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story.lead_photo.caption A Friday “Meat & Three” cafeteria-style plate lunch at Cathead’s Diner included fried catfish, green beans with bits of barbeued pork, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes with cream gravy and a cathead biscuit. - Photo by Eric E. Harrison

You probably have seen, read or heard some of the pre-opening hype for Cathead's Diner, which opened a few weeks ago in a former paint factory on Shall Avenue in Little Rock's developing so-called East Village.

It's the collaboration between local culinary celebrities Donnie Ferneau Jr. (chef) and Kelli Marks (baker). The bill of fare is slightly upscale Southern comfort food plus really upscale pastries, including the cat-head-size biscuits from which the eatery takes its name, and a range of gourmet doughnuts. (When there are any left, that is.)

Cathead’s Diner

Address: 515 Shall Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Cuisine: Upscale Southern comfort food and artisan baked goods

Credit cards: M, V, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Beer and wine

Wheelchair accessible? Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 801-0843

The hype is certainly deserved. Cathead's serves up first-rate breakfasts, plate lunches and upscale weekend brunches, but at pretty upscale prices. Marks' biscuits are outstanding, exactly halfway between dense and fluffy. And almost every meal produced one glorious surprise item that exceeded our expectations.

It's ironic, or something, that Ferneau in a most recent commercial establishment, Good Food by Ferneau (not counting his stint at 1836, which was members-only), was all about eating "healthy" and balancing carbs and fats and calories and what-not. Now he's serving up plates of fried catfish and chicken, not to mention the doughnuts and doughnut French toast, for Pete's sake, that are just laden with fats and carbs and calories.

Customers enter Cathead's through the door that's probably farthest away from wherever it is they've found to park -- there are a few spaces in front of the building and some directly across the street; beyond that, there are a few on-street parking spaces along Sixth Street and some at the newly built eastside eStem buildings, if school is not in session. Others, if you don't mind walking a couple of blocks, are available on the back side of Heifer International.

Inside, the color scheme ranges from off-white to light blue, with sturdy, artisan-style wooden tables on artisan-style wooden chairs with cute off-white tie-on pads. One wall is a stylized drawing of a pig framing a plug-in neon Cathead's logo; on that same wall is the entrance to the bathrooms featuring a cute stylized cat head in a chef's toque (also a logo image) paired with a sign that says "Litter Boxes." (Doors within are labeled "Toms" and "Tabbies.")

Ferneau has put his smoker out front, at the north end of the building, in full view, and smell, of incoming customers, so if at first you don't see the place, you can follow your nose. (Ferneau mentioned on a recent Saturday that he was readying 70 pounds of brisket for Sunday's brunch.)

Order breakfast off a menu -- one of five entree plates, or from the five-item "Biscuits & Burritos" list. For lunch and brunch, once you've placed your beverage order, climb into Cathead's cafeteria line. Which, even when it isn't abnormally long, as it can be at peak periods, moves slower than it ought.

That's in part because there's no real way of telling until you get to the front of the line what your food options are -- some kind of menu board somewhere would help customers know in advance. And in part because Ferneau is the first server on the line. And if you have ever eaten in any of Ferneau's establishments over the years, you know Ferneau can't resist proudly pointing out the finer points of each item in the steam trays and making recommendations. And that he can't resist chatting with his customers, especially ones he knows, even as other customers back up behind them.

On weekdays, you stand in line for a "Meat & Three" plate lunch (meat and three sides, $11; $2 per extra meat or side item; $7.50 for a "lite plate," with either no meat or with half portions). On a recent Friday, Ferneau was serving up pulled pork, fried chicken tenders and super, light, nongreasy fried catfish in pieces of manageable size. Side items included tasty, coarse-mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, green beans with bits of smoked pork and baked beans in a rich sauce. Down the line other servers will assemble a salad for you. At the end of the line are Marks' desserts and specialty doughnuts. (When there are any left, that is.)

Everything on our plate was spiced to the point where we didn't feel the need to add anything at all to perk it up, although we prefer mac and cheese with a slightly sharper cheese. The green beans were the happy surprise here -- a whole new take on pork and beans, yes indeed. Altogether, Ferneau's generous portions meant we had too much food; one less side item would have been plenty.

