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story.lead_photo.caption The Tongue & Cheek at Table 28 in the Best Western Premier Governor’s Suites in Little Rock features beef, red wine, leeks and horseradish. - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / JENNIFER CHRISTMAN

We’d love to watch a casual tourist lodging at the west Little Rock Best Western read the restaurant menu.

Table 28

(By Jennifer Christman)
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Quail Bird Lollipops? Oxtail? Octopus?

Warm Pig Feet and Sweetbread Terrine?

Bone Marrow? Rabbit?

And if such exotic foods wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, surely the price of the Aged Ribeye “Tomahawk” served with “bleu” fondue and onion rings would: $75. (Sorry, Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse, your $59 Australian Wagyu Ribeye is no longer the most expensive steak in town.)

Table 28 is not your typical chain hotel restaurant. (Of course, the Best Western Premier Governor’s Suites would protest it’s not a typical chain hotel.) It follows in the hidden-jewel footsteps of Vesuvio Bistro, the upscale Italian restaurant that flourished in, and then outgrew, the unlikely rathskeller space. (Vesuvio has moved to the former El Chico, 1315 Breckenridge Drive, Little Rock.)

At the helm of ambitious Table 28 is Arkansas native Scott Rains, previously of Horseshoe Vineyard in Hot Springs and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. With an emphasis on regional ingredients and local produce, Rains says on the restaurant’s website, “I want to create comfortable and casual fine dining that keeps people wanting to come back for more.”

He has succeeded. Consider us wowed.

While the restaurant has been open only two months, it runs as if it has been open as many years, maybe decades. We could find no faults - the food is fine, the pacing is perfect and the service is superior.

The low ceiling and relaxed lighting add coziness to the clean, two-part, dark wood dining room chairs, white tablecloths and sepia Arkansas photographs on walls. The front, with a long bar, is livelier; the back nook is more intimate.

True to its name, there are indeed 28 tables - 27 regular tables and one feature table where guests pay $200 for a special six-course meal, a portion of which benefits Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

We never sat at the chef’s table. And we never ordered the $75 steak. But we felt like we received VIP treatment during two recent dinners. (The restaurant has no current plans for lunch service.)

There’s a martini ($10.50) menu of Lemon Drops and Cosmos. And there’s a wine list where you could spend hundreds, or a mere $6.50 for a glass of Menage a Trois red.

Don’t eat too much of the complimentary pre-meal Cowboy Hummus, a tasty black-eyed pea spread served with bread, as Table 28’s “Small Bites” are superb. They also provide a way to sample something bold (Beef Carpaccio, Chicken Liver Pate) without too much commitment.

So maybe the mushrooms ($9), a small casserole of savory, meaty fungi, served with a ball of herbed mozzarella cheese and Boulevard Bread toasts wasn’t all that daring of a choice, but it was delicious.

We went a bit more exotic with the Crispy Squid Filet ($12), which was not a plate of rubbery rings, but rather a basket of four fried squid tenders that were truly that, served with a ginger chile dipping sauce. It was, as two different waiters promised, the best we’ve tried.

Our wildest choice was the Quail Bird Lollipops ($11), three balls of a Buffalo-style quail (tastes like chicken, only richer), with Gorgonzola cheese and Tabasco butter, served on sticks like the fanciest-ever fair food.

We were warned that the Butter Lettuce Wedge ($9) was a big salad, but we were still amazed by the bounty of lettuce, blue cheese, crispy onions, tomatoes, bacon, sheep’s milk dressing and smoky Thousand Island (next time we’d share it or select it as an entree). Jay Fullbright’s Greens ($5), a smaller mix with hazelnuts and a lively lemon smack, was sized as a starter.

The single-page menu spotlights 15 seasonal entrees, divided into “Sea,” “Ranch” and “Farm” categories. (Vegetarian? See “Farm” for the eggplant and the Farro “Risotto” dishes.)

We went safe with our first dinner visit, choosing the Beef Loin “Filet” ($30) and the Mahi “Gulf ” ($27) - their quotation marks, not ours. But even safe is still special at Table 28.

The velvety steak - topped with herbed Boursin cheese and a sophisticated fluff of Table 28 signature shrubbery and richly sauced with bordelaise - barely required a knife. A diced half baked apple made a charming accent. The flaky mahi mahi was quite flavorful, encrusted in smoked almonds and decked with “drunken” cherries.

Our second visit, we stretched a bit, selecting the Tongue & Cheek ($24). It’s not a tongue-in-cheek name. The entree - a moist, slow cooked beef dish with red wine, leeks and horseradish, plated with a carrot and pearl onions - includes both identified parts.

I attempted to order the Diver Caught Scallops “Surf and Turf ” with oxtail and shiitake mushrooms ($32), but the kitchen ran out. Itook it as a sign to be more courageous and order the Rabbit “Pel-Freez Farm” ($26, tastes like chicken, expertly cooked to maximize moisture), served with a pleasantly puckery balsamic with rosemary. If only rabbit had a less animal-sounding nickname like “beef ” or “veal,” we’d never think twice about enjoying it.

Sides ($6) are share-sized for two. Not that we wanted, once we tasted them, to share the creamy buttermilk/ Boursin mashed potatoes, the zesty habanero cheddar Turnpike Georgia Grits, the kicky creamed corn with chorizo or the bacony Brussels sprouts with pecans.

Table 28’s sweets ($8 per) might not look sized-to-share, but they’re definitely dessert enough for two spoons. The red velvet cake iced with cream cheese mousse was royally rich, as was the Sticky Toffee Pudding with vanilla cream, spiced blackberries and hazelnuts, as was the plush Rum & Coke cake cloaked in mousse, homemade caramel and walnuts.

Table 28

Address: Best Western Premier Governor’s Suites, 1501 Merrill Drive, Little Rock Hours: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday Cuisine: Eclectic/Modern American Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Yes (can be made online) Wheelchair accessible: Yes (though a rear portal) Carryout: Yes (501) 224-8051

Weekend, Pages 33 on 11/07/2013

Print Headline: Table 28 is audacious, yummy

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