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There's never been a better time to be a "foodie" in Arkansas. Much as the talent trained at the famed Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne opened so many great restaurants decades ago — Alouette's, Andre's, Graffiti's and Cafe Prego come to mind — Ashley's at the Capital Hotel is today's breeding ground for another generation of fine new restaurateurs.
Our recent lunch at South on Main was perhaps our best meal in a year, with Ashley's alum Matt Bell knocking our culinary socks off. A couple of weeks later we ate dinner and then 12 hours later were back for breakfast at the amazing Hive at the 21C hotel in Bentonville, where Matt McClure is expanding on his Ashley's training. And the raves continue to pour in for Natchez, the downtown Little Rock restaurant with Ashley's veteran Alexis Jones presenting her take on refined Southern cuisine.
These glory days led one local foodie to ask publicly if Brave New Restaurant was still relevant — to which several of us older types quickly responded with something resembling "oh hell yes."
Stake firmly planted in the ground of the Eat Arkansas blog, we figured it was time to head back to see if Brave New would live up to our lofty opinions of a restaurant Times readers have voted the best in Central Arkansas 11 of the last 17 years.
Does Brave New Restaurant still offer one of the very best dining experiences in these parts? Oh hell yes. And best we can tell, it's because Peter Brave hasn't slipped into in-absentia "celebrity chef" status, even though he certainly is a recognizable celebrity wherever he goes. At dinner, that's back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, where he greets generally familiar faces with hearty hellos and is there to fix anything that might need fixing. Little of which ever does, we're sure.
We bumped into Peter early one summer Saturday morning years ago at the farmers market, both on a quest for Arkansas tomatoes. Peter pointed us to his primary supplier — we stuck with that guy for years — before scurrying off to get other fresh stuff to cook that night at Brave New. He was doing "farm to table" before most knew the term.
Another constant is the amazing treatment of fresh fish at Brave New. You just can't go wrong ordering the fish special, an always succulent, flaky filet topped with a subtle fruit-tinged beurre blanc. Our lunch option ($15.50) was a deck of cards-sized filet of mahi-mahi, and minimally applied cherry-flavored sauce. It was served with Peter's amazing roasted potatoes, preternaturally creamy at their core; a zucchini boat filled with diced celery, zucchini, peppers and onion, and a large mound of tangy purple cabbage. Nothing against the last two items, but we treated them as garnish and focused on the tender, flavorful fish and amazing potatoes.
Driving home the same point as the fish — straightforward presentation that lets the highlighted item shine — were the five onion soup ($6.50) and wild mushroom tart ($10.75). The much more commonly found "French" onion soup seems more about bread, cheese and usually over-salted beef broth than onions. This soup is all about onions, as the menu attests: "shallots, red, yellow and white onions, sauteed, simmered in chicken stock, then garnished with fresh chives." Simple and delicious (though we do wonder where that fifth onion went). The wild mushroom tart is similarly focused: "porcini, shitake, morels, cepes, etc., sauteed with shallots and cream, baked in a flaky tart shell." The cream delicately bound the delectable fungi with no extraneous ingredients to muck things up.
The avocado crab salad ($13.50) kept with the theme: outstanding ingredients simply presented — bibb lettuce covered left to right by ruby red grapefruit sections, lump crab and avocado slices. Tangy balsamic vinaigrette topped the crab with a sweeter dressing on the grapefruit. Cheese and fruit garnished.
At dinner we chose "duck with duck" ($27), pairing tender slices of duck breast with grilled smoked duck sausage. While not your gamey, shot-outside-Humnoke variety, the duck breast still was rich and flavorful. We couldn't have nailed the lean, smoky sausage as duck, but it was wonderful. A scoop of slightly over-salted wild rice and the zucchini boat/purple cabbage combo accompanied.
Creme brulee has become ubiquitous. Brave New was an early adopter, and there are legions of fans who swear Brave's dense, creamy chocolate variety ($6.50) is the quintessential version. Who are we to argue? We adored the large goblet of homemade butterscotch ice cream ($6.50) at lunch — subtly flavored with a frozen custard consistency vs. rock hard — and enjoyed the variety of the sampler of five tiny cones at dinner, though at $8.50 there's not nearly as much ice cream as in the cheaper, single-flavor serving.
We were glad, but not surprised, that Brave New shines on. Launched in 1991 in the tiny former Steak and Egg Kitchen at the bottom of Cantrell Hill (now the front section of Red Door), the restaurant moved some years later to an office building near the Verizon complex on the river. Peter Brave is the rare restaurateur who can thrive over the long haul in a hard-to-find location with no exterior sign. Again, we remember why.