Something wonderful has happened at Ciao Baci.
The Hillcrest restaurant has always been among the best in Central Arkansas. But from early 2003 until this fall, when Donnie Ferneau Jr. was chef and Lee Edwards was bartender, Ciao Baci became better known for its trendy lounge clientele than for its food. The place would be packed nearly every Thursday through Saturday night — not so much with diners as with hipsters sipping cocktails, crowded around the bar and spreading out to occupy almost every vacant inch of floor space under the roof. It was loud, smoky, and energetic, which, while not always undesirable, is not the right atmosphere to enjoy a great meal.
Now Ferneau has moved on to another restaurant venture, which reportedly will open in Hillcrest’s Ice House Revival this month. Edwards also left Ciao Baci to manage the lounge at Nu Cuisine Lounge, which may have lured many of the bon vivants away from their old standby.
No matter the explanation, it was a relief to walk into Ciao Baci on a recent Saturday night and not have to slowly elbow our way to the table. It’s not that the restaurant is doing poorly; every table was occupied. But the establishment has finally returned to its roots as a place of fine dining, and it is much better for it.
Greg Loyd has assumed the role of chef at Ciao Baci, and his eclectic menu shows off a dexterous talent. The entree list features four seafood dishes, ranging from wasabi pea-encrusted ahi tuna to ranchero style salmon. He also offers Jamaican jerk chicken, a putanesca pasta dish (a Naples staple that includes shrimp, tomato, olives, capers and anchovies), a pork loin and wild mushroom risotto.
The appetizer selections are less adventurous, with a soup of the day (white bean with prosciutto on the evening we visited), a couple of salads, bruschetta, beef carpaccio and the old Ciao Baci favorite: fried calamari. But there were a few interesting starters, including Thai barbecue duck spring rolls, tuna tartar and the two dishes we selected — lobster empanadas served with the chef’s ponzu dipping sauce ($12), and smoked salmon on boursin cheese croutons ($10).
The lobster empanadas resembled fried wontons with a nice lobster filling. Think of them as advanced egg rolls. There were six on the plate, along with a cup of what tasted like slightly spicy soy sauce. Another thicker sauce was drizzled on the plate, possibly just for decoration, but we enjoyed it more than the ponzu sauce because it was hotter and more flavorful.
We were satisfied with the smoked salmon appetizer, although it wasn’t complicated. Six large croutons with boursin cheese spread, topped with a nice piece of smoked salmon. We thought the boursin was a good choice, because it livened a common taste, but our companion thought plain cream cheese would have been fine. There were grapes on the side, but a better touch was the addition of caperberries, olive-sized capers.
For the main course, we had the standout menu item, the Beef Wellington ($29), and the evening’s special, which was oven roasted duck breast with jalapeno polenta ($17).
Chef Loyd’s Beef Wellington adheres closely to the British classic, combining a 7-ounce beef filet, mushrooms and a red wine reduction inside a puff pastry. It was impressive upon arrival, taking up most of the large dinner plate. The pastry was flaky and buttery, and the meat was perfectly cooked. This is a difficult dish to master, and it was as good as any we have ever had.
Even so, we enjoyed the duck more because of its creativity and combination of flavors. It included a sweet corn bordelaise crafted from veal stock, brandy and red wine, as well as a side of cabbage and spinach. The polenta achieved a perfect balance, with the jalapeno presence strong but not overpowering.
Even though the food at Ciao Baci is fairly expensive, one nice surprise was the restaurant’s relatively reasonable wine list. We counted 17 red wines priced between $20-$30, with similarly moderate prices among the whites as well. We enjoyed the 2001 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone ($25) with dinner.
For dessert, we selected a chocolate tartufo ($5) and tiramisu ($5), both of which were served in martini glasses. We couldn’t find anything wrong with the tartufo (vanilla ice cream covered with a rich chocolate mousse) or the tiramisu, and we expect the same quality would have been evident with the other dessert offerings, which include chocolate creme brulee, pumpkin bread pudding and the do-it-yourself smores (a Ciao Baci innovation).
It should be mentioned that Ciao Baci has not entirely lost its identity as a lounge. A specialty drink menu displayed on our table advertised six winter drinks, all $7.
And while the place was still loud with conversation and a Dave Matthews Band CD playing on the sound system, Ciao Baci is benefiting from its new lounge-lite atmosphere. The Beechwood Street bungalow that was once home to the original Andre’s is more suited to a laid-back ambiance and a focus on good food.
Overall, we enjoyed a superb dinner with excellent service, and the experience justified the $100-plus tab for two. We’re happy to say that Ciao Baci is back.
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