The other winner: the wonderful Clover's pink lemonade pie, which, especially if you're a fan of Key lime or other citric pies, will cause you to heap high praise on Marks' grandmother, after whom the concoction is named.

Cathead's Saturday-Sunday champagne brunch is all-you-can-eat, meaning you can go through the line as often as you want, for $25, which includes a mimosa (no mimosa, $22.50; $12 for kids 12 and under -- also presumably with no mimosa; a house signature frozen mimosa is $6).

But we discovered we could not eat all we could eat -- there was so much food on our plate the first trip through the line that we never even considered making another. Oh, and one other complaint: For that price, brunch probably should, but doesn't include, coffee -- which was an additional $2.50 -- or other nonalcoholic beverages.

We passed up the Cajun meatloaf for fried chicken tenders, adding a barbecue rib (fall-off-the-bone tender and truly tasty, although it would have been nice to at least have the option of barbecue sauce), some bacon, cheesy rice grits, a piece of "donut French toast" and a biscuit with chocolate gravy that we got because Ferneau fervently recommended it. Cream gravy is also an option.

Here, it was the grits that were truly worth the trip, and we're not big grits fans: They were thick, clingy, flavorful and with just the right texture and with enough cheese without the cheese becoming overwhelming, and retaining flavor even as they cooled off. Which they did while we were concentrating on the many other things on our plate, including the maple-bacon doughnut, with bits of actual bacon stuck into the not-too-sweet icing. We picked that over the other extravagant doughnut options at the recommendation of the guy behind the counter.

A member of the wait-bus staff carrying a tray of doughnuts offered them to some folks in line, though not us; at one point she came by our table not with doughnuts but with chunks of very nice, not-too-sweet, iced-just-right cinnamon rolls. (If you're getting the idea that many of the best things at Cathead's brunch are Marks' and not Ferneau's, well, we probably wouldn't say no.)

That, by the way, was the last Cathead's doughnut we saw for a while. There weren't any left by lunchtime on the day we visited. We also didn't even see any when we dropped by one weekday morning for breakfast. We finally found a few, much smaller, at a late-on-Sunday brunch "mop-up" visit, where we got a chance to enjoy that brisket.

Weekday breakfast is still waiting to catch on, at least if our experience was typical. Cathead's is, well, almost on our way to work -- a detour of a dozen or so blocks isn't so far if the trip is worthwhile. But when we walked through the door shortly before 9 a.m. we certainly surprised the heck out of the staff. We got ours to go: The Blue Collar Breakfast, $11, which though you get plenty of food, is perhaps more of a white collar price; two eggs over medium, just as ordered, and, though we didn't ask for them that way, without additional salt; two bacon strips, a sausage patty the size of an average hamburger, a goodly quantity of potato hash and a biscuit.

We had two real finds on this plate: the hash, diced spuds lightly sauteed with onions (we prefer ours crisper, but we enjoyed what we got) and the coarse-ground sausage, which, based on flavor, spicy kick and the slightly orange oil stain it left on the fiberboard to-go box, apparently involves some chorizo. Yum.

The compartmented to-go container is, given Ferneau's record, probably biodegradable, although we're not so sure about the plastic tight-fitting lid. In any case, it kept our food at least marginally hot for the nine minutes it took to get from restaurant to our desk.

Our service was quite good and we witnessed folks at other tables being treated as well or better.

Photo by Eric E. Harrison
A “Meat & Three” lunch at Cathead’s Diner consisted of fried chicken tenders, green beans, mac and cheese and baked beans with a cathead biscuit.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
The to-go Blue Collar Breakfast at Cathead’s Diner — (clockwise from top left) two strips of bacon, potato hash, a breakfast sausage patty, two fried eggs (over medium) and the restaurant’s signature cathead biscuit — came in a fiberboard container.
Photo by Eric E. Harrison
Weekend brunch at Cathead’s Diner included (clockwise from top left) doughnut French toast; smoked rib, bacon and cheesy rice grits; a maple bacon doughnut with bacon in the icing; and a cathead biscuit topped with chocolate gravy.

Weekend on 07/05/2018

Print Headline: Cathead's almost purrfection


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