Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Saying hello (again) to Ciao Baci

Posted By on Wed, Apr 10, 2013 at 2:54 PM

Fried chicken, bean and bacon ragout, smothered cabbage, scallion puree, sriracha lime drizzle
  • Fried chicken, bean and bacon ragout, smothered cabbage, scallion puree, sriracha lime drizzle

Walking through the doors of Ciao Baci feels almost like strolling into you neighbor’s Hillcrest home for dinner. It’s cozy and comfortable; it’s dimly lit and has a certain elegance about it. But don’t let its humble size be mistaken for simplicity—it’s no ordinary home. While many of the plates being served at Ciao Baci come with a slightly higher price tag, the level of execution and attention to detail with each dish, gives one a sense of the talent lurking back in the kitchen. With a raucous group of nine hungry, persnickety food lovers, Ciao Baci certainly had its work cut out for itself. But among our group, the food and service were almost universally applauded, and no one regretted opening up their wallets in order to sink their teeth into some of the more impressive meals to be had in this Little Rock.

Grilled pork loin chop, goat cheese grits, braised local greens with garlic, rhubarb ginger jam
  • Grilled pork loin chop, goat cheese grits, braised local greens with garlic, rhubarb ginger jam
With nine at our table, and all in attendance more than willing to share dishes amongst each other, I was fortunate to get a fairly large smattering of dishes down my gullet, from appetizers to entrees to desserts. I could probably ramble on for ages about each and every dish, especially as most of them were executed quite well, but I’ll simply focus my attention on those bits of the meal that were most memorable, the forkfuls that likely, everyone at that table will be talking about for weeks.

The charcuterie board should not be missed. Now, I adore charcuterie plates. I rarely disappointed by this tantalizing assortment of cured, smoked, and dry-aged meats. The addition of lavish, foreign cheeses and a few slices of crunchy bread make just about anything taste better, and a well-executed charcuterie is a wonderful way to wake up the taste buds. I was partial to the spicy coppa, an aged pork shoulder flavored with garlic and paprika, as well as the black pepper saucisson, a dry-cured pork sausage encrusted in black peppercorn. This pungent morsel of rich, fatty sausage, cut by the spice of pepper made a wonder addition to the plate. But all of these were overshadowed by the house rillette. A rillette is not something you lose your paycheck to while gallivanting in Las Vegas—it’s a chopped meat dish (in our case, pork), heavily salted and rendered down in its own fat until tender. The meats are then placed in a small pot, topped with a generous layer of clarified butter, and allowed to solidify and firm up in fridge. Basically, it’s meat butter. It shouldn’t be legal, but thank your lucky stars that it is. Spread on toast, savor the slowly melting butter, the salted pork, the flavorsome fat. This was a real show-stopper.

I initially balked at the idea of a $22 fried chicken. It just felt unnatural. But after the waiter finished his well-rehearsed description of the dish, stating that it was truly one of the standout menu items, I could not pass up the opportunity—I’m a stubborn man, but I know when to take good advice. And good it was. The chicken itself was no unconventional preparation, but it was simply done right. Moist, juicy interior, seasoned correctly, with a nice, crispy skin. You’d expect this level of execution to be a given with that price tag. But the accompaniments are what made the dish sing. A ragout of tender, robust pinto beans with pan-fried bacon bits formed the base of plate. Tangy, tender, sautéed cabbage added elements of sweet and a touch of sour. Finally, a drizzle of sriracha-lime dressing brought everything together, and really took this dish to new heights.

Hangar steak, fingerling potato confit, braised local greens with garlic, black truffle butter, housemade Worcestershire sauce
  • Hangar steak, fingerling potato confit, braised local greens with garlic, black truffle butter, housemade Worcestershire sauce

Our impressive meal continued with a few bowls of steamed mussels swimming in a savory, flavorful broth and a spread of briny, crusted deep fried green olives filled with softened goat cheese. More fried chicken made its way to our table in the form of crispy fried chicken sliders with a sweet basil slaw and house made pickles. A beautifully cooked Creekstone hangar steak made its way onto my fork a couple of times, topped with black truffle butter and housemade Worcestershire sauce (something I’ve never seen housemade before).

But I was particularly smitten by the grilled pork chop plate. The pork loin itself was remarkable. It managed to retain its flavor, not the least bit dry or overcooked, tender and flavorful. But it was the bed of pillowy goat cheese grits that really took our breath away. It’s ironic that a southern staple such as grits, which for so long was considered to be “poor folks” fare has morphed into an upscale offering that’s found on thousands of fine dining menus today. Grits are all over the place, but Ciao Baci’s version was transcendental. Soft, smooth, almost pudding-like in texture. Rich with a generous amount of butter and blended with a hint of goat cheese, these are something you’ve got to get your hands on. Rarely is pork so completely outshined on a single plate.

We left the table better people that day. Our bellies full, our hearts brightened by wonderful company. Ciao Baci is the sort of place that reminds you what dining out should be all about: attentive service, well-executed dishes, and an atmosphere that invites smiles to the faces of everyone around the table. And for that, almost any price is fair. It’s no wonder this place is still packing them in each and every night.

(Ciao Baci is located at 605 Beechwood St, Little Rock. 501-603-0238)

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