Mike Selig has taken a great leap forward with the restaurant at the Clinton Presidential Center in the burgeoning eastern end of Little Rock.
It used to be called Forty Two (a reference to the 42nd president of the United States, whose presidential library, center and museum is its "house") and it used to be a pretty sedate place that served a slightly higher-end lunch and an off-and-on Sunday brunch in a comfortable but not especially impressive setting.
42 bar and table
Address: Clinton Presidential Center, 1200 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
Wheelchair accessible: Yes, through the Clinton Center’s main door
Now, after major reconstruction, it has been renamed 42 bar and table -- both hip and practical, because of the prominent and fully stocked bar (the restaurant previously only served wine and beer) and because of its more and more formally arrayed tables. In addition, there's elegant patio seating, a major upgrade from utilitarian to posh (not to mention the three fire pits and the prime view of the lit-up-at-night Clinton Presidential Park Bridge).
Until the redo, you had to enter the Clinton Center through its front door and pass through a metal detector before descending to the lower level where the restaurant is. Now there's a separate exterior stair. It's long, wide and steep, and it needs a second hand rail, but it provides a direct entrance through what used to be a back-door patio door. (Patrons in wheelchairs or who are otherwise mobility-challenged will still have to enter through the front door but if headed to the restaurant, they can bypass the metal detector. But, as one of our friends found recently, it's a long and difficult journey if you're on a cane.)
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Photos by Eric E. Harrison
Photos by Eric E. Harrison
Meanwhile, Selig has started three-day-a-week dinner service, with a decidedly more upscale menu, consistent with the upscale decor. Not everything we tried worked, but what did work worked very well.
A member of the service staff will ask you when you sit if you want still or sparking water, which they pour out of special swivel-stopper bottles. They aerate the latter themselves -- there's a bubbler in the kitchen.
We'd go back for the Mole Spiced Lamb Chops ($25), four enormous two-bone chops, plate-presented as a cross-bone tower over a bed of sweet-potato-and-pearl-onion hash (with pieces of red bell pepper). Our chops came out medium rare just as we ordered them (we consider cooking lamb chops any longer as bordering on abuse), and while they weren't fork-tender, we managed very well with not-especially-sharp house steak knife. The mole, if present, was extremely subtle, which was fine, and we really didn't taste the mustard in the whole grain mustard cream that was the visible garnish, but that was fine, too. The side hash was an excellent complement.
Close second on our enjoyment meter was the Thyme Braised Veal Osso Bucco ($29). Our expectations, fueled by the Osso Bucco Alla Milanese con Gremolata that Selig served a dozen years ago as a special at his (unfortunately defunct) west Little Rock Vermillion Italian Bistro, were high, and we were not disappointed. The huge bone-in veal shank rose majestically out of an ocean of cannellini bean ragu flavored with natural veal jus. As Selig served it of yore, it came out to the table with a tiny fork protruding from the bone eased the eating of the marrow, part of the full osso buco dining experience, which was a nice touch. Some of the uber-plentiful beans were almost crunchy, which gave an added textural dimension to the meal.
We were less pleased, to the point of puzzlement, by the Pepper Grilled Tenderloin of Beef ($30). Intrepid Companion, who ordered it expecting a steak, was surprised to discover that the texture and flavor were closer to roasted than grilled. It was also a bit rarer than the medium rare she ordered it. The accompanying garlic mash and gaufrette potatoes, however, were delicious.
We were even more puzzled by the Cioppino ($27), a dish Selig served as a soup at his (unfortunately defunct) downtown Vermillion Italian Bistro. We weren't disappointed by the volume and quality of the seafood, which was first-rate -- plentiful fresh mussels and clams; a very large chunk of fish (salmon or, as we opted, lightly seared and sesame-seed-crusted ahi tuna) and a tender whole lobster tail. But instead of a cross between a soup and a stew, as we have always had cioppino, this came atop a large bed of flabby angel hair pasta in a "tomato broth" that was a lot closer to a very pedestrian tomato sauce.
Our appetizer choices were similarly a mixed experience. We can definitely recommend the Peking Chicken "Frites" ($8), which the menu describes as spring rolls filled with finely shredded and spiced chicken but, thin as they are, are perhaps closer to taquitos. They come out of the kitchen in a "holder" that we thought at first was parchment, but turned out to be a very thin and decidedly edible spring-roll-wrapper shell. We were disappointed, however, by how tiny were the dabs of spicy mustard, peanut and particularly the pineapple plum dipping sauces on the plate.
The Lobster Bisque ($9) comes in a large, cleverly designed bowl with a lobe on one side to hold the bowl of the spoon -- rather smaller, alas, than a standard soup spoon, which resulted in it taking a long enough while to eat the soup that we still were working on it when our entrees arrived. The bisque was rich and flavorful, with a tiny pitcher of Dry Sack sherry on the side; since such a bisque should have a slight touch of sherry, we added some. Actually, we dumped it all in. That was a mistake, because all we tasted after that was sherry.
We were distinctly disappointed by the Crab Empanadas ($9), three crisp-fried, half-moon-shape shells enclosing a crab-cake mixture. They were bland and we would have loved to have been able to perk them up with the pico de gallo the menu promised, but we couldn't find it. The side avocado crema didn't help much. We did like the jalapeno cured carrot.
Service was very good, although between the wait staff, the bus staff and the management making sure everything tasted "excellent," we did find ourselves a bit besieged. Oh, and from the "menu still needs a little editing" department, when it says "Add Pepper Grilled Flat Iron, $3" it's not an actual iron. It's a flat-iron steak.
Weekend on 11/30/2017
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