HAIL TO THE CHEF: Good cooking at the presidential library.
It’s hard not to reach for metaphors when you write about Cafe 42, the restaurant in the William J. Clinton Presidential Center.
The 42nd president is a man of famous appetites. Even after heart surgery, he couldn’t resist plucking a morsel of porterhouse from a platter at Doe’s during one of the private parties attending the opening of his new library. When he chomps apples, he downs cores and all.
We think Clinton would find much to like at the restaurant, if he hasn’t already.
It has an all-you-can-eat salad bar, with some down-home items added for us simple folks. It’s got trendy ingredients, too, worthy of a globe-trotting president. At brunch, there’s a dessert table laden with sweets, from Hillary’s favorite chocolate chip cookies (the crispy kind) to thick iced sugar cookies embossed with the presidential seal.
In all, it’s a little like the politician himself. Handsome and immensely promising. There are the inevitable disappointments, but you’d have to be awfully pinched and sour (as some critics are) not to find things to like.
You must pass through security with all library visitors before heading downstairs but there’s no admission charge. The room sits below the jutting supported “bridge” of the library. It can be a cold room. You can see the outside, but the northern exposure sits in the lee of the structure, which means perpetual shade for the handsome outdoor terrace.
The interior is cool, too, with the angular, modern look of the entire building and metal chairs and laminate tabletops. A weathered-looking hardwood floor softens the setting, but the room is supposed to appear sleek and trendy, and it does.
The staff is young and friendly, some of them newcomers to the trade. Add inexperience to big crowds and you won’t be surprised to learn that some days have tested the restaurant’s limits and diners’ patience.
We’ve visited three times and walked away generally satisfied. Personal pizzas ($8.95) are a nice lunch choice, though we would have liked a crisper crust and maybe a touch more roasted tomato to go with the lightly applied toppings of andouille sausage, bell pepper and mozzarella. No complaints about a pita sandwich ($9.95) stuffed with slices of ahi tuna grilled rare, crunchy vegetables and a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce, sided with potato salad.
Burgers, other sandwiches (ranging from a lobster roll to a daily panini to the “Roadside Slider,” a takeoff on a White Castle burger) and soups are among the menu choices, but the salad bar is the quick option and a good one at $8.95. The greens are the fancy kind, baby lettuce and unusual varieties. There always seems to be a choice topping, such as fat boiled shrimp or salmon, along with vegetable garnishes, pasta and fingerling potato salads and tabbouleh. There are also a couple of soup choices, bread and then a down-home addition — a hot dish or two at the end of the line worthy of Franke’s. One day it was ham. Another it was turkey and dressing. You will not go hungry.
Cafe 42 adds a welcome dimension to the city’s business lunch possibilities. Whatever the food experience, you’re eating in a monument. And there’s no telling who you might see.
But the Sunday brunch ($18.95) is the real winner, particularly since Little Rock is not a great brunch town. It starts at 10:30, for those who like to beat the church crowd, and lasts until 2:30 p.m. for those who like to go after.
This brunch pushes all the right buttons. There’s breakfast — cheese grits, bacon, biscuits and gravy, an omelet station, fresh fruit and a choice cheese platter. There’s the full buffet line, a generous assembly of thoughtfully chosen meats and vegetables. We focused on crunchy asparagus and baby squash. Also a side of cold smoked salmon with all the usual toppings, moist chunks of baked salmon with wild rice, crab claws, grilled chicken stuffed with gorgonzola and pork roast. Plus all the salad bar items and soup, too. We’d fault only one thing — the beautiful roast pork loin was a tad too done.
Then there were just desserts. The array defeated our effort to try them all. There were Christmas-themed petit fours, cookies of all sorts, a thick pecan torte, a chocolate cake that looked more like layered fudge, carrot cake, perfect cheesecakes and a surprisingly wonderful apple cobbler, with a rich and slightly salty crust, topped with Yarnell’s vanilla.
It’s brunch in the style of grand hotels and in a setting worthy of the comparison. If you want beer or wine or a mimosa, don’t go until after noon. Then you can visit the library, too.
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