Chuck Haralson and Ken Smith were inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism
It took what seemed an inordinate time for new operators to make over the former Living Room on Kavanaugh for SO Restaurant-Bar, which opened in mid-January. Turns out they were simply doing it right. We haven’t been this upbeat about a new restaurant in Little Rock in a long while.
It’s a beautiful setting. The roughly mortared rock walls and exposed ceiling joists complement shiny wood tables, fine cabinet work and comfortable upholstered chairs, plus sleek white china and gleaming, giant wine goblets.
The menu is similarly attractive. The theme: quality ingredients simply prepared, starting with raw and poached seafood of the first rank. There are meal-sized composed salads. There are simple but satisfying soups, built with smoked tomato, roasted corn and luxurious dollops of lump crab. There are good sandwiches on house-made bread (everything is house-made), such as oyster poor boys filled by a kitchen that knows how to fry. There are, glory be, good seafood selections. Halibut. Sea bass. Lobster.
We think the changing selection of different varieties of raw oysters, many imported from British Columbia, is a first for Little Rock. We tried blue points, sinku and kumamoto oysters. They were impeccably fresh, but different in size, texture and saltiness. The cocktail sauces include the classic French mignonette, nothing more than shallots and red vinegar, and freshly grated horseradish to stir into a red cocktail sauce.
SO owes an obvious debt to a fine Parisian bistro, the kind of place where an oyster shucker sets up shop outside in season and pries open shellfish around the clock. Also see the big mirror, with specials painted on it. See, too, the giant seafood platters, up to $85 for the three-tiered grande lux, which overflows with chilled lobster, crab claws, perfectly boiled shrimp and raw oysters. They claim it will sate four.
It’s served by well-schooled waiters in the long white aprons traditional in French bistros. And like the better bistros, SO serves you in a fashionable, but not stuffy setting from a menu that can provide a light lunch, snacks or a four-course meal. Plus, they serve all day and well into the night. Time will tell if their ambitious plan to be Little Rock’s only late-night source of better food will work. Until then, welcome a kitchen that will keep the stove on until 30 minutes before the 2 a.m. closing on Thursday and Friday.
Prices aren’t cheap, but they aren’t out of line with quality. Starters range from $6 for onion rings to $13 for a superb fried green tomato crabcake, a sandwich of crispy battered tomato slices and a huge crabcake that has so little binder that it is almost pure crab. The dipping sauce is rich, corn-flavored mayonnaise.
Here’s an idea for a couple. Something smallish for one, no more than two simple courses. Let the other order the four-course, $48 prix fixe meal. You can do plenty of sharing. Choose from the crabcake, fried calamari or beef brochette to start. Next, choose from smoky tomato bisque or a salad. For your main course, choose between scampi pasta, champagne roast chicken, golden roasted halibut or a petit filet. The last was our choice, a butter tender, perfectly rare filet ($31 ala carte) with creamy chardonnay sauce and a generous mound of crab meat on top, not to mention a fat and delicious hash brown potato cake flavored with bacon. You get a couple of side dishes, too. Ours were roasted asparagus and smoky creamed corn, the two enough for a meal for a hearty vegetarian.
There’s still dessert to come, a choice of 1) a layer cake combining a Meyer lemon bar and key lime pie; 2) a dainty fried pie filled with whatever fruit is available (strawberry on our night), topped with house-made coconut ice cream and 3) our choice, quattro leche cake, a huge chunk of moist sponge cake smothered with a variety of milk-based and caramelized sauces. It’s comforting nursery food, sweet and soft and soothing. But you must not mind the taste of sweetened condensed milk, which is a player in the assembly. Other desserts available a la carte include an over-the-top milk chocolate “sack” ($8) filled with marshmallow, melted chocolate, raspberry and strawberry compote, graham crackers, pistachio, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream and honey ice cream. Bring several good eaters.
There is so much else to mention. The shrimp cocktail ($9) is honestly described as “jumbo” shrimp, cooked firm and moist. The house salad with beef filet tips ($13) was fresh, pretty and satisfying. Shoestring potatoes served with “krispy sea bass” ($24) are addictive and served in an enormous haystack. That bass? It was lightly dusted with flour and pan fried, a moist and perfect serving of good fish, joined with sauteed water cress and roasted asparagus.
And still there is more. Like: A platter of two mini burgers for $9; several grilled sandwiches, and some fine halibut fish tacos ($13), chunks of roast fish with ranch dressing, lettuce and tomato wrapped in a chipotle-flavored tortilla, accompanied by shoestring potatoes.
An intriguing wine selection runs from a $5 glass of sweet Willamette Valley riesling to a $425 bottle of Chateau Latour, with stops in between, from California, Oregon, France and Italy. Markups look to be a fair 30 percent to 50 percent over those in a retail store and you need not be a Rockefeller. Bottle prices start at $18.
Those who remember the uninspiring downstairs lounge at the Living Room will be pleasantly surprised by the spare but stylish remake of the room into a cozy lounge, with sofas, where meals also may be ordered at a couple of tables. Upstairs, there’s a huge deck, with outdoor heaters. SO says it will open the deck as often as customers demand.
Lunch began after our initial visits and weekend brunch with egg dishes, waffles and other family-friendly stuff is in the offing. The competence exhibited in early days suggests SO will be ready.
The restaurant is the product of a startup restaurant group that includes people associated with both the former Living Room and the popular Colton’s chain of steak restaurants. They think the SO concept might be worth cloning. We hope so.
(Ah. SO?. The name stands for nothing, it just sounded and — with that macron over the “o” — looked good to the owners.)
3610 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Enjoy a variety of fresh oysters from Canadian waters (no Gulf oysters). Be sure to get some fried potatoes –- shoestring, hash brown or classic frites served in a napkin-lined cup. Take time to study an interesting wine list and remember that, while wine by the glass looks a little stingy, the glasses are huge. Kick back, sway to the piped-in jazz and imagine you are in a very cosmopolitan city. The valet parking is welcome and complimentary, but, natch, they appreciate tips. No reservations accepted.
11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.