Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
In many ways, there's little new about the Best New Restaurant Around Arkansas in this year's Readers Choice poll.
The winner, Le Mirabelle, opened in April on the shore of Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs. But it's really just an old favorite coming home, with the same classic French cooking it offered during an earlier time in Hot Springs.
Christian Finance and his wife, Bobbie, operate the 65-seat restaurant, which is in a small building with a glassed-in dining room once occupied by Martin's Harbor.
The Finances returned to Hot Springs after about 15 years operating Le Mirabelle in Springfield, Mo. They moved to Missouri after operating Le Mirabelle in Hot Springs from 1976 to 1986, on Lake Catherine.
Finance admits he's blazing few new trails on his return to Hot Springs, where he had enjoyed living and where his children grew up.
"When I came back to town, my old customers asked, 'Are you going to have this? Are you going to have that?' I said, yes, sure, and before I knew it I had to have that menu."
The menu is shaped by Finance's native France, where he grew up, in a village near Strasbourg, and where he received his training. He came to the United States as a chef for the Drake Hotel in Chicago, then settled later in Hot Springs, having discovered it during brief vacations.
Crowd favorites include steak au poivre, a center-cut tenderloin finished with pepper sauce; frog legs with garlic butter; beef Wellington; duck breast a l'orange, and some classic seafood choices, such as Dover sole and scallops, the latter simmered in vermouth and serve in garlic cream sauce. Finance admits, by the way, that the sole is obtained frozen from Belgium. "If you handle frozen fish properly," he says, "it's great fish." He sautees it with butter and tops it simply with toasted almonds.
Finance offers a fixed menu of about 20 items and a couple of nightly specials - lamb chops with caramelized scallions in mint sauce and curried shrimp the day we happened to call.
Entrees come with an assortment of vegetables - rice, a tomato roasted with parmesan cheese and crunchy stuff like carrots or asparagus or broccoli.
Finance, 62, said he'd be happy to push the culinary envelope a bit, but "It's not always easy. The clientele may not go as far as we would like to go." He offers the occasional departure from norm, such as a sweetbreads special popular with some of his regular customers. Entrees cost from $14 to $24.
Finance makes all his desserts, from cheesecake and chocolate raspberry torte to a variety of mousses, including mocha and chocolate, and the fresh fruit sauces he tops ice cream with during the summer.
The wine list has maybe a couple dozen choices, split between French and California labels. The list covers a spectrum, from simple wines to Bordeauxs and pricey burgundies.
Reservations are encouraged and most people make them. It's a special outing, after all, seven miles from downtown, or a boat ride from lakeside homes.
To reach Le Mirabelle, head west on U.S. 70. After crossing the bridge, turn right at the first stoplight, Majestic Lodge Road, then follow signs to the lake.
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