It's been almost a year since Chef Donnie Ferneau left Rocket 21, the restaurant which once bore the chef's name before he sold it to Frank Fletcher in November of 2011. Since that time, the chef has kept busy teaching cooking classes, designing a chicken dish for The Tavern Sports Bar, and helping the newly-christened Cellar 220 (formerly Lulav) get going in the Little Rock food scene.
But while Ferneau might be keeping busy, it appears that just cooking and opening a new restaurant venture might not be enough for him: instead of your coming to his restaurant occasionally for dinner, Ferneau wants to bring his rumored Main Street eatery to you, every week...on television. Yes, Eat Arkansas received a tip just today that Ferneau is working with Allison Kaz, a reality show casting and talent director to bring cameras to Little Rock to document his new downtown startup. Kaz, who has worked with previous reality shows like "The Biggest Loser", "Extreme Makeover", and "The Apprentice" has created a pitch that casts Ferneau as a struggling chef looking to trade on his reputation as a great cook to open a "dress code enforced, hip, sexy place" that will shake up the Little Rock dining scene with "a hot clientele and an even hotter staff."
Of course every reality show needs some drama to make it work, and the Ferneau pitch gives us two ready-made antagonists: David and Alex Robinson, Donnie's new landlords, who are apparently hanging the hopes of their entire $3 million investment on Ferneau's ability to bring all those sexy babes and dudes into the restaurant with his "Southern charm and mouth that can break you down in 30 seconds." Of particular note is Mrs. Robinson, who the pitch describes as a "feisty Latina who will call bullshit if things aren't going right."
(According to his LinkedIn profile, David Robinson is managing director of Reed Realty Advisors, the group led by developer Scott Reed that’s redeveloping several properties on Main Street, including the Arkansas Building at 6th and Main, an architectural rendering of which is included on the pitch. If Ferneau's new restaurant went into the Arkansas Building, it would join Kent Walker Artisan Cheeses and Ballet Arkansas as a tenant.
UPDATE: Robinson says the plan, contingent on lease negotiations, is actually for Ferneau's restaurant to go into the Hall-Davidson Building, property Reed Realty will close on next week. The building is on the corner of Louisiana and Capitol.)
The rest of the presented cast include hot waitresses, a "witty and crude" general manager, and a sous chef who has "burned every culinary bridge in the city because of his love of booze" along with other apparently insanely beautiful and interesting people who will all be thrown together in the restaurant business to hash it out, serve some "fine dining without the heaviness of butter, cream, and fat," and answer that all-time important question: Can Donnie make the rent?
We asked Electus, Kaz's company, for a comment on the show and were told that the company "cannot confirm any projects until they are announced via their respective networks." Ferneau was more direct, denying that he had anything to do with the pitch at all, although soon after we spoke with him, the original link to the Electus page about the show was password protected. Lucky for all of you, I saved a copy before this happened — so check it out right here.
Of course show business is a tricky thing, and there's no telling if this proposed series will ever see the light of day. The Main Street area has become the hot part of town in the last few years, so maybe downtown is ready for the "younger, fun, hip crowd" that Ferneau hopes to attract. In a world where Kim Kardashian's entire family can make millions with reality television, I don't see any reason why one of our hometown favorites shouldn't be able to tap into people's voyeuristic needs with a show based in Little Rock. On the other hand, there's no way I'll ever be "hip" enough to get in.
Bruno's Little Italy is back, and certainly much of Little Rock is rejoicing because of it. The one time Italian staple, which has bounced around through several locations in the Little Rock area since its original opening in 1948, is reincarnated downtown off Main St. on the ground floor of the Mann Lofts. It’s now operated by Vince Bruno, son of the restaurant’s original founder, Jimmy Bruno, in partnership with his brother Gio Bruno.
With this in mind, I made my way to the newly opened Bruno's Little Italy on Main Street. Here we find a classic red-sauce Italian joint, offering a long list of popular Italian and Italian-American staples with a few items not commonly seen anywhere else in Little Rock (the Spaghetti Caruso—spaghetti topped with fried chicken livers in a marinara sauce with mushrooms—immediately comes to mind). Red and white checkered table cloths adorn each table, wine flows like a gentle stream, and pizza dough is lovingly tossed around for all customers to marvel at. The new space is beautifully done. It's charming, clean, spacious, and inviting. As you peer around at the ancient family photos covering much of the tall, freshly painted walls, you feel as though the Bruno family is sharing an important piece of their life with you. It's a place one can easily feel at home.
