New, fabulous local restaurants just keep coming, continually building on Little Rock's reputation as a "foodie" town. And surely the restaurateurs who operate the highly regarded pillars of the local dining community cringe every time a new, worthy competitor pops up —which is happening almost monthly, it seems.
One of the newest kids on the block that absolutely must be visited by lovers of fine food and reckoned with by other restaurants in town is Boulevard Bistro and Bar, the next logical step for Boulevard Bread that was made possible by the exit of New Traditions, the clothing store adjacent to the fabulous bakery/grocery/cafe in the Heights.
It all makes perfect sense. Boulevard opened in 2000, and immediately those who had noshed in Europe knew this baguette and ciabatta was the equal of what you find there. And who didn't love those fabulous meats and cheeses, the selection and quantity of which we'd not had available here? Next the store shelves were stocked with high-end sundries, and there was a soup of the day, and sandwiches, and then the meals to take home. Soon the cafe expanded, wine and beer were added, and it quickly became a popular hangout. We might not have gotten the order of all that right, but it made perfect sense when, 15 years after it opened, Boulevard Bread spawned Boulevard Bistro and Bar, the place where so much of that great food — and that same commitment to quality — comes together for dinner.
Love Boulevard's pimiento cheese? Get it as an appetizer ($7) — topped with bread crumbs, baked and served with six toasted slices of that fabulous Boulevard bread. And delight in its gooey wonderfulness with just the right amount of red pepper zip. Ever bought papparadelle pasta off the Boulevard shelves (pretty pricey at $8.95 for a half-pound)? Then order the Papparadelle Bolognese ($14), served in a light cream sauce with ground pork and beef studded with carrots and topped with shaved pecorino. You'd swear the pasta was house-made, but as with many things Boulevard sells but doesn't make, this pasta is at that level: tender and tasty.
As Boulevard fans would expect, the new space is sleek and hip, yet cozy. The cool gray and black color scheme is warmed by subtle color accents (example: a red HVAC duct) and interesting, striated, shiny wood tabletops. Beautifully upholstered banquettes now reside in the Kavanaugh-facing windows where mannequins once modeled. There's room for about 60, a rough count suggests, in the two-room dining area and another 20 or so in the bar area, which certainly is worthy of spending time in no matter if or what you plan to eat. You can keep an eye on the game via the muted TV tucked above the bar, visible throughout most of the space.
Those interested in three of Boulevard's house-created meats — duck rillettes, pork belly and country pate — can buy them individually for a combined $26 or, as we did, choose those three as your Meat and Cheese Board selections (among eight meats and eight cheeses) and get very decent portions of each for $15. Plus you get individual cups of orange, apple and currant preserves, olives, almonds, cornichons, plus a huge blackberry, slices of Granny Smith apple and strawberries, and pickled cauliflower, carrots and garlic — truly a substantial meal unto itself.
The duck rillettes are flavorful and predictably fatty, almost over-the-top fatty (but don't they make your coat nice and shiny?). The two pieces of pork belly — think of them as thick, succulent, less-crispy bacon — come topped with a sweet onion confit, and the pate is meaty and richly flavored.
The coq au vin ($18) features a tender Falling Sky Farm chicken leg and thigh — their skin browned up nicely, resting on a bed of very rich red wine reduction. The only quibble? It was a little salty, but our tablemate cleaned his plate.
The true star of the show — and one of the best dishes we've had in a very long time — was the Parisian Gnocchi ($14), soft-dough dumplings teamed with mushrooms over a bed of sauteed fresh spinach leaves in a delicate, thinnish truffle cream sauce and enhanced greatly by the inclusion of shaved Comte, the bold, nutty house cheese of many Parisians. We've never had gnocchi so light, so tender. They were "like a cloud," waxed a dining companion. We begged our waitress to talk the secret out of chef Chris McMillan — a longtime Boulevard employee who also worked as general manager at The Fold — but she said he declined to reveal it. We don't blame him.
The only less-than-stellar item we tried was the soup of the day (eight ounces for $4.50, 12 for $5.50) — "cream" of asparagus. We put cream in quotation marks because this was broth-based with just a dollop of cream (we're guessing creme fraiche) to stir into it. It was watery with not a lot of taste.
We hit home runs with our two desserts — an apple "hand pie" and ice cream sandwiches (each $7). The hand pie had a buttery, flaky, brioche-type crust encasing cinnamony apples with a scoop of Loblolly buttermilk ice cream (perhaps our favorite flavor of all the Little Rock boutique producer's). The ice cream sandwiches brought into play two more fabulous Boulevard bread creations — the cherry-studded oatmeal cookies and the pecan chocolate chip cookies, two smaller versions of each sandwiching scoops of Loblolly ice cream. We're glad there were two of us to tackle these.
We had dinner twice in four days at Boulevard Bistro and Bar. We'll be back soon — and often.