Robert Tju, co-owner of Little Rock’s highly successful Sushi Cafe, travels a lot and keeps up with restaurant trends across the country.
We’re not sure just where Tju found the concept for RJ Tao Restaurant & Ultra Lounge, which he and collaborator Jacob Chi, son of Little Rock restaurant empress LuLu Chi, opened last year on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock’s trendy Heights neighborhood, a couple of blocks east of Sushi Cafe.
But while the place drew a decent late night bar crowd, sipping $10-$15 Singapore Slings and Limoncello Mojitos, it never caught on with the dining public.
Maybe it was the kooky, mostly Asian-fusion menu (kangaroo burgers or Bison Osso Bucco, anyone?) or the prices (which ranged from $13 for a hamburger to $55 for an 8-ounce Kobe filet mignon served on a Himalayan salt block) or maybe the place was just too hip for this still fairly conservative market, or maybe all those at once.
RJ Tao just wasn’t working, so Tju and Chi reconstituted it - took a step back on the menu (although it still has some Asian fusion echoes, it’s now more along the lines of New American/eclectic) and on the prices (specialty burgers now range from $8-$9 at lunch and $9.50 at dinner). There’s a much bigger emphasis on farm-to-table, locavore offerings. No more sushi - the proximity to Sushi Cafe proved that was sort of silly.
They’ve added a Saturday-Sunday brunch; they’re in the process of adding a wine bar at the back.
They’ve added a few tables and put white tablecloths on them, but otherwise, the one thing they haven’t changed is the decor. All those sentinel Buddha statues that greet you as you enter. The enormous Buddha that dominates the main dining room, which required the removal of the front door when they put it in last year, and which would require some major demolition to remove. The somewhat claustrophobic booths with the circular entrances and the elephant sculpture are still there. The flat-screen TVs remain in the bar and in the semi-outdoor space with the fair-weather garage door that has now been renamed the “B&B Nook.” (The reference is to breakfast/brunch, not the liqueur or any neighboring bedand-breakfasts.)
Cafe 5501’s new appetizer list includes some top-notch options, including the Broiled Scallops on the Half Shell ($9), five plump, firm scallops grilled on the shells (which made getting them off the shells in one piece a bit of a challenge) in a zippy herbed butter.
The two highest-price appetizers, $13 apiece, are deserving of high praise: the Seared & Spiced Blue Fin Tuna, served with a cucumber sunomono salad and a ginger soy sauce, and the Beef Carpaccio, plenty of thin-sliced, red-cured beef tenderloin. It’s not as much as we thought when the plate arrived, though, because it’s on a thick bed of organic mixed greens, topped with truffle oil, crisped capers (!) and sliced Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, finished with pink Himalayan sea salt.
Everybody at RJ Tao was proud of the steaks, so it should be no surprise that there’s equal cause for pride at Cafe 5501, which gets its beef from two regional establishments - premium black Angus, “aged 28 days for flavor and tenderness” from Creekstone Farms (not in Arkansas but in Arkansas City, Kan.) and, locally grazed, from Ratchford Farms in Marshall (the bison on the menu is just the Ratchford logo, but it made us just dubious enough to actually put the question to management).
We’d be hard pressed to say which steak we liked better - the 6-ounce Ratchford filet ($25) or the 10-ounce Creekstone filet ($32); both were melt-in-your-mouth tender, though not quite tender enough to cut with a fork (though perhaps the pig-sticker steak knife might have been overkill), prepared with perhaps just a bit too much herbed butter.
All steaks come topped with a handful of grilled asparagus spears and a (bleh, really boring) loaded baked potato, but the kitchen will let you substitute - we did exactly that with the 10-ouncer, switching in the restaurant’s pleasant Medley Salad (organic greens, cherry tomatoes, pickled red onion, Craisins, sunflower seeds and a nice house citrus vinaigrette, $5.50 a la carte).
We enjoyed the Rock House Seafood Mix ($18), a nicely spiced collection of firm shrimp, small scallops, Prince Edward Island mussels in an “Imperial” garlic soy sauce. We did not particularly enjoy the Balinese Candied Walnut Shrimp ($15),about a dozen lightly breaded shrimp with walnuts on a bed of “spicy” rice noodles. The candied walnuts were sticky and lacked crunch; the shrimp had crunch but lacked flavor.
Though you can eat it indoors, Cafe 5501’s brunch is designed to go into the “B&B Nook,” the westernmost of the restaurant’s three contiguous strip-center storefronts. The 25-item menu is probably one of the town’s most ambitious, ranging from breakfast-y items (pancakes, waffles, ham and eggs, etc.) to salads, burgers and pasta entrees.
We went “light” with the Breakfast Dragon Dumplings ($7), a half-dozen steamed pork dumplings (sometimes elsewhere called, inaccurately, buns) served, dim-sum style, in a round metal vessel, with a tangy house-made ginger-soy sauce. Best way we’ve found to eat ’em: Nibble off a corner of the pasta shell, allowing water that’s collected inside to drip out, then dunk it in the sauce, allowing it to permeate the shell and pork interior.
We would recommend the good-sized Cheesy Cheese Omelet ($7.50) to fans of “blue” cheeses - in this case, a lot of gooey Gorgonzola that completely dominated what cheddar there might have been in the mix. There’s also plenty of salt in the Gorgonzola and the cheddar, so the omelet tasted a little salty (we’re assuming, or at least hoping, that the kitchen didn’t add salt). It comes with a plentiful side pile of nicely roasted quartered red potatoes and an orange-slice, strawberry-chunk fruit garnish.
Service was generally good, although we did have stretches where we had trouble finding our server when we needed something. And on one dinner visit, although his cologne had a pleasant aroma, our server had applied it so liberally that we winced a little every time he arrived at the table.
Address: 5501 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4 p.m.-“close” Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday brunch
Cuisine: Eclectic/New American with a touch of Asian fusion
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Reservations: Facebook page says yes
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Weekend, Pages 31 on 10/31/2013
Print Headline: Cafe reboots via tasty numbers