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story.lead_photo.caption Sweet cornbread atop the Arkansas Hot Tamale bowl is shaped like the state at TAE. - Photo by Jennifer Christman

Hotel restaurants are, by nature, generic and cold.

Boutique hotel restaurants are, by nature, overpriced and haughty.

TAE, a True Arkansas Eatery + Lounge, in Little Rock's Hotel Frederica is none of the above. The restaurant serving Southern cuisine and hospitality is far more focused on substance than style.

Justin Patterson and CC Key of the now-closed Southern Gourmasian on Capitol Avenue have kept the Southern gourmet, subtracted the Asian and moved several blocks west to the first floor of the historic hotel across from the federal courthouse.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, the hotel, which opened in 1914 as the Hotel Freiderica and has been the Hotel Sam Peck, the Radisson Legacy Hotel and the Legacy Hotel, was renovated and renamed Hotel Frederica in 2016.

TAE has a subtly marked, easy-to-miss entrance on the hotel's east side, where there is free parking for patrons. And inside, the restaurant is just as unostentatious. The small segmented space features a bar, as well as seating at half-banquettes, regular and high-top tables and some plush furniture. With its hodgepodge of tchotchkes, wooden wall decor, some local paintings, some canvases of downtown scenes and the Food Network on a muted TV screen, TAE offers the feel of dining in someone's house, making it a homey refuge for hotel guests, as well as workers at nearby offices.

While the restaurant has been open for lunch since late June and started serving an all-day "Brunch to Brinner" menu on Saturdays and Sundays earlier this month, TAE, which recently got its liquor license, just began its first full week of dinner service Monday, and we were there to try it.

Because it was the first night, and gracious Key herself appeared to be the only one working the floor, we'll forgive the lengthy pauses between table visits. Our other two visits, we had a different server, equally friendly but similarly overworked. We trust they'll get their staffing needs and speed fine-tuned in time.

They didn't have a list of wine or beer to read over, but we know from signs and drink glasses, Stone's Throw brews are available. When I was torn between a couple of the six drinks on the Signature Cocktails menu, Key steered me toward the sunny Orangette Grow'd Up, made with their orange-infused vodka, Cointreau and orange soda and garnished with a fragrant charred orange slice. My friend says the Villa Marre, of gin, cranberry juice, pomegranate, simple syrup and fresh lemonade, "was way too sweet. Which, given the description, I should have expected." We were charged $8 for the cocktails; prices were not listed on the menu.

Gallery: TAE

TAE lunch and brunch/"brinner" diners will notice a good amount of overlap between menus. Selections like the Arkansas Toothpicks, smoked country-fried spare ribs; Nealie Mae's Cornbread Dressing; and the Homestyle Patty Melt appear on all three menus, though they might have different portion sizes and prices. Ribs, for example, are $12 during the day but $16.25 at night. And all three cleverly written menus are coded for those who are gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diners.

We started our dinner with one of the appetizers or "Snacks" on all three menus -- the cheese dip ($6.25). We received an ample bowl of thick, clingy dip that had balanced sharpness and spiciness. It was served with a pile of warm super salty chips, which is how we like them; we typically pour on more salt at restaurants. We wouldn't here, even if there was a salt on the table. There wasn't. Or pepper. TAE's food didn't lack for seasoning; still we appreciate shakers being readily available.

My friend and I both went for beef. I ordered the meatloaf ($12) and she ordered the "sTAEk" ($20.25); both came with two sides (regularly $3.25 a la carte; a veggie plate of three sides is $7 and four sides is $9).

The tender meatloaf, cloaked in a tangy red sauce and nostalgia, was topped with a fluff of greenery. On the side I had requested Mac + Cheese and candied yams. Instead I got ramekin full of the lush, peppered Mac + Cheese and a bowl of greens. The greens -- smoky, savory and yet with a hint of sweetness -- were so good, I "yam" not sorry about the yams, which I forgot all about.

