers; some have not, including Ferneau’s frequently changing but always dependable signature scallops.
Weren’t we lucky, then, to learn, about the time we discovered the “hole” in the menu, that Ferneau had prepared as that night’s special Diver Scallops ($27) in a zippy soy-butter sauce, accompanied by brown rice and sunonomo, a Japanese cucumber-onion salad? Smiles all ’round, before and after consumption.
At the start of the same meal, we fell, hard, for the appetizer special, the “Heirloom Stack” ($13), thick slices of fresh mozzarella layered with thick slabs of absolutely fresh purplish heirloom tomatoes, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with shreds of fresh basil and fresh baby spinach.
We didn’t get around this time to trying the Gouda Grilled Cheese With Smoked Salmon ($12), a favorite of long standing, but we did get to revisit, with some joy, the Escargot With Maytag Bleu and Puff Pastry ($13), about a dozen always surprisingly tender snails in a sort of soupy broth with a Maytag bleu cheese base, topped with a token piece of crisp, flaky puff pastry and with a layer of sog-ified puff pastry beneath.
If you’re a shrimp cocktail fan, this is a good one ($12) — a half-dozen plump shrimp, cooked to proper firmness, then chilled, tails hanging over the edge of a goblet and served with a house-made cocktail and spicy garlic-lemon dipping sauces.
There’s a $1.75 price difference between the lunch and dinner versions of the Panko Encrusted Calamari appetizer, with the same dipping sauces ($7.75 lunch, $9.50 dinner, when the “other” sauce is identified as Blackened Lemon Aioli). The lunch portion was plenty large, and the lightly coated calamari was outstanding, the absolute epitome of tenderness. (As we all know, if you overcook calamari, you might as well outsource it to Firestone.)
Misspelling aside, we also enjoyed our Ferneau Ceasar Salad ($7 small, $9.50 large), romaine lettuce in a tangy Caesar dressing topped with diced tomatoes (maybe that’s what makes it a “Ceasar” and not a Caesar) and a few crisp croutons. It comes with a portion of whole anchovies, sort of shoved to one side so that, if you’re not partial to anchovies, you can keep shoving them aside until they’re off the plate.
Ferneau holdover Grilled Ahi Tuna (market price was $38) is lightly seared so it’s still cool-pink-red in the middle; it now comes in a tangy soy-mustard sauce (we detected the slightest tinge of mustard at the flavor edges, and Intrepid Companion, who’s no fan of mustard and had been a little hesitant to order it for that reason, found no fault). The plate presentation-side item combination is the same as with the scallops.
Since steaks are now “Twenty One’s Specialty,” we tried the 10-ounce Filet Mignon ($34.95), a touch on the rare side of medium rare, but otherwise about as close to perfect as we’ve had a steak in recent weeks: a fine cut of prime beef, about as wide as it was thick, almost fork-tender and perfectly seasoned with just the right crustiness on the edges.
Diners have a choice of complementary steak sauces, including hollandaise, red wine “demi-gloss,” roasted garlic steak butter and “Horseradish and Woosta” sauce, which reminded us of something but not enough to remember what it was. And in any case, adding it to one bite of our steak convinced us we didn’t need it and didn’t want any more of it.
You can also get your steak crusted with pepper (no additional charge); bluecheese crusted, $3; with bourbon mushrooms, $5; with a fried egg, $2; or Oscar-style, topped with blue crab and hollandaise, $7.50.
Most of the entrees, and especially the steaks, do not come with sides per se (a couple of tomato slices helped fill in the vacant spot on the plates), but there’s an a la carte selection.
We were disappointed, after Ferneau’s send-up on our first dinner visit of his “largest in town” baked potato ($3.75), to discover that on our second visit the kitchen was out of them.
The Jalapeno Creamed Corn ($3) did have a discernible jalapeno flavor, but it wasn’t spicy enough to satisfy Intrepid Companion. Our Bourbon Pecan Crusted Sweet Potatoes ($6.50) were plentiful but fairly bland, especially after we had consumed the minimal bourbon pecan crust.
A few items transcend time of day. For example, the Classic Fettucine With Garlic Alfredo on the lunch menu ($7.95 with fresh spinach, add $3.95 for chicken, $4.50 for shrimp) at dinner is labeled Smoked Fettucine Alfredo ($12).
Another example: We were excellently pleased with our lively lunchtime Shrimp and Grits ($9.75, but $26 for dinner — can the evening portion be that much larger?) with tasso, green onions and tomatoes, finished with a shot of buttermilk.
We were similarly, or possibly even more, delighted with the Bowtie Cheddar Macn-Cheese, an entree at lunch ($6.75) and a side dish at dinner ($6.50), firm farfalle lightly coated with a mild but distinct cheddar sauce.
The most amazing thing about the “The Rocket Burger” is the price — $6.95 for a huge prime beef patty topped with cheddar, fried pickles, spicy mayonnaise and mustard on a “holla” (aka “challah”) eggbread bun, plus a side of crisp, thick, kitchen-made chips. The second most amazing thing was how good it was. An extra $2 for bacon turned out to be a very good flavor-and-texture investment.
Our opener also turned out to be a pleasant surprise: Fried pickles, lightly dusted with parmesan cheese, with a piquant peppercorn ranch dip/dressing ($6.95).
The one area in which Twenty One has fallen off is in the service. A few of the wait staff remain from former Ferneau days, but the newer ones are not as well trained or as circumspect.
Service was generally slower and we had waiters missing in action for extended periods of time. On one dinner visit, the waitress never told us about that night’s specials. One waiter, though he got our actual wine order correct, repeatedly referred to pinot grigio, which is a white wine, as pinot noir, which isn’t.
They still, however, refold and reposition the black dinner napkins of folks who have arisen from the table to go to the rest room or out onto a patio to smoke.
Address: 2601 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Cuisine: American, New American
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 31 on 08/16/2012
Print Headline: Twenty One jumps out of gate