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I've been trying to make my way to Hillcrest mainstay Vieux Carre since their announcement last May of changes to Chef David Bennett's menu, but somehow it took until just recently for me to finally get around to eating there — and it's one of those times where I'm kicking myself that it took so long. Vieux Carre's Southern-style bistro food looks very simple on the surface, but each dish is a wonderful study in flavor contrasts that makes the $7-$15 price tag seem extremely cheap, especially when everything is served up in one of Little Rock's nicer, most colorful dining rooms around. Bright prints on the every table catch the sunlight from the large Kavanaugh-facing wooden picture window, giving everything a cheerful glow and a festive atmosphere. The service is attentive and low-key, and while the restaurant could easily flaunt itself as a stuffy, high-end place, the efforts at keeping lunch prices low and providing a casual atmosphere really make it a fun place to eat.
Choosing something from the extensive starter menu was quite a challenge, with everything from crab cakes to bruschetta jumping out as something delicious-looking to try. There's appetizer that's unique to Vieux Carre, though, the Black-eyed Pea "Caviar," and that's where my dining companion and I decided to start. The caviar is a cold salad (for lack of a better term) of black-eyed peas, peppers, tomatoes, and onions mixed together in a tangy dressing and served with toasted baguette slices. We weren't too sure about the stuff at first bite, not being used to eating our peas cold, but a second bite won us over. Firm, tender peas gave way to a slight pepper bite, and the freshness of the onions and tomatoes completed a flavor profile that we enjoyed more and more as we continued eating. We admired the balance of flavor in the dish, although we would have liked to turn the heat up on the peppers just a notch. Still, it was a fine and filling start to our meal, and a dish that sets Vieux Carre apart.
We followed up the peas with a couple of sandwiches, and once again Vieux Carre made it hard to choose with items like a Reuben, a Hawaiian-style burger topped with pineapple and ham, and the decadent-looking Kavanaugh club. We finally narrowed it down to two sandwiches: the Honey Dijon Chicken and the Poppy's Steak Sandwich. Both sandwiches came served on soft, chewy ciabatta bread with a generous side of house-made potato chips — and these chips were so good that we wished we had ordered the appetizer featuring them with a Gorgonzola dip. It's possible to substitute fries for a couple of dollars extra, but these well-made chips are a thing of beauty and shouldn't be missed.
As for the sandwiches, both were excellent. The chicken sandwich featured two thin-pounded chicken cutlets that had been breaded and fried to a crisp golden brown, topped with Swiss and cheddar cheeses, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and creamy honey mustard. Each bite was a crisp, cheesy mouthful, and the toppings were distributed just right so that every bite gave an equal distribution of all the delicious ingredients. Too many restaurants make the mistake of frying or grilling an entire chicken breast for their sandwich, resulting in rubbery chicken that is hard to eat; Vieux Carre's thin cutlets were juicy and tender and very easy to handle.
The steak sandwich was another success, with tender thin-sliced ribeye steak holding up a pile of melted Swiss, lettuce and tomato. Where the chicken had a sweet, mild mustard, this steak sandwich went with a bold, stone-ground mustard that accented the juicy beef without overpowering it's delicate flavor. Texture was again excellent, with no piece of steak sliced too thick, and no gristle or fat to be found throughout. It was a quality cut of meat prepared with skill and care, and while I would have liked my beef to be just a touch more rare, I still found myself polishing off the sandwich in record time.
Lunch is a meal that gets overlooked far too often, and it's nice sometimes to be able to sit down and have a fantastic meal in the middle of the day. Vieux Carre is one of the top spots in Little Rock to do this, with fast service, an inexpensive menu, and an attention to quality and detail that elevates the lowly sandwich into something worth raving about. Vieux Carre is located at 2721 Kavanaugh in Little Rock, and they're open from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. for lunch Monday - Saturday, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. for dinner Monday - Thursday, and 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.