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Monday, July 9, 2012

The best appetizers in Central Arkansas

Posted By on Mon, Jul 9, 2012 at 11:15 PM

Appetizers have always struck me as a strange idea — on the surface of it, there's not much sense in eating food in order to get hungry for more food. On the other hand, appetizers are a nice way of getting something on the table quick to facilitate conversation and minimize the kick of that first beer or cocktail. It can also be fun to order up several things from the appetizer menu and make a mini-buffet right on the table, picking and choosing bites at random. An appetizer should be light, fun to eat, and either small enough not to ruin the appetite or possessed of enough versatility to make the transition to side dish once the main course arrives. With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite appetizers around — and if there's one that you all think I'm missing, by all means tell me how incomplete my life is down there in the comments.

One good place to start with any appetizer menu is with a fried potato of some sort, and the crispy Kennebec Chip Bucket from Big Orange is a strong contender for the best of the lot. Kennebec potatoes are firm, light-tasting potatoes, which makes them perfect for slicing thin and deep-frying since they hold up well to heat. Big Orange's fry cooks are also doing their part to make sure that each bucket of chips comes out fresh, lightly salted — and most important: crisp. There's nothing worse than reaching into a basket of chips or fries and winding up feeling like you're fumbling around for limp, slimy nightcrawlers to use for fishing bait. These chips don't have that problem with their almost translucent appearance and satisfying crunch. The side of chipotle red pepper mayo is a decent dip that could stand to be a little spicier, but these chips don't really need a dipping sauce, and while the portion is large, they certainly fulfill the criteria of an appetizer able to transition to a side dish for whatever burger is on your plate your mind for a main course.

For something a touch more elegant than a big aluminum bucket of fried stuff, the Scallops Rockefeller from Brave New Restaurant are worth a try. These sea scallops baked on the half shell with spinach, shallots, Parmesan cheese, and just a hint of Pernod are a nice mix of sweet and savory, rich and filling enough to satisfy the mouth and take the edge off your hunger, but with small enough servings so as to keep you read to go for Brave's legendary huge dinner portions. A small squeeze of lemon juice really brings out the flavor of these scallops, and there's never any worries about their having been cooked to a leathery toughness — each scallop is always tender and fine. These scallops aren't always available, and when they're not, go for the Baked Camembert or Avocado Shrimp, both of which make for excellent starts to any meal. All three of these appetizers are a perfect opportunity to get a lot of different tastes going on at your table at the same time and a fun way to try a lot of different things at a nicer restaurant and keep the bill reasonable.

Perhaps my favorite appetizer in Little Rock are the Fried Mushrooms at Cheers in the Heights, and while they won't send you down the rabbit hole or make you see pink elephants, I'd still call these mushrooms magic. What makes them so good? Well, unlike many restaurants, Cheers cuts their mushrooms into quarters, which keeps the pieces small. Small pieces mean a better mushroom to breading ratio — which means no biting into undercooked, soggy mushrooms. As for that breading, it's a spicy, crispy, herb-spiked batter which coats and clings to each mushroom well enough to stand up to as many dips as needed into the buttermilk ranch provided on the side. This is one of those appetizers that makes me forget all the things I ever learned in kindergarten about sharing and turns me into a one-man perpetrator of mushroom genocide. Cheers has a very respectable cheese dip, and I've always been tempted to order some of these mushrooms with a side of that spicy melted cheese goodness — I think it might be the best thing to come about since ancient man combined bacon with a cheeseburger.

As a final example — being well aware that three of my four appetizers are in the food group known as "fried" — I submit a dish from the Bleu Monkey Grill in Hot Springs. While I'm not the hugest fan of the Bleu Monkey overall, I will say that this appetizer, a pair of gigantic fried macaroni and cheese balls, might be one of the most delicious bites of pure battered and grease-soaked guilt I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The coating is thin and crunchy, reminiscent of corn dog batter. The macaroni and cheese is buttery and rich, and the whole thing is swimming in a creamy, savory marinara sauce. I know that it's shameful. I know, in so many ways, that this is disgusting to a level that might border on blasphemy. But every bite I've taken of one of these has made my rational brain (which screams out against everything on this plate) take a back seat to my more primal monkey brain — and the monkey brain just sees a delicious pile of salty, fatty goodness and wants more. I guess what I'm saying is this: I'm embarrassed to love these as much as I do.

As I bring this post to a close, I can think of several appetizers I might have put on this list: tempura battered soft-shell crab at Igibon, fried asparagus at the Little Rock Oyster Bar, and the jalapeno-spiked Henry Bread at Vino's all come to mind. I'm sure each of you have an appetizer in mind that's your favorite, so let me know — what's your favorite way to start a meal?

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