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Cash is an object at classy Cache

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published January 30, 2014 at 3:05 a.m.

The Spicy Big Eye Tuna plate presentation at Cache drapes mango rice and a sugar-snap salad.

Cache is, without cavil or question, Little Rock’s classiest place to dine.

That’s not surprising, considering that investment banker and philanthropist Rush Harding III and his son, Payne Harding, put more than $3 million into the new 9,000-square-foot restaurant in the River Market District’s brand-new Arcade Building, at the meeting point of President Clinton and River Market avenues.

Between the efforts of Atlanta architect William E.

“Bill” Johnson III and Little Rock decorator extraordinaire Chris Olsen, the two-story eatery sparkles with chrome and glass, from the monster, open-view, state of-the-art kitchen to the comfortable, well-spaced tables and the really cool lighting fixtures.

The art accents include melt-glass bowls recalling the work of Dale Chihuly (maybe they are by Chihuly, or one of the several Arkansas artists he has inspired - the folks who run the place really don’t know who they’re by or where Olsen got them).

And that’s just downstairs. Upstairs is a lounge area with a gas fireplace and glowing cubes where you can rest your drinks; a long, flowing wall “stream” of hand-set Arkansas crystals in a stylized river (reflecting one meaning of the name: the Cache River basin near Clarendon, where Rush Harding was born and raised). There are indoor and outdoor balconies, the former with a gas fireplace and the latter with a fire pit, both with prime views of the River Market and the Arkansas River.

The manager told us they’re having trouble turning over tables - folks come in, dine and then don’t leave. It’s no wonder. (Or perhaps it is the wonder.)

The prices reflect all this elegance. And therein is the rub. Even if you’re careful what you order, Cache can also be Little Rock’s most expensive place to dine.

We were careful; we stayed close to the middle of the menu, price-wise. Even so, our dinner for two - two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert and a couple of glasses of wine - topped $130. Plus tax and tip.

Lunch for two - a split appetizer, a sandwich, a salad and a split dessert, with water to drink - came to $45.

We didn’t have a bad dining experience; some things were absolutely excellent. (We’d go back just for the desserts.) But at that price point, and considering the high level of competition for folks’ restaurant dollars, good food and decent service just isn’t enough.

We really wanted and needed Cache to blow us away. It didn’t.

Cache is pronounced “cash,” not “cash-AY” (unlike the woman’s clothing store with the same name). The dictionary provides another meaning: a place for storing valuable possessions.

Payne Harding, whose title is chef/owner, is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. After interning and externing in a couple of prestigious New York restaurants (including Le Cirque) he came home to join the chef-management troika at 1620 Savoy in west Little Rock, which used to be Restaurant 1620 before his father and a couple of partners bought and remade it.

He and executive chef and general manager Matthew Cooper (formerly of Aquariva in Portland, Ore., and the Chenal Country Club and Lulav in Little Rock) have created a menu that focuses on “fine ingredients, sourced locally when possible, but always procured thoughtfully,” according to the Cache website.

The desserts are the product of ace pastry chef Heidi Eppling, whose creations we’d sampled and approved while she worked down the street at what used to be the Peabody Hotel.

We had a fabulous vanilla creme brulee with a pair of side cookies at dinner, and at lunch, an equally fabulous large-tart-size banana cream pie on a rock-hard but delicious graham-cracker crust, topped with kitchen-made whipped cream and side-garnished with caramelized-sugar-topped banana slices.

Both are large enough to share. Which is the only way to make them affordable for the average diner. The brulee was $11.95. The pie was $9.95. (No, those are not typos.)

We passed up, with some regret, the Tasmanian Salmon ($30), served with oven-dried tomato, beet ribbons, creamed leeks and seasonal mushrooms, which was the come-on for the restaurant’s December invitation-only preview.

And being on a budget precluded trying any of Cache’s three steaks, especially the Hearth-Fired Cowboy Rib-Eye ($74 - and no, that’s also not a typo).

Here’s what we enjoyed most at Cache:

Our dinner-entree Shellfish Paella ($25), a trio of tail-on shrimp, a pair of large seared-to-perfection scallops and three large clams in the shell with firm saffron rice in a spicy sauce with shaved fennel and chunks of chorizo sausage.

Our lunch-menu Blackened Salmon Sandwich ($11), a huge plank of well-spiced fish (so huge we had trouble keeping it in the Boulevard Bread Co. artisan bun), topped with fried capers, lettuce, tomato, onion and a lemon-caper aioli. However, the excellent side house salad of mixed greens tossed in a lemon vinaigrette cost us an extra $2.25. (We could have added a cup of soup for the same $2.25 or a side of Kennebec fries for $1.75.)

Despite our firm conviction that frying is something that should never be allowed to happen to an oyster, our plentiful lunch-appetizer portion of polenta-battered Fried Oysters ($12), nicely accented by a spicy grain mustard remoulade for dipping. However, the Kennebec fries that the menu says were supposed to accompany the order never appeared.

Here are the things we enjoyed less:

The best things about the Spicy Seared Big Eye Tuna ($32) was not the tuna, which was perfectly seared but not especially spicy, but the plate presentation and the “sides,” a wonderful pairing of mango rice with a julienned sugar-snap salad in a ginger-sesame dressing.

Our Lemon Pecorino salad ($9 lunch, $10 dinner) was basically a glorified Caesar - a decent quantity of Romaine tossed with large, crisp garlic croutons, shreds of preserved lemon and shaved Pecorino Romano cheese. Nice. Not exciting.

Both dinner appetizers left us unimpressed. We were perhaps a little more enthusiastic about the Truffle Polenta ($12), of a consistency somewhere between fine ground grits and angel-food cake, topped with seasonal mushrooms, goat cheese and a big spray of frisee (a fancy name for curly endive).

Calling it Fritto Misto Calamari may make it acceptable to charge $11 for it, but it turned out to be just plain, very ordinary fried calamari. While artfully presented, there wasn’t much of it, and if the kitchen and not a factory produced the marinara sauce for dipping, it’s a failure.

Perhaps we should have thrown caution, and budget, to the winds and ordered the Foie Gras ($26) with curried fig jam, fennel salad, candied kumquat, shaved black truffles and carbonated golden raisins (does that mean raisin soda?) or Today’s Caviar & Accompaniments (with egg, capers, creme fraiche, “please ask your server for pricing”).

At some point, we will go back to try one of the more modestly priced (but still seemingly pricey, $14-$23) dinner pastas - the Duck Pappardelle ($23), Crab Tagliolini ($16) and pistachio Pesto Tagliatelle ($14) have piqued our interest.

Cache offers gluten-free pasta, gourmet lunchtime pizza and bread options. (Dempsey’s Gluten Free Bakery is among Cache’s “local friends.”)

And it has a very impressive, lengthy wine list and somebody on the floor who knows his stuff (the dessert wine we ordered apparently had gone bad, and he came up with a nice counter-suggestion). Mountain Valley sparkling water is available for $3 if you’re tee-totaling (and don’t feel like tea-totaling) or the just-plain water isn’t sufficient.

Our dinner waitress took care of our every need, and then some, mostly because she practically hovered over us with frequent queries on whether we needed anything else. (If she had spent any more time at our table, we’d have had to feed her.) Our lunch waitress was equally friendly and competent but a little less omnipresent.

Cache

Address: 425 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-last seating at 9:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday Cuisine: Eclectic Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Yes, and recommended Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 850-0265 cachelittlerock.com

Weekend, Pages 31 on 01/30/2014

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