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story.lead_photo.caption The Apple Galette at 42 Bar and Table comes with a healthy dollop of vanilla ice cream and swirls of caramel sauce. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Jennifer Nixon

The restaurant on the lower level of the Clinton Presidential Center has been through quite a few changes. It started out as Forty Two, a lunch and brunch place for visitors and downtown workers.

Then, in 2017, it was given a full makeover, with red-white-and-blue motifs on the walls, a comfortable patio complete with fire pits, and Thursday-Saturday dinner service, and renamed 42 Bar and Table.

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; bar hours: 4:30 p.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday

Cuisine: Eclectic

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Wheelchair access: Yes

(501) 748-0454

42barandtable.org

Now it boasts an almost-brand-new, behind-the-doors team. Andre Poirot, most recently of the Capital Hotel, is executive chef. Jason Morrell, once of Starving Artist Cafe, Sonny Williams' Steak Room and Simply the Best Catering, is chef de cuisine. And The Pizzeria's Jeremy Pittman serves as pastry chef.

Guests can still get to the restaurant via stairs or elevator through the main entrance. But there's another entrance down the outside stairs to the left of the main center entrance.

The restaurant is sleek and modern inside. Two-top tables stand along the wall of glass doors (those spots had good views but also got a bit of a draft) and there's banquette seating by the bar. Otherwise, there are tables for four that can be — and frequently are — pushed together for bigger groups.

A few menu items have carried over from the previous culinary team, but there are also some new players. Everything we tried on one lunch and one dinner visit was excellent, though some of the service logistics left a little to be desired.

A weekday lunch was a frenetic but not unpleasant affair, with a steady crowd moving through. The day was cool and windy, so no one seemed willing to brave the patio outside, but the views of the bridge, the lawn and the river were a peaceful contrast to the energy inside.

The lunch menu features a list of salads and sandwiches as well as a few entrees such as the Black Bean Chilaquiles Hash ($11).

My companion decided on a sandwich and chose the Vegetable and Boursin Panini ($10), grilled portobello, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and bell peppers topped with baby arugula and roasted garlic Boursin on wheatberry bread with Sriracha mayonnaise. The sandwich wasn't too thick, despite all the fillings, but also not too pressed, as paninis often are. Sandwiches come with a choice of side — including fries (regular or sweet potato) and mixed green salad. Dining Companion chose the seasonal fruit, a nice mix of blackberries, melons, pineapple and strawberries.

The SSS Smoked Salmon Salad ($13) with shaved red onion, avocado, fried capers, sliced bell peppers and arugula and kale tossed with Green Goddess dressing and topped with curried pistachios was tempting. There's also the Sesame Crusted Yellowfin Tuna Salad ($15) with shredded broccoli slaw, chile roasted edamame, julienne bell peppers and baby kale and arugula tossed with a candied garlic vinaigrette, burned peanuts and Asian chile oil. The Caesar salad ($6) can be enhanced with chicken, salmon or steak for extra fees.

All of those are also available at dinner, but the Seared Crab Cake Salad ($10) is only on the lunch menu. The two cakes — a little gummy but tasty — are served on a bed of mixed greens with cucumbers, slightly sweet pickled pearl onions, avocado, tomato and a spicy remoulade.

A Friday night dinner wasn't quite as lively as lunch had been, but it was still a jumping place — particularly out on the patio where most of the tables and fire pits were crowded with young people starting the weekend with drinks and finger foods along with views of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge.

Instead of specials, the chef now offers a weekend prix fixe menu with two choices per course. On our visit, it was prosciutto-wrapped asparagus or mixed green salad, lamb shank Provencal or baked European Sea Bass and chocolate raspberry layered cake or vanilla creme brulee. The cost was $45 per person, $65 with wine pairing.

We opted to go a la carte.

The list of appetizers included Seared Crab Cakes with creole mustard and honey sauce ($11) and Southern Chicken Biscuits ($8), as well as oysters, raw or baked (market price), but we decided to go with the Baked Brie En Croute ($8). The conical, flaky puff pastry was full of brie, which oozed out nicely when cut and it sat in the middle of a swirl of what seemed to be spicy mustard. The roasted pecans mentioned on the menu description were nowhere to be seen, replaced instead with cherry tomatoes. We liked the brie just fine and the apple compote was a nice, sweet and tasty complement. But texture-wise, everything on the plate was rather mushy and something with a little crunch — such as those pecans — would have been nice.

The menu offers a few soup/side salad options, including the Lobster Bisque ($9) and the Wilted Baby Spinach ($6), as well as the entree salad carryovers from the lunch menu.

Entrees offer a nice mix of land and sea — the Creole Shrimp Penne ($20) and Garlic and Herb Crusted Roasted Rack of Lamb ($35) — as well as sophisticated and down-home — Herb Provencal Pan-Seared Salmon ($25) and Chicken Pot Pie ($14).

I went with the only vegetarian option: Clinton's Curry ($15), caramelized onion and tomato with toasted garam masala, zucchini, carrots, sweet bell pepper and coconut milk. It was served in a shallow bowl and the vegetables were cooked to just the right amount of doneness in a light and very flavorful sauce. The mound of plain rice served with it, though, was uninspired.

Gallery: 42 Bar and Table

My companion decided to try the Thyme Braised Veal Osso Bucco ($29), of which our waiter said, "You could eat it without teeth." He wasn't exaggerating by much. The veal was velvety soft and tender, practically falling off the bone. The ragu of cannellini beans was a nice accompaniment and the little fork jutting out of the bone made it easy to scoop out the marrow.

Desserts change frequently and the wait staff brings samples around on a tray to help diners choose.

We passed on dessert at lunch but at dinner, the tray consisted primarily of representatives from the chocolate family. My companion chose a creamy Chocolate Cheesecake ($5), served with a dollop of whipped cream and a few strawberries. It was chocolatey and decadent without being over the top.

Feeling in a non-chocolate mood, I ate the Apple Galette ($6), a disc of perfectly cooked pastry full of soft, delicately spiced apples, topped with a chunk of vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. It was too much for one person but it was delicious enough that I made a good effort.

Service was somewhat spotty at dinner. Our waiter was friendly enough and seemed well-versed in the various dishes, able to answer questions and make recommendations, but he seemed to be overextended, going back and forth between the groups outside, a large party inside and several tables inside. Visits to us were widely spaced. Luckily, we weren't in a hurry.

He was very slow to make the initial visit to our table and when he did, he didn't ask if we wanted an appetizer (we did, and took the initiative). I'm not sure if bread is included with dinner, but I could swear I saw bread baskets on other tables. No one asked or offered one to us, so maybe I saw wrong.

When my companion ordered iced tea, he was offered no sweetener. Dining Companion asked, but our waiter must have forgotten because it took until the second glass (delivered by someone else) and another request before it finally made its way to our table.

Others, who appeared to be management picking up the slack, came by, checked on us and refilled drinks. Empty glasses and plates remained long after we had obviously finished before eventually being cleared away.

We were pleased, though, that our waiter from lunch a couple of weeks before recognized us and stopped to chat for a moment. It's nice to be remembered.

Weekend on 04/18/2019

Print Headline: RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: New culinary team succeeds at Clinton Center's 42 Bar & Table

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