HEBER SPRINGS — You might expect to run into all sorts of people drawn to this resort town by the allure of boating and sunning on Greers Ferry Lake, trout fishing in the frigid waters of the Little Red River and the beauty of the rolling, wooded countryside.
But one thing you might not expect to run into in Heber is a chef who spent six years learning his craft at the renowned Breakers Resort in Palm Beach and three years as executive chef at the Country Club of Little Rock, among other high-profile positions. Since 1998, Chef Billy Klaser has operated Cafe Klaser, first in a small spot downtown and for the last nine years in a larger, sprawling location on the Little Red with a huge patio overlooking the water.
While the chef learned his trade cooking haute cuisine in a white-tablecloth environment, Cafe Klaser is not a fine-dining restaurant. That's not to say it's not a fine restaurant, but it's certainly not hoity-toity. This is small-town Arkansas, after all, and while Klaser's customers surely include moneyed sorts who own big lake houses, locals and regular working-class Joes are the bread and butter. So there's a salad bar, a home cooking-focused buffet at Sunday lunch, and you'll find burgers, salads, fried seafood dinners and steaks on the menu — as well as a few specialties that take the sophistication level up a few notches.
What you'll also find at Cafe Klaser is booze — a rarity in a dry county not teeming with private clubs. One person in your party will have to pony up $10 for the annual membership, not too steep if you have a thirsty group but likely not a surcharge one guy who wants a single Bud Light will be willing to pay. Of course, you don't have to join the club to dine.
Cafe Klaser is billed as "home of the STUFFED steak" on its menu and sign, and at the table next to us six of the eight ordered the dish — which comes as one five-ounce fillet ($16.95) or two five-ounce fillets ($22.95). So who were we to pass on the house specialty?
A nice piece of beef tenderloin is split, stuffed with rice and crawfish, wrapped in bacon, grilled and then smothered with a spicy cream sauce liberally studded with crawfish tails. Our dining companion ordered his steak medium-well, so we're confident we didn't taste the best representation of the dish, through no fault of the chef's. It wasn't as tender or succulent as it would have been medium-rare, but the concept is a winner. And the sauce, while rich with zing — and crawfish — doesn't overwhelm the taste of the beef. Only hungry enough for one fillet? Order the pair and take one home.
In our opinion, Klaser should tout his restaurant as "home of the WALLEYE." A huge slab — 12 ounces easy — of this tender white fish is served grilled, blackened or sauteed, as we got it. Exceedingly tender and moist, the fish by itself is a winner, with herbs lightly applied, but what makes this dish is that the fish is served over a bed of sauteed fresh spinach accompanied by a large helping of couscous accented with English peas and small pieces of carrots and red bell peppers. This dish did scream "fine dining" and at $18.95 it made two meals.
On the more pedestrian side, we also tried the fried shrimp dinner — six shrimp served with fries, hush puppies and slaw for $12.95 (you can get 10 shrimp for $18.95). These were clearly food-service pre-fab shrimp — butterflied thin enough to easily get tough in the fryer. They weren't awful, but they were just standard-issue, paling considerably compared to the walleye. The fries and too-perfectly-shaped hush puppies were also surely straight from the freezer.
But that misstep was quickly forgotten when the desserts — all homemade on premises — arrived. The peanut butter pie ... OMG! A four-inch slab of rich but light peanut butter cream filling sits on a crushed chocolate cookie crust, topped with whipped cream that is dotted with plenty of peanuts, chocolate chips and what were either butterscotch or caramel chips. For good measure, a nice layer of those same salty/sweet delectables was inserted about midway down the peanut butter cream stack.
There are also chocolate pie, lemon pie and coconut meringues (all three sold out by the time we got there), key lime pie, cheesecake and chocolate pecan pie. All are $4.50 for a slice and $14.95 for a whole. And there are always several pies o' the day. We chose a fabulous blueberry and banana pie on graham cracker crust and an apple pie that included raisins and large hunks of walnut. If the peanut butter was a 10, the blueberry/banana was an 8.5 and the apple was a 6 (we're not big on raisins).
Cafe Klaser's menu is a big one with something for almost everyone — from quesadillas, gumbo, fried pickles and frog legs on the appetizer menu; fajita, Caesar and chicken salad on the salad menu; rib-eyes and strips; a Reuben, BLT and seafood po-boys; blackened and lemon-pepper catfish; four pasta dishes and all those great pies.
Chef Klaser's high-brow background serves him well in all he prepares — and there are standouts like the walleye — but he has adapted his style to his clientele, and that's why he's still thriving 14 years after opening his original restaurant.
1414 Wilburn Road
4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Private club with full bar. (You don't have to join to dine, only to drink.) All CC accepted.