We sat down recently for dinner; it was busy and the place was packed. We relayed to the hosts that we were happy to sit indoors or outdoors, whatever got us eating soonest. After a 15 or 20 minute wait, we were seated outside at a black woven metal table, dining by candlelight on a lovely fall evening.
When looking for a good burrito joint, one comes to expect certain things. It must be quick and convenient, it should be relatively inexpensive but also of a certain quality. It should be substantial and filling, and it should provide tasty, easy-to-handle, good-on-the-go products that, ideally, can be enjoyed at any time of the day.
As the late Home Fresh Burgers closed its door to the public in recent months, we’ve already seen the space re-open with the establishment of a casual, take-out-only burrito joint, Luna Maya Burritos. From its outside appearance, it would seem that the folks behind Luna Maya were quite eager to get to their burrito building, not wasting much time with décor, signage, remodeling, or advertising. The old “Home Fresh Burgers” sign is still boldly hanging above their new restaurant (at least it was at the time of their opening), there’s been very little to no changes at all to the small, weathered building in which Luna Maya now resides. Indeed, the only way you’d even know they were in operation is a small, hand scribbled sign in black permanent marker which sits on a propped up plastic rig near the sidewalk. “NOW OPEN - LUNA MAYA BURRITOS,” it reads, but that was all the convincing I needed to make a stop there to see what this place had to offer.
I sampled the steak burrito “with everything,” which included lettuce, tomato, cheese, black beans, seasoned rice, sour cream, and fresh pico de gallo. I also opted to add guacamole for a small additional fee. Secondly, I ordered a chicken quesadilla—an item that wasn’t even officially on the menu, but which the owner said he could make for my son who was joining me at the time. The food was made promptly, wrapped up, and handed to me in a small white paper sack. I grabbed my food, got in the car (exiting on Cantrell with a right turn, thankfully, as we all know how painfully difficult it can be making a left turn here can often be), and we sat down to eat at a nearby park.
I was overall pleased with our food. The burrito was sizable, clearly constructed with fresh ingredients. The burrito’s steak was tender and well-seasoned and managed to make a favorable impression on the tongue without getting lost in a mess of accompanying ingredients. The beans and rice were nicely prepared, flavorful and suitably proportioned. The large flour tortilla was prepared exactly as I like them, soft and pliable but just slightly chewy. The sour cream and guacamole added nice cooling elements, though I wish the guacamole would have held a slightly stronger presence overall. The accompanying green and red salsas were excellent accompaniments—the green being, surprisingly, the spicier of the two. Likewise, we enjoyed the chicken quesadilla, despite its simplicity. Composed merely of melted cheese and chicken in a folded four tortilla, the dish was pleasant mostly due to the tender, moist, and perfectly seasoned white meat chicken. A bit more crisp on the tortilla would have served this dish well, but it remained enjoyable to the last bite.
I’d certainly like to see Luna Maya add a few more options to their menu, especially if they’re going to be in it for the long haul. A few pork options, barbacoa, chorizo, etc.—these would do the menu much good. But Luna Maya shows promise and I’m excited to see what this place can do over the coming months.
Luna Maya Burritos is located at 7706 Cantrell Road, Little Rock.
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.
The Italian bistro Vesuvio that was once located off the lobby of the Governor's Suites on Merrill Drive is now open at new digs at 1315 Breckenridge Drive, formerly the home of El Chico Mexican Restaurant. The new space seats 100-plus and has a large bar; the menu, which has received acclaim from folks around town, is the same: seafood, poultry, steak, veal served in traditional Italian fashion.
The restaurant, owned by Bill Criswell, is open every day from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. A baby grand piano should be arriving in a couple of weeks for live music, host John Dicus said. He said the restaurant has been "very busy," so folks are finding it in its new location fine.
Recently, Kevin Shalin (of The Mighty Rib) and I were invited by Bell to stop by South on Main and have a looksie at the new space. And lucky for us, the kitchen was firing up some excellent eats which we were fortunate to sample.
