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2 upscale eateries ring lunch bell

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published January 24, 2013 at 3:10 a.m.

pizzeria-cheese-steak-on-the-lunch-menu-at-rj-tao-features-a-spicy-red-sauce-with-sauteed-onions-and-green-and-red-bell-peppers

Pizzeria Cheese Steak on the lunch menu at RJ Tao features a spicy red sauce with sauteed onions and green and red bell peppers.

Packet House and RJ Tao for lunch

The Packet House Grill is at 1406 Cantrell Road in Little Rock. RJ Tao Restaurant and Ultra Lounge is located at 5501 Kavanaugh Blvd., Suite G. (By Eric E. Harrison, Benjamin Krain, Karen E. Segrave and Stephen B. Thornton)
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— It’s always risky for a restaurant that starts out serving only dinner to add hours for lunch.

The savvy restaurateur must work out, among many other issues, how much of the menu to change from one meal to another. What kind of staffing - on the floor and in the kitchen - does he have to put in place? And, of course, there’s the biggest question: Will the customers show up?

Here’s a tale of two high-end restaurants that opened dinner-only first, and within a couple of winter weeks added lunch. The ballots are still coming in regarding the ultimate outcome, but we’re ready to issue a progress report.

For the Packet House Grill, on Cantrell Road just west of downtown (but not, perhaps, far enough west to quite be in Riverdale), lunch so far has been a moderate success. There are customers at the tables; the lunch menu, while featuring some dinner items at (surprise) the exact same size and price they are at dinnertime, also offers a range of delights and near-delights that are unique to lunch.

Meanwhile, at RJ Tao Restaurant & Ultra Lounge on Kavanaugh Boulevard in the Heights, the menu is very broad, picking up some dinner items (or former dinner items; the restaurant has recently instituted a new, somewhat pared-down dinner menu) but including a few items unique to lunch.

But we practically had the place to ourselves at a peak business period. By all reports, the place is busy with bar customers late in the evening, but whether the place will ultimately draw diners and lunchers remains a big, open question mark.

PACKET IN

After a renovation that cost reportedly somewhere between $1 million and $1.4 million, owner-chef Wes Ellis has resurrected the Packet House in a landmark riverfront Second Empire house that was a high-toned restaurant in the ’80s as a somewhat more proletarian but no less excellent “Southern-style steakhouse with a Creole spin.”

Some of the money went for stained and/or lead glass in the front doors and prominent windows and for contemporary artwork and vivid glass sculptures, including the lavender teardrop chandelier that hangs over the main hallway. The new incarnation features an enormous bar area with a satellite dining areas and a small main dining room with a gorgeous, now-decorative fireplace.

Ellis extends his “Southern comfort food with a twist” theme to his lunch menu, to which the largeness, or perhaps largesse, of the dinner portions extends. You’ll pay a premium price (the sandwiches start at $8 and soft drinks are $2.50),but you will certainly get what you pay for.

The two appetizers are the size of small entrees. The Fried Green Tomatoes ($9) aren’t green - a sort of pale-pinkish-orange - but they were tasty, in a cornmeal crust with only the slightest hint of something zippy. Nevertheless, a judicious dose of salt and pepper (there isn’t any on the tables but our waitress was happy to supply it on request) worked wonders. It comes on a bed of spicy crawfish remoulade that added a good deal of zing, but it pretty much had to be spooned onto the top for any effect.

For $7 you get a huge pile of charming, crisp, shoestring Truffle Fries with a side of chipotle aioli for dipping, but about a third of the way into the stack we started to get full and tired and began wondering just why anybody would want that many fries.

The absolute best find is Ellis’ Fried Chicken plate ($15), a huge, moist, tender chicken breast, dark-fried in a just thick-enough, exceedingly crisp batter coated with an absolutely delicious jalapeno honey glaze that has exactly the right degree of “kick.” It comes with a side of crisp green beans and atop the excellent house mashed-with the-red-skin potatoes.

The crab cakes - mostly lump crab meat with very little bread filler - that we enjoyed as a $12 dinner appetizer come with perhaps just a touch too much vivid Creole slaw and tomatoes on a plump Leidenheimer’s roll, with a generous side of delightful sliced-thin, house-made sweet potato chips (substitute a side of truffle fries for $2.75, which might be a better option than as an overgenerous appetizer).