My friend was less enamored of her sizable portion of "sTAEk," char-grilled with garlic butter, saying: "The menu didn't specify the cut of meat, nor did I ask what it was. I probably should have because it seemed tough to me. It was also already cut into pieces, which I thought odd. The menu said they wouldn't cook the steak medium-well or well-done, but there were pieces that were well-done and some that were medium-rare, so there didn't seem to be consistency (maybe this was due to cutting it up). The garlic somewhat overpowered some of the pieces."

TAE

Address: Hotel Frederica, 625 W. Capitol Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Cuisine: Southern

Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes, they do TAE-kout

(501) 301-0892

facebook.com/TruArkEat/

As for her sides, she says her Zucchini + Summer Squash "was well-seasoned and had a few charred bits on it, which I personally love." And her Simple Salad "was fine with very fresh vegetables (greens, tomato, red onion, cucumber). I would serve a bit more dressing. My little container was only half-full."

We might have ordered something sweet -- no selections were listed on the dinner menu, but we remember the lunch menu advertised apple crisp with ice cream ($5). But we felt dessert might take a while and decided to desert instead.

At a weekday lunch, a different friend and I started with an appetizer that's always available, the Fried Green Tomatoes ($8 lunch/brunch, $8.25 at dinner). Served on greens and drizzled with something called "Cool Sauce," the thin, tart cornmeal-coated tomato slices were the right amounts, coarse and crisp. There were an uneven five slices to be shared, which I solved by unapologetically stealing the last one.

I chose one of the lunch bowls, the Arkansas Hot Tamale ($10.25). The zesty serving of slow-cooked shredded pork, pinto beans, cheese and hot sauce was topped with a sweet piece of cornbread -- sweet in that it almost tasted like cake and that it was cut in the shape of the state. Normally, I prefer savory cornbread, but it complemented the dish perfectly.

My friend ordered Nealie Mae's Cornbread Dressing ($9), described as "a family recipe never written, passed down three generations," with brown gravy and cranberry relish, and elected to add chicken ($2.25). And back to the subject of sweet cornbread, she says, "I have to admit that I am in the no-sugar contingent. And, since the chef is on the other side of this debate, I got an unexpected flavor when I dove into my dish. I got used to the flavor and really enjoyed it. But for those who are in the no-sugar league, be aware." On the side, she ordered the standard purple hull peas and the aformentioned greens, which she agreed were "perfect."

Early on a Sunday, we visited to try the "Brunch to Brinner Menu," finding it a bit more "inner" than "br" -- in other words, heavier on the lunch/dinner selections than breakfast.

The only really breakfasty choices were The Lil John ($9.25), toast, country ham and a fried egg, and a Twice-Fried Fried Chicken Biscuit ($9), which I didn't want to order because my date settled on the only other breakfasty choice, the too similar Twice-Fried Fried Chicken + Waffle ($11).

So I had a Homestyle Patty Melt ($9) and fries at 9:30 a.m. Breath aside, eating a sandwich of beef with pimento cheese and grilled onions on buttered toast, plus fries, at 9:30 a.m. was not at all bad.

A picture can't properly capture the wow factor of the Twice-Fried Fried Chicken + Waffle, a sturdy sugared waffle topped with tasty pieces of bone-in chicken. The meat of the chicken, inside a charred skin sealed with a crisp outer coating, was unbelievably tasty and juicy, and a self-administered soaking of syrup rounded out the dish with sticky sweetness.

Having never tried chocolate gravy, but fearing we'd miss the breakfast kind, we ordered a basket of four biscuits ($5.25) and sides of both for $1 each on the side. He preferred the creamy white variety, but I rather liked the sweet chocolate, not that I have anything to compare it to.

After seeing one pass by, I was tempted to order a bloody Mary served with bacon. And I also longed to try the cinnamon roll bread pudding ($4), designated as a special. But I was too full.

I would have had to nap it off and check into the Hotel Frederica.

Weekend on 07/26/2018

Print Headline: TAE offers upscale Southern comfort

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