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Terry's restaurant: France in Little Rock 

click to enlarge The Restaurant at Terry's Finer Foods image

Not all of us will be lucky enough to get to go to France. Those who cannot or choose not to visit will miss out on many wonderful things — art, architecture, food and wine to mention but a few. The simple pleasures are many in France, and the average Frenchman has access to much higher quality food staples than Americans demand; a tiny French "convenience" store features top-quality butter, milk, cheese, produce and wine — as good as high-priced specialty items in our country's gourmet stores.

One true delight of life in France is a leisurely meal in a classic French cafe or bistro. And thanks to Ellen and Lex Golden, dyed-in-the-wool Francophiles, anyone who can afford a nice restaurant meal can get that authentic French experience without leaving Little Rock. With their Restaurant at Terry's Finer Foods in the Heights, the Goldens have nailed it.

The tables and chairs came from France and are the ones you'll see on the patios at every Parisian eatery. There are 11 tables inside the cozy restaurant that connects to the grocery store and a dining area within the store. It's an airy space with a high, pale wood plank ceiling, painted brick walls and a four-seat bar. It's worth taking time to peruse the collection of wine bottles displayed along the window sills — bottles Lex Golden, who happened to be dining there the night we visited, told us he was primarily responsible for consuming. There are some amazing wines from stellar vintages and not all of them French.

The Goldens have forged a close relationship with Steve Reynolds, proprietor and wine maker at Reynolds Family Winery, which is well worth visiting if you're ever in Napa. Reynolds creates masterful white and red blends for Terry's, and they are sold for the dirt-cheap price of $21 and $28, respectively, better than you'll find for estate-grown Napa Valley wines in liquor stores. We chose a bottle of the crisp, chardonnay-dominated white.

Like his counterparts in the kitchens at French bistros, Terry's head chef Jeffery Moore concentrates on simple concepts well executed using stellar ingredients. That theme rang true every culinary step of the way during our recent dinner.

A basket of homemade bread — crisp on the outside and pleasingly soft on the inside — arrived with some excellent butter. Next came our two appetizers — the tomato and bread salad ($8 as that day's appetizer special) and the mushroom tart ($6). The salad featured hunks of that good Terry's bread soaked in balsamic vinegar and olive oil with plenty of garlic. The small red and yellow tomatoes were tasty (though not quite ripe enough). The tart epitomizes the simple-but-elegant French theme at Terry's. A bounty of nicely sauteed hunks of button mushrooms were still firm to the bite and served with shaved Parmesan and a hint of Provence herbs on a thin pastry crust.

Bouillabaisse ($32) was the entree special. This rich, fish-based soup was first created by fishermen along the French Mediterranean coast who used the too-bony-to-sell fish from their catches and added herbs and tomatoes. Today it's anything but a peasant's dish, particularly the way it was served at Terry's, which justified the price tag. Largish, probably three-ounce slabs of halibut, snapper and sea bass as well as five delectable, firm mussels were served with potatoes and leeks in a savory broth flavored with a wine reduction. It was a divine dish and maybe even better as leftover for the next day's lunch.

Our dining partner opted for the grilled salmon ($21), a huge (probably 7- or 8-ounce) filet served over risotto with creamy braised leeks, one of the highlights of the meal. The salmon was lightly herbed, crisp on the outside and almost creamy inside.

Even with leftovers packed and sitting on our table, we still opted for dessert. The lavender creme brulee ($6) — served in a bowl — was like eating flowers ... with plenty of sugar and cream. The gateau au chocolate was a bit disappointing — three slightly dry brownie towers served with raspberries, blueberries and blackberries with whipped cream; decent but not $6 decent.

As one would expect from a French bistro, Terry's dinner entrees include rotisserie chicken (quarter or half), duck confit, other fish dishes, plus veal, pork, lamb and steak. Escargot, foie gras, steak tartar and pate are logical among the appetizers.

The lunch menu features several salads — including the classic Salad Nicoise ($13), a couple of sandwiches, a burger, a croque monsieur ($10) and a croque madame ($12).

Eating at Terry's really is like eating in France — not just because of what's on the menu but also how it's lovingly prepared and served.

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