Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
A restaurant taking the place of the (now-relocated) Vesuvio Bistro in the Best Western Governors Suites hotel has clearly got some rather large shoes to fill. I’ve always considered the old Vesuvio location to be one of the most interesting restaurant locales in the city, and I felt it brought an extra bit of intrigue to Vesuvio’s table. But now that they’ve grown up and reached their limits in that space, we’re (rather quickly) seeing a fresh new face in the kitchen. Table 28 has now made its home in Vesuvio’s old space. Their menu represents a rather significant departure from what Vesuvio was offering, but I imagine that once Little Rock residents get a taste of what the new occupants are serving up, there will be very little mourning and lamentation for the relocation of the old Italian establishment.
Table 28, as the name implies, houses twenty-eight tables for dinner only, serving nightly Monday through Friday. Twenty-seven of those tables are standard dinner tables. But one table, “Table 28,” is a specially-reserved “chef’s table,” where Chef Rains will personally prepare a six-course meal, paired with wine. Chef Rains tells me he’ll be creating the menu nightly, cooking up anything he feels inspired to create at the moment. A large percentage of the proceeds from the chef’s table will be donated to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. The table will host anywhere from 2 to 20 people. A spot at the table will cost $200 and anyone can get a seat without a minimum number of guests in a party.
I was able to sit down with my colleague, Kevin Shalin, for a tasting menu at Table 28. We both left highly impressed with Chef Rain’s talent. It was exciting to speak with him for a bit about his vision for the restaurant and its menu. He’s developed some ideas and will be offering some dishes you won’t find anywhere else in Little Rock, and it’s refreshing to find someone willing to take a few risks in the culinary arena. There’s a few familiar finds—shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, hangar steak, and Pacific salmon—but he’s also managed to flip a few classics on their head, offering a unique spin on old favorites.
But we were absolutely floored by the “Crispy Squid Filet.” I’ll make a confession—I’ve never been particularly fond of calamari. Just never really appealed to me, even when deep fried. But this squid was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Delicate and soft, it had the consistency of a soft, melted cheese. It’s flavor was mild, not fishy, and each long, thin, strip of squid was perfectly breaded and fried crisp. It came paired with a ginger-chile dipping sauce. Absolutely lovely.
This course of the meal was rounded out by their version of shrimp and grits and a small plate of chicken and waffles. The small plates section boasts a number of dishes that have been beckoning to me since I left, summoning me to return—braised oxtail with horseradish and fried onions or the “crawfish cake” with lemon and vodka cocktail sauce being just a few.
Salads included a nicely done kale caesar with parmesan, anchovies, and house-made croutons using Boulevard bread. There was also a wonderful spinach salad with sautéed sweet breads, shiitake mushrooms and creamy bacon dressing. It quickly became clear that salads are not an afterthought at Table 28.
We continued with a seared white tuna with a sumptuous charred tomatillo and corn relish, which almost had us licking our plates. Again, future visits will likely see me sampling their braised rabbit with balsamic, rosemary, and wild honey or the “Tongue and Cheek” with red wine, leeks and horseradish.
We finished with a fine dessert course. Most notable was their sticky toffee pudding. I’ve not seen this dish done anywhere else in Little Rock and I’m pleased to finally welcome it here. This is a thick, dark, rich cake-like pudding, served warm in a deep ramekin, topped with whipped cream, blackberries, and crunchy hazelnuts. It was bliss. The texture of the pudding was perfect—creamy, moist, a little runny even.
I look forward to seeing what Chef Rains and his crew can produce in the coming months. They’ve only been open a few days now, but the place feels extremely well put together. Chef Rains certainly has talent and I imagine it won’t be long before he begins to develop a respectable name for himself in his new home.
Table 28 is located at 1501 Merrill Dr, Little Rock. Mon - Thu: 5:00 pm - 9:00 pm, Fri - Sat: 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm. (501) 224-2828
***More pictures below***