LITTLE ROCK Prepare to leave Little Rock when you visit RJ Tao Restaurant & Ultra Lounge, the city’s sleekest restaurant and newest night spot.
And prepare to enter another dimension — one that resembles a temple crossed with a Las Vegas club and cooks kangaroo not one but three different ways.
A trip to over-the-top RJ Tao — with its dramatic statue-lined entrance, behemoth Buddha statue, colorchanging LED-lighted booths and brave menu — can be trippy. Reality might set back in when the check comes. Prices start at $13 for a hamburger and stop at $55 for an 8-ounce Kobe filet mignon (seared and finished on a Himalayan salt block), with most entrees costing more than $20. Even the water comes at a price. RJ Tao sells its house water for $1.50 per bottle; proceeds go to charity.
Water is hardly the only refreshment available from the extensive bar that slings cocktails ($10-$15) like Singapore Slings and Limoncello Mojitos and offers a lengthy wine list that includes $7 glasses of Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc and $500 bottles of Armand De Brignac Champagne.
Can the feast for the appetite at RJ Tao — run by Robert Tju of Sushi Cafe and Jacob Chi, son of restaurant mogul LuLu Chi — possibly compare with the feast for the eyes? The ambition is there.
The restaurant serves dinner daily, with aspirations but no immediate plans for lunch and brunch. The menu is divided into first plates ($9-$22), soup and salad ($6-$10), steaks ($35-$55), exotic meats ($35-$45), wok-fired Pan Asian specialties ($18-$24) and “around the globe” dishes ($13-$30). There’s something for everyone, from the carnivore (16-ounce Cowboy Cut Steak, $40) and the adventurer (specials like Bison Osso Bucco, $38) to the bargain shopper/dieter ($7 house salad). Tju says, “We will [be] posting the new updated menu with new lower prices after negotiating with the food importers.”
A couple could enjoy a semiromantic dinner of fondue (cheese appetizer, $19, and chocolate dessert, $18) in the spirited space, seated in a semiprivate or semicircle booth. Or a couple of friends could watch football on the flat screens and chew on a cheese plate ($22) and Parmesan Truffle Fries ($8) in the bar or private party room or on the patio.
We couldn’t commit to the kangaroo Aussie Burger ($16) or Down Under Kangaroo Tenderloin ($35), but we sampled the Down Under Kangaroo Pouches appetizer ($11) — four wontons of a beefy meat (marsupial, it turns out, does not taste like chicken) and not quite enough balsamic glaze and ginger soy. We can cross kangaroo off our Bucket List, even if it won’t go on our Favorites List.
A good amount of ginger soy accented the otherwise subtle Silver Lining appetizer ($9) of homemade pan-seared shrimp-and-scallop dumplings.
A fine fan of black and white sesame seed-encrusted fish made up the Nagasaki Tuna Tataki ($22), served with three dipping sauces of varying degrees of salt, sweetness and spice (note: there are no seasonings or soy sauce on tables, but they are available on request).
For those craving something more casual or messy, try Tao Wings ($10; we were charged $9, perhaps because of a special), three whole wings breaded with sweet potato flour and seasoned or bathed in a Sriracha-based buffalo or rich teriyaki sauce. There’s no wrong way to go with these — except not to lick your fingers after.
And while we’re talking casual, we had no beefs with the half-pound Tao’s Prime House Burger ($13), topped with melted smoked cheddar, frilly lettuce, juicy tomato and red onion on a soft sweet bun and served with tasty truffle fries.
A more bold choice was the aforementioned Osso Bucco, a mighty, meaty bison shank braised in red wine with tomatoes, onions and kalamata olives and served atop a cheese polenta.
A fish special, the Malaysian Barramundi ($29), stuffed with crawfish and topped with Creole sauce, served with wok-fried spinach, didn’t wow. Aside from a faint fishiness, the dish held little flavor. It also wasn’t particularly filling for my companion, who wished he had ordered an a la carte side ($7-$10).
A friend found her Bacon-Wrapped Sable Fish ($28), served with mixed vegetables and an Asian-style barbecue sauce, moist and flaky.
If we hadn’t asked the server to tell us about the Malaysian Roasted Lobster ($35) (described only as “Lemongrass, chili, cilantro, Thai basil & red peppers”), we would have been confused by the dish that arrived: a considerable amount of fried rice with a petite lobster tail on top. Despite the lively ingredients listed, the dish lacked something. Soy sauce helped.
Not lacking anything was the 12-ounce Prime NY Strip ($35; we were charged $28 because of a special) cooked to a perfect medium-rare red. The beef didn’t require the complimentary side of herb compound butter (rosemary demi glace, bearnaise and gorgonzola cream are other choices), but the luscious excess also upgraded the side of truffle mashed potatoes (spinach was another option). Sadly the vanilla ice cream in our slightly mushy Bananas Foster ($14) had already melted to Haagen-Dazs soup by the time it reached the table.
A better dessert was the Wonton Ice Cream Sundae ($8). Here the Haagen-Dazs was layered between cinnamon-spiced wontons and accented by white chocolate shavings, which weren’t listed in the menu description.
The restaurant offers entertainment and discounts during the week. There are daily happy hours, Sunday night dinner specials, Monday steak specials, jazz on Tuesday and Wednesday, Ladies’ Night on Thursday and a DJ Thursday through Saturday. For details, search RJ Tao on Facebook.
RJ Tao Restaurant &
Address: 5501 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
Hours: Kitchen open 5-9 p.m. Sunday, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, (bar menu after 10 p.m.); lounge open later
Cuisine: Pacific Rim
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 31 on 09/27/2012
Print Headline: Exotic, splashy flavor at RJ Tao