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Taking it downtown 

Bray has big shoes to fill, but it's getting there.

For a city our size, Little Rock has a pretty good crop of reliable, non-chain downtown lunch spots, from the grungy to the sophisticated. Still, our circle of downtown lunch haunts is small enough that we were honestly saddened last November when we learned that Downtown Deli — that always-hoppin' counter of big sandwiches and wraps, weird wallpaper (featuring devils, aliens, burglars and other no-good-niks trying to purloin sammiches) and really good pasta salad — was closing for good.

Enter Chris Bray, a 28-year-old marketing management grad from the University of Arkansas, who has since jumped into the old Downtown Deli spot at 325 Center St. with his new Bray Gourmet Deli and Catering. As Bray told our Eat Arkansas Blog, he developed his recipes — including four varieties of turkey spreads, which can be bought in bulk — while working a job at Hugg and Hall equipment dealers. He's using as much Arkansas produce as he can in the restaurant, including getting his breads from Arkansas Fresh Breads.

We're disappointed the cartoon sammich-stealing wallpaper has gone out with the old Downtown Deli signs. However, it's all about the food. From the big and interesting menu, we tried the Italian Club ($6.79), which featured summer sausage, smoked ham, Swiss, lettuce, tomatoes and Italian dressing. Companion, meanwhile — citing her love for all things tomato — tried Bray's Favorite ($6.99), with smoked turkey, pesto, lettuce, tomato bruschetta, asiago cheese and mozzarella.

Though we knew that would probably do us, we also ordered one of Bray's stuffed tomatoes ($5.29) just so we could sample one of the turkey spreads the restaurant is hanging its hat on.

When our plates got there, they looked great: big, halved sandwiches full of good stuff, and a stuffed tomato so lovely that it looked like it should be on the front of a cookbook. We were a little bummed, however, when we saw there was no mound of potato chips with our sandwich. The man said you can't go home again, and he was right, but that's the way Downtown Deli used to do it. At Bray, bagged chips are $1.19 extra.

We dug in. Our Italian Club turned out to be very tasty, full of good, smoky meats and fresh cheese, perfectly appointed by the tangy zip of the Italian dressing. So far so good. Companion, meanwhile, wasn't as stoked about her Bray's Favorite. While the meats, cheeses and bread all got an A-plus, it just seemed to her that they'd been too spare with the bruschetta and pesto, rendering a sandwich that should have been a bold mouthful of tomato-y goodness into nothing to write home about.

Better was the stuffed tomato. We stuck with the Original Flavor Turkey Spread (you can get the spread in original, Cajun, jalapeno or dill). It's clear Mr. Bray has spent some time getting the flavor just right. It was a bit salty for our taste, but otherwise the spread had an excellent taste and feel — smoky, dense and full of flavor.

We're keeping our fingers crossed for Bray Gourmet, just because there's always room for one more on our downtown din-din menu, and because it looks like they really care about what they're doing in the kitchen. If they can keep up the quality (and maybe throw in a free handful of chips ... what's a family-sized bag of Ruffles cost these days?), they'll probably do fine. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you were a fan of the old Downtown Deli.

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