Table 28 used to be, well, pretty cavelike.
Duck “Breast” comes with a side of bacon-and-pecan-accented Brussels sprouts at Table 28.
About 2 1/2 years ago, Table 28 owner-chef Scott Rains took over a slightly subterranean rathskeller space in what was then the Best Western Premier Governors Suites. It had a somewhat dark, almost mysterious ambience that suited fairly well Vesuvio Bistro, which occupied it for many years. The bar was actually below the level of the restaurant floor, with the bartender at eye level with his customers. And Rains didn't initially do that much to alter it.
Address: The Burgundy Hotel, Market Street, Little Rock
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Cuisine: “Modern American Cuisine with a twist”
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, through a rear entrance
Reservations: Yes; reserve the “28th Table Experience” seven days in advance
Diners descended then, and descend now, a short set of steps from the now more luxurious lobby of the remodeled, now more luxurious-sounding Burgundy Hotel to enter.
A few months ago, Rains gave Table 28, too, a complete major makeover. The restaurant is now lighter, brighter and much more modern-looking, with white composite tops on the 27 tables in the dining room and a new curtained alcove. (The 28th, which gives the place its name, is the chef's feature table, at which guests get a six-course meal that Rains specifically tailors, prepares and serves. And a percentage of the tab benefits Arkansas Children's Hospital. The restaurant website recommends you reserve the "28th Table Experience" seven days in advance.)
At those 27 tables and booth/banquettes are nicely padded chairs (varying in style by table setup). The dining area now has dark quasi-paneled walls (actually wallpaper) and a darkish, forest-floor-patterned rug. The bar area has been elevated, with a nice, lit-from-underneath countertop at which folks can lounge while waiting for a table or just sipping a beverage. The sound system plays mostly uptempo classic rock (although having the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" playing while a member of the wait staff lowered the lights may not have been exactly appropriate).
We first encountered and were impressed by Rains, an Arkansas native who got his culinary experience in the San Francisco Bay area, in 2003 at a place called Horseshoe Vineyard, in a sort of Quonset hut with a backyard garden that occupied a wide spot on U.S. 70 west of Hot Springs between Pearcy and Bonnerdale.
And we gave him a very favorable review: "Certainly the last thing you'd expect on the road to Bonnerdale is a first-class Italian restaurant. But no matter how you get there, Horseshoe Vineyard is certainly worth the trip. ... Owner/chef Scott Rains has done a pretty good job of re-creating the atmosphere of a Napa Valley bistro, considering that there aren't any nearby mountain slopes and the only grapevines in the neighborhood are the ones he grows (the grapes, alas, are only good for jelly, not wine, so don't ask for the house vintage)."
The restaurant closed in mid-2004; Rains announced that he and wife Julie had decided to move back to California to spend more time rearing their 4-year-old daughter.
We're glad to have him back. For Table 28 he has created a very inventive menu of "Modern American Cuisine with a twist," full of dishes starting with basic protein staples -- fish, fowl, barnyard beasties -- and dressing them up in distinctive ways. Unlike some of his competitors at this price point, he adheres to that "four simple ingredients" philosophy that top chefs like Denis Seyer have always advocated.
And also unlike his competitors, he doesn't burden his customers with elaborate details on the printed menu about those ingredients; listings are remarkable terse -- for example, "Sweet Tea Brined 'Fried Chicken'+mashed potatoes+gravy+corn, $15."
Some items may require some explanation from the wait staff. For example, we had not previously encountered "asperation," a spray of broccolilike florets atop a long, slim stem that our waiter described to us as a cross between broccoli and asparagus. (A 1998 New York Times piece explains that the correct spelling is "aspiration" and it's actually a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, or Chinese broccoli. "Asparagus is not part of the equation.")
Rains also puts some things peculiarly in quotation marks. Nicknames or descriptions like "San Fran" and "Fire Roasted," we can understand, but why "Fried Chicken" or Duck "Breast"? Is that real breast or mock breast? Oh, well, we can forgive small affectations if the dishes themselves are good, and these certainly are.
We can recommend three delightful small plate/appetizers:
• The Quail Bird Lollipops+hot sauce+bleu ($11), essentially processed quail meatballs on skewer-ettes slathered in hot sauce and topped with a more than ample amount of bleu cheese on a bed of mixed greens. We couldn't quite figure out just of what it reminded us until the waiter helpfully mentioned buffalo wings. Only better.
• Mushrooms+oyster+shiitake+mozzarella+truffle oil ($8), a casserole dish plentifully full of fresh mushroom slivers. The "oyster" refers not to actual shellfish but to the sauce in which they're sauteed. (Cantonese food fans should recognize it.)
• Peppered Beef Carpaccio+capers+smoke+manchego+lemon ($10). Manchego is a hard Spanish cheese, similar to parmesan. The "smoke" is the way the carpaccio is flavored; a tangy but otherwise unidentified green sauce also adds a nice bite.
The entrees are divided on the menu into categories of origin: "Sea," "Ranch," "Farm."
From the sea, we revisited the Cioppino "San Fran"+bass+shrimp+scallops+squid ink pasta ($29), pretty much a cross between a soup and a seafood stew. The broth wasn't as tomato-y, and a little more oily, than the last time we tried it, but it's just as tasty. In addition to chunks of fish, firm shrimp (with the tails attached, however, which gets messy when you're trying to separate saucy shrimp from tails) and a couple of good-size scallops, we got what appeared to be some almost melt-in-the-mouth-tender pieces of squid. It comes with an "island" of squid-ink black pasta and a couple of two-by-fours of garlic bread, not quite enough to sop up the remaining broth.
From the ranch, we can certainly recommend the Beef Loin Filet+cauliflower+asperation+red wine demi ($32), a superb piece of beef with a near-perfect red-wine demi-glace, served medium rare just as we ordered it. The "asperation" we've discussed; the cauliflower, which we mistook when it arrived for mashed potatoes, is pureed with manchego.
From the farm, we were delighted with our Duck "Breast"+Brussels+pecans+bacon+blood orange ($25). It really is duck breast, tender and tasty and not too fatty. The "Brussels+pecans+bacon" is Brussels sprouts sauteed, and crunchy thereby, with nuts and bacon. The "blood orange" is the thin sauce that essentially makes this a novel twist on "duck a l'orange."
The cauliflower and Brussels sprouts melange is available as a $7 a la carte side; so is the Shishito Mac-n-Cheese+crispy chicken skin, a mac-and-cheese casserole made with zippy-sweet Japanese shishito peppers and topped with, yes, fried chicken skins. We ended up taking most of ours home, where later in the week it made for a fun, cold small meal.
Service was excellent; our waiters were helpful, friendly and supportive. They did a little upselling (and that led to us adding a glass of dessert wine in lieu of the dessert we had resolved not to order), but in a very nice and unpressuring way.
Weekend on 04/21/2016
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