LITTLE ROCK — What happens in Las Vegas happens in Little Rock for one night per year: New Year’s Eve.
It’s when the Peabody converts from a serious business and convention hotel to a pulsating party palace, complete with nightclub lighting, music pumping and babes dancing in quasi cages.
And a meal at usually reserved Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse, where large glass windows give a view of the loud, lively lobby scene, takes on a very different feel - far more Hard Rock than Little Rock.
Also more Sin City is the price. The special three-course menu on Dec. 31 cost $95 per person. That’s not including tax, and a 20 percent gratuity automatically added to bills (confusing bills that then incorrectly stated “Gratuity is not included” at the bottom) and the 4 percent facility fee Capriccio charges. (Valet parking is free; ask your server about validation.) For two people, the meal plus two modest glasses of wine totaled $280.72.
We relished the meal. The chicken and shiitake mushroom consomme, broth with a chicken dumpling and chives, was savory. The salad of spinach, feta crumbles, toasted almonds and mandarin oranges with warm pancetta balsamic vinaigrette had a vivid mix of flavors, tastes, textures and temperatures.
The velvety beef and toothsome lobster tail that made up the St. Sylvester Surf and Turf (fish being the other selection), served with roasted baby carrots and a potato-pea mash, were proud if petite. And the dessert, a milk chocolate hazelnut cheesecake, glammed up with a strawberry, whipped cream, chocolate swirl and a 2011 chocolate medallion, was as plush as it was pretty.
We enjoyed it, but we’re not sure we nearly-$300 enjoyed it. That our congenial server poured us extra glasses of wine at no cost helped us enjoy it a bit more.
He didn’t have much else to do. While there was a lot of action outside the restaurant, little was happening inside. As guests of the 9 p.m. seating, we had the place - empty but for another couple of tables and a larger group in the back - practically to ourselves.
Maybe the 6 p.m. seating was busier. Or perhaps the restaurant’s night was a bust, as visitors chose to spend their money on booze instead of sea bass with pomegranate sauce. Or perhaps potential diners - like the older couple we watched walk out shortly after being seated - didn’t want to finance a fancy dinner serenaded by the booty shaking beats of Flo Rida.
We’re pretty sure that any other night of the year the couple would have lingered and appreciated a calm meal in the classy yet comfortable restaurant of welcoming elegance and warm colors.
As the name suggests, Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse’s dinner menu attempts to suit a variety of tastes. There are nearly a dozen steaks and chops selections ($27 to $50.50), about 10 Italian plates, pastas and pizzas ($14.75-$28.50) and four seafood items ($34.50 to $66). Those entrees come only with a basket of tasty cheese lavash and bread. Familystyle sides intended for two to share ($7.50-$9) are sold separately, as are soup and salad ($5-$11.50).
We started a recent weekday dinner with the excellent Ahi Tuna Tartare ($16), a fresh and frilly mound of sesame-scented diced sushigrade tuna, blended with shichimi pepper, avocado, frisee lettuce, spring onion and wasabi to a perfect medium degree of heat. It was served with toasted bread rounds.
We didn’t bother with additional starters, knowing what was coming next: “Capriccio’s Signature Steak,” a 24-ounce (!) bone-in cowboy rib-eye ($41.50). The hulking slab of butter-topped steak was nicely marbled and grilled to a perfect medium rare pink. Such a hefty cut could have benefited from a bit more seasoning.
I was glad I’d requested beurre blanc sauce on the side of my Chilean Sea Bass, the fresh fish of the day (market price, on this visit $45), as the well-peppered white, flaky filet already had a good bit of butter on it. A splash of the accompanying lemon was all it needed.
And there was plenty of butter on our shared sides: a smallish but nevertheless sweet and soothing medley of roasted butternut squash, parsnips, red beets and carrots in honey butter ($9) and the steamed asparagus ($9), four fat, tender stalks - a paltry serving for the price.
We ended the meal with a shared dessert - a warm Godiva cake ($7.50) with a molten chocolate center, cooled by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream.
The restaurant also serves breakfast and lunch daily. Gone is the elaborate Sunday brunch buffet.
A weekday lunch (11 a.m.-2 p.m.) was decent, but not dazzling. A cup of minestrone was requested ($4), but instead we received a cup of the fair vegetable beef soup of the day. The small Caesar salad ($7.50), while crisp, didn’t have much flavor, despite cheese shavings, dressing and croutons.
The daily special - a Philly steak sandwich with onions and peppers ($9.95), served with fries - was fatty and soggy. The Margarita pizza ( $14.50), described as featuring oven-roasted Roma tomatoes, thinly shaved garlic, fresh basil and mozzarella cheese, was large and lovely, but didn’t pack much garlic or basil punch. This was pardoned by cute packaging: the black-and-white checkered Papa Duck’s Pizzeria box produced for leftovers.
Capriccio’s breakfast menu (6:30-10:30 a.m.) offers entrees ranging from Belgian waffles served with berries ($9.50) to steak and eggs served with hash browns or cheese grits ($16.95) and sides like cinnamon oatmeal ($3.95) and yogurt with toasted granola and diced fruit ($7.25). That standard menu does have one surprise: the Little Rock Scramble ($12.95), two egg swith diced ham served in a puff pastry shell and topped with “Little Rock cheese dip.”
Those looking for an upscale Valentine’s Day meal might check out Capriccio on Feb. 11-14, when the restaurant is offering a by-reservation, $85-per-couple dinner special (choice of soup or salad, Chateaubriand for two, chef designed Valentine’s dessert and reduced wine and champagne prices).
Flo Rida tunes not included.
Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse Address: Peabody Little Rock, 3 Statehouse Plaza Cuisine: Steak, Italian, breakfast, lunch Hours: 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 6-9:30 p.m. daily Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 399-8000