We enjoyed the market price Packet House Special - smoked pulled pork shoulder, in collops, not shreds, with melted pepper jack cheese and Dijonnaise on a square artisan ciabatta roll (market price turned out to be $9). But it sure was sloppy. Oil from the pork and moisture from the sauce seeped underneath the sandwich, which made it awkward and messy to handle. We ultimately opted to just open the thing up and consume the contents with a fork.

There are a couple of dinner entrees available for lunch at the same price - the excellent $14 en casserole Mac & Cheese with shell-shaped pasta, Gruyere, thick slices of wild mushrooms and house made bacon, and the Capital Street Salad ($10).

Sandwich options include: Wesley’s Burger ($10), house ground tenderloin topped with the bacon-onion marmalade we sampled for dinner as part of an appetizer trio, lettuce, tomato and choice of cheese on a Boulevard Bread bun; Grilled Pimentos and Cheese ($8) with house-made bacon; and shrimp and oyster Po Boys ($14).

Ordinarily we wouldn’t have been able to bother with dessert, but we broke down and split a $6 milk chocolate creme brulee that seemed to have just a hint of berry flavor.

The “A team” appears to be on duty at lunch; we encountered friendly and helpful service with no issues or complaints.

THE TAO OF LUNCH

RJ Tao so far has seemed to specialize in stretching the area’s menu boundaries, with a spread of Asian-fusion items similar to those at the down the-street Sushi Cafe (the “R” part of RJ is Robert Tju, who also runs that operation) and semi-outrageous dishes with kangaroo contents (according to Tju, there’s a ranch in Texas that farms the Australian-native beasties for meat - who knew?).

We’re hearing that kangaroo is possibly disappearing from the new dinner menu, but it’s still available for lunch in the Aussie Burger ($16), “fresh ground Kangaroo” with lettuce, pineapple, house remoulade and a side of truffle fries, and in the Down Under Kangaroo Pouches ($11), fried kangaroo wontons with a balsamic glaze and ginger-soy dipping sauce.

(The best thing you can say about these is that, once you get over the shocking thought of eating ’roo, it doesn’t taste half bad, but it’s basically something you order for the experience and is a “thrill” not likely to be repeated.)

The huge Pizzeria Cheese Steak ($9), though not exactly a re-creation of the back-east version with which we are most familiar, was still close enough to engender a twinkle in the eye and on the tongue of our party’s native Philadelphian. The homemade red sauce was a bit more spicy than we’d expected, and next time we’ll ask to cut back on, or remove, the red and green bell peppers sauteed with the onions.

It was, however, one of the messiest dining experiences we’ve had in awhile; even cutting the sandwich in half, something the kitchen probably ought to have done for us, didn’t prevent seemingly half the contents from spilling out of the hoagie roll and onto the abundant, fresh Kennebec potato chips.

We did enjoy the $6 soup of the day, a big bowl of excellent, if somewhat soupier than usual, chicken and dumplings in a nice rich broth.

The menu also includes lunchtime versions of Mama’s Pan Seared Crab Cakes ($13), Spicy Zesty Orange Beef ($10), Silver Lining (steamed shrimp and scallop dumplings, $9) and the Tao Prime House Burger ($13), a half pound of house ground beef topped with smoked cheddar with truffle fries (add the restaurant’s duck bacon to this or anything else for $2).

The spacious restaurant, with a row of Buddha statues lining the entrance way, a huge Buddha in the main dining room, and plenty of pan-Asian touches to the decor, is sort of romantically bar-dark in the evenings, but it can be distressingly dim in the daytime even with bright sunlight pouring through the Kavanaugh Boulevard-facing windows. Lighting otherwise mostly comes from some high-ceiling pin spots that do little to illuminate the tables or the food.

Service was good, though we had a little difficulty keeping our drink glasses full.

The Packet House Grill

Address: 1406 Cantrell Road, Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays; 4-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (entrees available after 5:30) Cuisine: “Southern comfort food with a twist” Credit cards: V, MC, D, AE Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Large parties Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 372-1578

RJ Tao Restaurant & Ultra Lounge

Address: 5501 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sunday Cuisine: Asian fusion/ eclectic Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Large parties Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 603-0080

Weekend, Pages 33 on 01/24/2013

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