Speaking with Bell, he describes some of the construction setbacks and a lot of red tape that's pushed back the opening of South on Main. But he's committed to opening when the timing is right, when he's got all his ducks in a row, the staff adequately trained and prepared to deal with the madness that surrounds restaurant openings. Bell understands that some of his groupies are frustrated that his place is not yet opened, he's more concerned that they’ll will be ready to run on all cylinders when that day finally comes.
***Lots more pictures after the jump***
It’s undeniable that the people running The Packet House have done a magnificent job restoring and revitalizing the old 1869 home that resides along Cantrell Road. It’s a gorgeous structure inside and out. But although the place has been serving since September 2012, I’ve yet to find myself dining at one of their tables. Truth be told, I’ve heard some mixed reviews about the place. Some have nothing but high praise to offer, while others have noted that their meals have been rather uninspiring, especially considering the slightly high price tag. But recently, Packet “unveiled” their new happy hour menu and I saw this as a perfect opportunity to finally get a taste of what the place was serving up.
Drink specials at happy hour include discounts on house wine, beer and wells, as well as a $4 Old Fashion and $7 signature cocktail. This night Packet was featuring the "Garden Party," which consisted of Sauza Silver tequila, lightly mashed lemon, cucumber and sugar, finished with mezcal. Another of their signature cocktails included the "Drunken Flower," with elderflowers, Russian vodka, and pomegranate juice.
Their house fries came highly recommended by the spry, enthusiastic bartender. He described the dish as a “heap of fries,” and at $5 were “the best bargain on the menu.” Even with the man’s warning, I was still startled by the size of the mound of fried potato strings that were presented on that plate. This mini mountain of potatoes sat at least 6 inches high and came with a smear of chipotle aioli. The fries were quite impressive, and I’d easily put them up there with some of the best I’ve had in Little Rock. They’re prepared correctly, and the quality comes through in their flavor and texture. They utilize the “double-fry” technique. Here, the fries are quickly cooked in oil at a lower temperature, pulled out and drained, and then with each order called, they’re thrown back into hotter oil to finish. This creates a soft inner potato with a crispy, golden exterior. They’re rolled in a bit of black truffle oil and tarragon to finish. The accompanying aioli was a little on the sparse side, but it was equally flavorful. Blended with chipotle peppers, it had a deep, rich, smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon. I’d quickly order these if I find myself at Packet House again.
Stuffed mushrooms came next. Meaty crimini mushrooms stuffed with herbed goat cheese, topped with butter and a smooth, creamy white wine sauce. The goat cheese and white wine afforded a piquant, almost sweet note to the mushrooms. Often stuffed mushrooms tend to be a little watery, as their moisture tends to seep out of them as they bake. These were no exception. While the dish was enjoyable, I felt it could have used a bit more richness, fat, or salt to help counter the sharp cheese and subtle flavor of mushroom. It was my least favorite dish of the night.
The menu is rounded out by their house pimento spread with grilled toast and fried crawfish, neither of which did I sample. But at $5 a plate, the menu is a nice accompaniment to their happy hour drink specials. If anything, I felt more inclined to visit the place for dinner and plan on doing so in the near future.
The happy hour menu runs Monday thru Friday 4-6 pm. The Packet House is located at 1406 Cantrell Rd, Little Rock
So it’s understandable that the entire state is going hog-wild for the opening of Orange’s newest location in Midtown. Maybe it’s because the majority of Little Rockers begin to experience twitchy fits of anxiety every time they’re forced to head west of the 430, and with the new location, that may no longer be necessary.
The Big Orange folks have been stringing us along for a while now, teasing us with pictures and promises of a “coming soon” opening date. And now they have finally opened their doors to the public. They’re still calling this a “soft opening,” though they are operating with their regular business hours (see below).
They’ve also added this addendum to their announcement:
“Though we will be open for normal operating hours, this week we will be honing our methods and perfecting our space. We kindly ask for your patience and understanding as we begin our first week of operation in our new Midtown home.”
I was fortunate to stop by the new location last week (before the official opening), slipping through the heavily guarded doors only by stealthily dodging the two hulking front-door bouncers. I was able to sneak in, grab a few pictures (and a milkshake), before anyone even noticed I was there.
