We didn’t think we’d be back in the restaurant at 220 W. Sixth St. in downtown Little Rock so soon. After all, it was only January that then “proprietaire” J. Matt Lile III converted Lulav into The Italian Kitchen at Lulav.
We then learned in August that Lile had sold the business to one Burch Wilson of Little Rock, who reopened it as Cellar 220 with a new executive chef, Michael Miller, a protege of Donnie Ferneau Jr. at Rocket Twenty-One (formerly Ferneau), which Ferneau left at the top of the year. And, surprise, while he’s supposedly setting up his own downtown place, he has shown up here as “guest chef.”
Miller says he and Ferneau collaborated on creating the eclectic/New American menu, with slightly pricey appetizers but surprisingly modestly priced entrees ($14-$34, most at the low end of that scale).
The main dining area decor underwent a significant shift in becoming the Italian Kitchen, taking on a much more wine-oriented demeanor. The new regime has kept most of that, but has replaced some of the neat wine-barrel-footed tables with more traditional ones (the smaller wine barrels are still around - they’ve moved into the window).
The walls still sport several large wine-based paintings, some of them plugging wines that aren’t on Cellar 220’s current list (we don’t know anybody around here who’s serving Chateau d’Yquem, and if they did, you probably wouldn’t be able to afford it).
The lighting is still sort of dim, and Mediterranean fixtures, including Lulav’s namesake palm leaves, that have popped up over the years are mostly also still there. There’s a pleasant, less formal but no less decorative secondary dining/drinking area in the former lobby of the business college that occupied the building before the restaurant moved in.
That was in 2005. Chef James Botwright, who moved to Little Rock from the Napa Valley, opened what he claimed as a kosher restaurant serving what he called “California Sephardic cuisine.” (Lulav is the Hebrew word for the type of palm branch Jesus’ supporters were waving around when he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.)
Lulav went through a seemingly endless series of shifts and changes - not even counting the two that have taken place this year - with turnover in chefs, menus and operating hours so frequent that we stopped even trying to keep very good track.
The place has stubbornly survived nevertheless; it’s a natural dining destination for folks attending downtown performing arts events - less than two blocks from Arkansas Repertory Theatre; just around the corner from the Public Theater, where Community Theatre of Little Rock and Red Octopus, among others, perform, and a short distance from Robinson Center Music Hall and Weekend Theater.
But when the the high point of all three of our meals was dessert, there is definitely room for improvement.
The restaurant is obviously still a work in progress. Plans to eventually open for lunch are indefinite. The limited adaptations to what had been Lulav’s Facebook page are incomplete (it still lists Lile as “proprietaire” and the executive chef as Matthew Cooper, who has since become the executive chef at Cache, expected to open at year’s end in the River Market). The former Lulav website, lulaveatery.com, to which the Facebook page offers a link, hasn’t been adjusted at all. And the food and service between one meal and another were inconsistent.
We had a pretty good meal the first night we stepped in, when Ferneau was in the kitchen and also cruising the dining room, as he did at Ferneau.
Our Panko Parmesan Crusted Salmon ($17) was a nicely prepared piece of fish, with a roasted lemon vinaigrette for accent and a pleasant side of sauteed spinach. We were better wowed by our appetizer, the One Pound Mussels With Grilled Bread (a steal at $9). About two dozen mussels arrived in a zippy, hot-peppery sauce that suggested “arrabiata” to our taste buds.
Sure enough, Ferneau confirmed that though the menu doesn’t say so, yes, it’s a simple Italian arrabiata sauce, made with tomatoes and hot chili peppers (some recipes call for garlic, fresh herbs, olive oil, sometimes a little meat, olives and/or capers; this one doesn’t). The grilled garlic bread was a nice complement to the sauce and shellfish.
We were excited enough to invite a friend who had just recently asked where in this town she could find a decent arrabiata sauce to try them. Ferneau wasn’t in the kitchen that night and, while it still worked as a decent tomato sauce, it lacked the arrabiata pepper level. And the grilled bread was only grilled bread, no garlic, which would have been fine if the somewhat disappointing sauce had been worth dipping it in.
