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Reviews of Cache Restaurant in the Times — one every year for the past two — have expressed widely differing opinions. After opening two years ago, Cache received a favorable review of its dinner options; last year, lunch was a disappointment. Over that time, its original executive chef bolted for Northwest Arkansas and Payne Harding, son of owners Rush and Linda Harding, took over the kitchen.
We weren't intending to take in Cache for a third review this early in its brief life, but a happenstance visit on Valentine's weekend was so spectacular and so worth every penny of the $200-plus we laid down for dinner for two, bottle of wine and tip, that we were encouraged by the bossman here to try dinner again and report back.
No doubt by now most Little Rock foodies know Cache garners puns about its name and the price tag on dinner. On our second visit, we set out to see if we could eat well for under $30 for one person, and we succeeded.
Yes, we understand that $30 for dinner (appetizer, main course) would stop many around here in their tracks. It also reminds us, however, of the sage words from longtime Little Rock restaurateur/protestor Robert "Say" McIntosh, who proclaimed, "Good food ain't cheap, and cheap food ain't good."
What puts Cache on the level of great restaurants one might experience in Las Vegas, Dallas, New York — besides the swanky, modern layout that carves out an L on the northeast corner of The Arcade building, and the cool upstairs bar with a balcony overlooking President Clinton Avenue — is the obvious care that goes into each portion of each dish served up by Chef Harding.
For example, our appetizer of Creole-style barbecue shrimp ($14) was built around a house-made Worcestershire sauce that imparted a slight sweetness on the backend of each taste of shrimp or the sopping baguette slices (we want more than two next time, though). The dish wasn't dominated by any real heat (hence Creole, rather than Cajun cayenne-laced); neither the garlic nor the butter overwhelmed the dish, either. The shrimp was allowed to stand on its own.
For our entrée, with $16 or less to spend, our fantastic server Jo Jo Sims (who many remember from the Capital Bar, and who no doubt remembers you with her impeccable recall) wisely suggested the ricotta tortellini ($14), with another sop-worthy lemon-butter sauce that was perfectly balanced to go with crispy prosciutto.
Our two dining companions weren't on the same budget we subjected ourselves to, and to be honest, we cheated — another diner bought the bottle of wine that we shared. Cache, if you haven't visited yet, has an extensive wine list with a wide range of prices, all presented on an iPad for perusal.
Hence, one happily chose the caprese salad ($11), where at Cache, the added extra is avocado slices on top of the house-made fresh mozzarella, lots of fresh basil, and a tomato seemingly picked that day and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. The sherry vinaigrette-dressed bibb salad ($9) with sundried cranberries and shredded carrots didn't stand up next to the caprese.
The other drawing card to Cache is knowing the beef or fish will be of a quality you simply won't find at your local market. We experienced that first on Valentine's night with a prix fixe dinner ($75 per person for three courses; the beef alone is regularly $40) featuring a special of center cut prime filet and a lobster tail. The kitchen also handled our challenge to cook the beef "not medium but not medium rare" expertly. Creamy garlic potatoes were presented along with sauteed asparagus.
Our companion had also chosen beef on the Friday before Valentine's Day, but luckily the other special is a regular on the menu: pan-seared Alaskan salmon ($32) on top of rice pilaf with mirepoix, sauteed asparagus and a dollop of tarragon butter on the fish.
On Valentine's night, Cache surprised us with a massive slice-to-serve-two of an outrageously rich chocolate layer cake. A few nights later, three of us enjoyed a bread pudding that was served something above piping hot. At least we were warned by Jo Jo, even if we couldn't wait to dig in.
One last thing: Before our meal with our Valentine's honey, we waited for her arrival at the bar, enjoying a visit with a well-versed bartender on the greatness of various bourbons and ryes. You can taste any you'd imagine at Cache, including Pappy Van Winkle bourbon (we'll have that when our lottery ticket hits). Feeling momentarily like we were in New Orleans, we went for the Sazerac ($20) with the hard-to-find Sazerac rye shot.
We can't vouch for any improvements at lunch, but we can't imagine in almost a year's time, with Chef Harding getting a handle on all aspects of the open-air, active kitchen, that Cache hasn't stepped up its game at midday to match what is an amazing experience at night.
425 President Clinton Ave.
While Cache stands out in its beef and fish entrees and its pastas dishes at night, both lunch and dinner feature individual pizzas in the $9-$14 range.
11 a.m. to 9:45 (last seating) weekdays, 5 p.m. to 9:45 (last seating) Saturdays, closed for dinner Sundays. Brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Full bar. Credit cards accepted.