The bar area is a focal point at the new location. The long rectangular bar juts into the middle of the dining room, proudly displaying their sizable collection of bottled beverages on towering display shelves. Head bartenders, Lee Edwards and Dylan Yelenich, have put their hearts into the place and the results are simply stunning. I’ve been fortunate to speak (and dine) with Lee on occasion, and the guy has a touch of brilliance inside of him. The guys knows alcohol like he knows his own mother…probably better. Their list of signature cocktails never disappoint, but they’ll also be featuring around a dozen beers and wines (yes, wines) on tap. At this point, the food menu will be basically identical to what you’d see at the WLR location.
There’s a large sliding “garage door” structure that opens up to a covered patio, ideal for summertime dining. This will allow the new location to operate at a higher capacity than its WLR sister (with seating for around 170-180 people). Additionally, there’s a large loft area (similar to what they’ve got going on at ZAZA) that overlooks the entire restaurant. This area can be rented out, situated nicely for large groups and private parties. Please, if you plan a party there, send an invitation my way.
Expect this place to be busy…for a very long while. Understandable, though. These kids know what it takes to run a successful restaurant. We welcome you, Big Orange Midtown.
Big Orange Midtown is located at 207 N. University Ave. Hours are Mon - Thu: 11:00 am - 10:00 pm, Fri - Sat: 11:00 am - 11:00 pm, Sun: 11:00 am - 10:00 pm
**Lots more pictures of the place after the jump**
There's a sign on the door of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, the much, much-anticipated River Market branch of the fried chicken mini-chain, that says the restaurant will be serving tonight at 5 p.m. It's at 300 President Clinton Ave.
I suspect, since they're staying mum on their Facebook page, that this is the beginning of a soft opening run that will continue up until Riverfest, when the restaurant is scheduled to be officially open. I couldn't get anyone to answer the phone to confirm.
Some of you know (or may have guessed by now) that I came to Arkansas via Texas. Now, I’m not a born n’ bred Texan, but I spent good enough chunk of time there to get a decent feel for its culinary happenings, particularly those truly classic Texas dishes that have put places like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas on the global gastronomic map. Many years ago, upon my arrival to the Lone Star State, I was particularly fascinated by the concept of “Tex-Mex.” I’d heard of such a thing before, of course, but I’d never truly experienced it in full force, and never fully grasped what the cuisine entailed. For the first year or so of my tenure in Texas, I spent a sizable number of my dining experiences immersing myself in this queso-soaked, beef-loving, skillet-full-of-fajitas, frozen-margarita world. Honestly, it was a joyous time—I became quite fond of those classically Tex-Mex dishes, and I suppose I came to understand, in some small way, what the essence of Tex-Mex really is. Perhaps the best homage to Tex-Mex I’ve read came from a 2007 New York Times piece by Joe Drape entitled, “A Celebration of Tex-Mex, Without Apology.” Here, Drape describes a similar situation to my own in which he, a Texas outsider, was thrown into this mystical world of smothered enchiladas and came out of it with a sweet fondness for the food. He defends Tex-Mex for what it is, and not for what others feel it’s trying to be (with some misplaced hopes for authenticity). His closing words seal his testimony: “Neither the government of Mexico nor the high priests of that country’s cuisine are going to get an apology from me. In the Lone Star state, Tex-Mex is as authentic as any food can be.”
We were escorted back to our seats, after having to convince ourselves not to fill up on chips and cheese. As we sauntered through the main dining area, we passed by a rounded glass window, wherein a skilled Latino woman stood hand-making flour tortillas and tossing them on a rotating flat stovetop. A promising sight—I mentally committed to myself that a few of those tortillas would find their way to our table.
The Church at Argenta has begun work to put a coffee shop, Mugs Cafe, at 515 Main St., next door to the Argenta Market and is having a drop-in from 4-7 p.m. Thursday, April 4, for coffee and menu samples. Among the offerings: "Thanksgiving on a roll," a turkey and cranberry slider; and a smoked salmon and avocado club sandwich.