That wasn’t the evening’s only disappointment. The mixed greens in a light balsamic vinaigrette on the plate with the Crab Cake with lemon caper aioli and (allegedly) charred corn ($10) was the better half of the appetizer. The crab cake was fine, but the capers-dominated aioli, at least for the first couple of bites, reminded us of (ugh) tartar sauce.
Both our entrees were substandard. Everything on the plate of the Red Wine Braised Short Ribs with cheese polenta and fried onions ($18) was overcooked, starting with the meat, moister in the middle than at the dry, crumbly edges, but still pretty much indistinguishable from pot roast. The polenta was dry and practically flavorless; the shoestring fried onions weren’t just dry - they disintegrated at a touch.
The Salt and Pepper Pork Tenderloin ($18.50) was only slightly overcooked, just enough to make the pork a shade tough. First bite revealed distinguishable salt and pepper flavors; after that, what dominated was the “Balsamic Fig BBQ ,” which tasted very vaguely of figs but came off as just over-sweet barbecue sauce. The side of bacon-creamed cabbage was altogether too creamy for us, more along the lines of a wet, bacon-flavored slaw.
We couldn’t let the restaurant’s reputation rest on that, so we made a rare third visit and were considerably better pleased. Our Pineapple and Prosciutto Flatbread ($9.50) was like a crunchy-crusted mini-pizza, and while we applauded the flavor meld (pineapple and Canadian bacon is a now common pizza topping), we would have liked just a little more pineapple because the mild, plentiful prosciutto on the un-pineappled portion wasn’t all that exciting.
The only really lively part of our quesadillalike Short Rib and Brie Grilled Cheese ($9) was the caramelized onion marmalade on top, and there wasn’t quite enough of it to spread evenly to sufficiently perk up the “sandwich.” It would have been even better if the marmalade had been inside with the beef and brie.
The fairly rich sauce on the Turkey Bolognese and Spaghetti ($14) had a nice red pepper-black pepper zip, and also bits of sliced carrot, an ingredient in most “authentic” bolognese recipes but one to which it’s taking us a while to adjust. The plentiful spaghetti was firm though a little shy of al dente.
And we enjoyed our Shrimp and Grits ($18.50), tossed with bacon, tomatoes, green onions, white wine and a shot of rosemary cream. There were enough different but well-matched flavors, colors and textures to keep the dish interesting, even if the bacon, which slightly flavored the firm shrimp and even more the tomatoes, hadn’t been enough.
All three desserts ($6.50) were excellent, starting with the good-size cube of Tiramisu, which had just the right balance between coffee, hazelnut and, with a generous drizzle of syrup, chocolate and had a nice, consistent cake-and-cream texture. Our vanilla-bean panna cotta was delightfully light and fluffy; a little drizzle-smear of Key lime syrup on the two thirds of the otherwise blank plate was a nice touch. And if it had one atom more chocolate in it, our delicious double-chocolate cheesecake would have been too rich to eat.
From the restaurant name, you’d expect a somewhat fancier wine list, and maybe one is in the offing, but what is on the list seems adequate and the couple we tried were good matches for the food (we particularly want to recommend the pairing of the low-alcohol, sweet-but-balanced moscato with seafood). The restaurant has kept a modified version of the Italian Kitchen’s wine-table concept; customers can choose for a set price any bottle from a middle-of the-restaurant display. And they’ve also continued Lulav’s Wednesday night wine flights, eight 1-ounce tasting portions at a fixed price.
There was no continuity in the same wait staff between visits. Our slightly overworked second-visit waiter was hard to pin down when we needed something and wasn’t very good about refilling our water glasses, which is not very good if water is your only beverage. On our third visit, a waiter was late and short-handed Chef Miller actually waited on us until about halfway through the meal.
Cellar 220 Address: 220 W. Sixth St., Little Rock Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Management expects to open for lunch within a couple of months.
Cuisine: Eclectic/New American Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Yes Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 374-5100 facebook.com/lulavlittlerock
Weekend, Pages 31 on 10/17/2013
Print Headline: Cellar 220 surfaces on 6th St.