Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Upon first glance, it would be easy to dismiss RJ Tao as just another Asian-fusion restaurant relying on sleek, modern decor to bring in the crowds, but it would be a mistake to do so. The staff refers to their food as "Pacific Rim cuisine," which includes influences ranging from South Asian to Indian to Australian and even French-by-way-of-Vietnam. It's an eclectic and ambitious menu that focuses on fresh (and sometimes exotic) ingredients as well as cooking techniques that seek to pair contrasting yet complementary flavors in every dish. Every member of the staff, from the hostess to the servers, seemed genuinely excited to have us as a guest in their restaurant, talking at length about the inspirations and goals they have for their menu in a way that couldn't help but make us enthusiastic. In execution, the results were somewhat mixed, but we tend to put that down more to early jitters than to any lack of ability on the part of the cooks.
The lounge runs several happy hour specials on both drinks and food from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. daily, and we decided to take advantage of the tastiest looking one that caught our eye: a Cheese Fondue ($18 regular, $10 during happy hour) made from melted Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses served in a piping hot urn with a side of bread and assorted vegetables for dipping. The fondue had a very good nutty flavor to it, but suffered from some separation issues that really hurt its ability to coat the dipping items. The broccoli, cauliflower, red bell peppers, and carrots served on the side were fresh and crisp, although served in such a small amount that we ran out of vegetables before we ran out of cheese (our waiter kindly offered to bring us more), and the bread was flavorful. We paired our fondue appetizer with a selection from the lounge's lighter "bar menu," the OMG Tuna Tartare ($18), a generous portion of raw sashimi-grade bluefin tuna finely minced with red onion and capers and served with toasted baguette slices. The fish itself was wonderfully fresh, with the rich, buttery flavor that we always look for in good quality tuna, and the sharp bite of the onion added some nice contrast, but the capers didn't stand out enough. This dish could have really used their briny, assertive flavor. Still, tuna-lovers should find plenty to love about it.
The minor issues that detracted somewhat from our appetizers were happily nowhere to be found in our main entrees, with each dish representing the style RJ Tao promotes quite well. The Miso-Infused Branzino ($30), a dish of glazed Mediterranean sea bass served over a bed of spinach and mushrooms, was the stand-out hit of the evening. The fish, as fresh as if it had been caught the day before, was tender and flaky, the glaze savory and slightly sweet. While such an assertive sauce could have been overpowering, the flavor of the sauteed spinach and mushrooms gave everything a nice earthy foundation that impressed us bite after bite.
For our other entree we decided on something that we'd never tried — and something, indeed, that doesn't appear on any other menu in Little Rock — the Aussie Burger ($16), made from ground kangaroo and served with grilled pineapple and remoulade on a soft focaccia bun. The flavor of the meat isn't comparable to any other we've ever tried, with an extremely lean texture and a flavor that was wild and almost tangy; it was rich and gamey in the best way possible. The slice of grilled pineapple on top was a perfect fit, and the spicy remoulade sauce was yet another example of how RJ Tao manages to combine different flavors into something compellingly different. The parmesan-truffle fries served to the side were nice and crisp with a generous amount of high-quality cheese grated over them and just the faintest hint of truffle oil flavor, and we quickly decided they were some of the best fries we'd had.
Our dessert brought things full circle, as we ended with another vat of fondue — this time a rich chocolate version ($18) made from Belgian chocolate and served with a platter of goodies that included cantaloupe, marshmallows, graham crackers and Rice Krispie treats. The chocolate itself was incredible, smooth and warm with a bittersweet flavor that we couldn't get enough of. The side items were nice, with the marshmallows and graham crackers bringing to mind childhood memories of making s'mores around the campfire. The cantaloupe was surprisingly delicious coated in chocolate. The puffed rice treats, however, were stale.
RJ Tao is a stylish restaurant with a dining area to suit any taste, from the dark dining room and bar area to the well-lit open patio. The service is impeccable, with servers and management remaining vigilant at all times to the needs of patrons as well as being happy to discuss some of the more outlandish items on the menu. What disappointing issues we encountered seemed to be more a case of a new restaurant trying new things and figuring out what does and doesn't work and not due to any lack of skill or passion on the part of the staff. It's an intriguing concept, and one that has the potential to carve out a unique niche in the Little Rock dining scene.