The full cafe menu — described as tentative on the website — includes coffee in all its iterations as well as frappucinos, breakfast foods, gelato, wraps, smoothies and more. A July opening is planned. The cafe has a Facebook page to check for updates.
Also on the menu: Church. The Church at Argenta, which is Southern Baptist with a twist, since all denominations are welcome, will eventually meet at the coffee shop. Michael Carpenter, "church planter," said "we're not going to be overt ... but we're not going to be covert, either."
A statement on the cafe from the church webpage:
It is so easy for us to withdraw to the comfortable confines of our Christian sub-culture. But that is not the example Jesus set. He crossed every conceivable demographic and line. By building a coffeehouse, we will be able to create a place where connections will happen week in and week out. We can only image how many people will walk into Mugs Café to get a cup of coffee and end up finding a church.
For more information, call 615-477-8854. Carpenter also sends this link to the food blog Fancy Pants Foodie on the cafe.
We got wind of this a couple of weeks ago, and now it's official: Bruno's Little Italy will rise again, this time on the ground floor of the Mann on Main annex, the Mann Lofts, at 310 Main.
Gio Bruno, whose father, Jimmy Bruno, opened Bruno's in 1948 in Levy, said he's thrilled about being a part of "what I think will be a historic rebuilding" downtown. Moses Tucker is renovating the Mann Building for state offices and its annex for apartments.
The press release:
BRUNO’S LITTLE ITALY TO OPEN ON MAIN STREET IN DOWNTOWN LITTLE ROCK
After over a year’s absence, Little Rock’s original Italian restaurant will re-open in downtown
Little Rock on the ground floor of the Mann Lofts at 310 Main Street. The restaurant will be
operated by Vince Bruno, son of the legendary founder of Bruno’s Little Italy, Jimmy Bruno, in
partnership with his brother Gio Bruno. The family has a 60+ year history of serving the best
Italian food in the Little Rock area, starting in the Levy neighborhood in North Little Rock, and
followed by ventures on Roosevelt Road, Old Forge Drive, and Bowman Curve in Little Rock.
“We are very excited to get back closer to our roots downtown,” said Gio Bruno, who will
train the pie-men to toss pizzas visible through a window into the kitchen. Brother and Chef
Vince Bruno commented that, “We have all the old Bruno’s recipes which we have been serving
to several generations of Arkansas families and visitors alike. Bruno’s Little Italy, which will have
seating for 70 patrons inside and 30 more outside on an outdoor patio.
Construction starts today, March 11th, with a Grand Opening scheduled for early August.
Financing for the restaurant is being provided through Arkansas Capital Corporation of Little
Rock. The architects for the restaurant are AMR Architects and the General Contractor is
Central Construction Group.
The Mann Building and Lofts, scheduled for completion in June, is a joint venture of Moses
Tucker Real Estate and the Doyle Rogers Company. The Mann Building is 95% leased and 11 of
the 19 loft apartments have been spoken for, according to Tommy Lasiter of the Doyle Rogers
Company. The project also includes a 415 space parking deck and room for additional retail and
“This is a major announcement for Main Street and a signal that the grand old street is
coming back to life in a very dynamic way,” said Anne Laidlaw, chair of the Downtown Little
Rock Partnership’s Main Street Revitalization Committee.
Gio Bruno said the restaurant, after jumping through some hoops with the city, got permission to level the sidewalk in front of the Mann Lofts to have sidewalk seating for 30. The restaurant will seat 70 inside and there will be a window into the kitchen that will allow diners to watch the pizzas being thrown, just like in the old days.
Bruno said he expects his brother to restore some items to the menu that weren't offered during the restaurant's days on Bowman Road: Spaghetti Reggio, which is spaghetti tossed in oil and onions; and Spaghetti Caruso, spaghetti topped with fried chicken livers in a marinara sauce with mushrooms. Bruno said his grandfather came to America on the same boat as the famous Italian tenor.
Lunch hours haven't been nailed down, but lunch will be served Monday through Friday. The restaurant will open at 4 for take-out orders and the dining room will open at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
"Cache" or "Cachet?" One is pronounced "cash" and it's about where your browser stores shit…
Man...how have I never heard of this place?!?!
@Kevin - yeah, same recipe. I'm addicted. However, as I mentioned, I add the cayenne…
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