Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Starving Artist Cafe serves crepes — stuffed with shrimp or chicken and served with roasted potatoes on the side as entrees, or with apples and other fruit as dessert. We saw them on the menu and were shot back in time, to our prime, when we would pull on our lurex-embedded socks and sweaters, scrub the acrylic paint from beneath our fingernails and ever-so-sophisticatedly sweep in to La Crepe, somewhere in New York’s theater district. There, we’d spend an afternoon over sweet crepes dusted in sugar and many glasses of Beaujolais, intently tuned in to our more worldly friends. Surely we, too, had gained worldliness. We had learned to say crep, not crape.
It’s been downhill ever since.
Starving Artist’s crepes did not, alas, match the glory of our salad days. The shrimp crepes, covered in a tomato cream sauce, were perfectly OK, but, alas, at no time did we transcend our place at the very lovely wooden bar to turn Seventh Street into Seventh Avenue.
The reason we wanted to go to Starving Artist in the first place was to see if it was the cultural hub we envisioned. Cafe owners chef Jason Morell and writer Paula Martin Morell, his wife, have cast the cafe as a cultural hub of sorts, a place for painters to hang their work, poets to sell their books, writers to give classes. We pictured a cozy hubbub of artists and loud talk and gossip.
As it turns out, the Morells are well on their way to creating that hub. The restaurant, with its newly milled wood bar and trims, pretty tables and chairs and art covering its brick walls, feels cleaner and brighter, perhaps, than the dim, busy, big-plant scene we’d envisioned. It’s lovely. Near the register is a bookcase of paperbacks by local writers, including Morrell, and some jewelry and artists’ cards. The paintings and a couple of wall sculptures were contemporary and edgy; no Labradors retrieving here. The restaurant’s website complements the gallery aspect by providing bios on the artists whose works are hanging on the walls. Tamerlane Franks, Jason Harper, Doug Norton are among the current featured artists; writers Morell and Gary Weibye have a number of books on the shelf. To add buzz, painters are soon to be painting in the front part of the restaurant so they can be seen from the street, open mic events are planned, a creative writing class is being held on Tuesdays through Feb. 7, and a “touch drawing and writing” class is scheduled for Jan. 28. The artistic traffic should add the je ne sais quoi Starving Artist will need to keep ’em coming to Seventh Street.
But what about the food, you ask?
The best thing we had on recent lunch day was the potato and leek soup. It was salty, textured perfectly, the leek noticeable and notable. This is, of course, one of our favorite soups, but the bowl we had was as good as any you’ll get outside someone’s home.
The crepes — they were OK, as we said before. Now, during the crepe craze of the 1970s, we had some quite delicious ones at our aunt’s table. She was a terrific cook, and her crepes were thinner, a tad tastier somehow and crisper — though not crisp — about the edges. The roasted potatoes that came with the crepes looked delicious — and the roasted peppers chopped among them were quite good — but the potatoes themselves were on the mealy side. Perhaps the fact that they were coated on all sides, or maybe reheated, contributed to their less than perfect state. Potatoes are at their best when roasted; these fell short of the standard.
The panini, on the other hand, left us with no complaints. The thick, herb-laced bread was excellent: We tried the Italian, with salami, mortadella, pastrami and mozzarella with basil mayo; the smoked turkey with mozzarella and roasted red pepper mayo and the blackforest and aged Swiss with roasted garlic mayo. The ham was superb, though we could have used just a soupcon more mayo. The turkey gets mixed reviews, but the mix is “great!” and “ayh.” A panino and a cup of soup ($7.95) would be a fine choice. (Chips or roasted potatoes come with the sandwich.)
There are also delectable-sounding salads. The starving salad of mixed greens is topped with olives, tomatoes, and something called pepper concinnis, which we can’t define for you. Perhaps pepperoncinis? There is a nicoise with tuna, potatoes, green beans, eggs, capers, toasted pine nuts and onion on romaine with a creamy herb dressing — and as we typed that we wondered why we didn’t order it. Sounds fabulous, even if the tuna is out of a can.
Since we’d creped for an entree, we skipped the crepe dessert and had the strawberries in creme anglaise instead. Great strawberries, but a rather skimpy serving of creme anglaise. Come on guys, pile it on! We’re starving, remember?
Starving Artist Cafe
416 W. Seventh St.
The dinner menus change nightly; on a recent Thursday, the chalk board boasted an entree of goat-cheese-stuffed chicken breast with roasted red pepper coulis. Too: If you order (phone or e-mail) before 11 a.m., the restaurant will deliver to places downtown and other select areas. The intriguing wine list includes sparkling Lindauer brut; Pierre Spark Alsace, Chateau Bonnet White Bordeaux, Genofranco Grillo, Sauvion Muscadet and Sauvion Vouvray on the white list, and Mas de Guiot Grenache-Syrah, Georges Duboeuf, Osborn Solaz, Genofranco Nero D’Avola, and Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon on the red. They range from $5.50 to $6.50 a glass except for the Californian, which is $8.25.
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
Credit cards accepted. $$