Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Cafe Prego in the Heights practices the axiom that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We hadn’t been back here in quite a while, but it was just as we remembered it: great, both in food and atmosphere, plus nice wine at fair prices.
We gathered up nine friends recently to celebrate one of their birthdays — Prego has long been a favorite, as far as we can tell, of people celebrating happy occasions, as Prego’s staff is always willing to accommodate. While the menu has never been overly large, there’s always something for everyone, from pork to seafood to chicken to Italian pasta dishes presented with flair. We’ve found you can never go wrong with the hot and spicy shrimp scampi Diabolo, the tortellini or the pork tenderloin with the mustard cream sauce. And that’s not to say we wouldn’t also recommend the manicotti or the chicken Prego.
Prego keeps it simple, and simple often works best. Veteran chef Bruce Alexander, who has been at the restaurant a decade, will step out with one special entree and a special soup that rarely if ever misses.
We also like that everything cranked out of Prego’s kitchen is made from scratch, from the hot foccacia bread to the to-die-for creme brulee or tiramisu to cap the meal. The simple wine list doesn’t take an hour to scan, and a sommelier isn’t required to pair your entrée and wine choice — the very competent wait staff can handle that quite nicely.
Prego is in its 10th year at its current location on Kavanaugh, after beginning business 13 years ago on Grant Street in the spot that’s now home to Fantastic China. Louis Petit, who had honed his restaurant chops at the fabulous Jacques and Suzanne along with other dining experts who would go on to establish other popular Little Rock eateries, started Prego. He’s left for Florida to help run the family’s three restaurants on the Gulf Coast near Destin, and Prego is operated by his wife and his son, “Young” Louis Petit. The restaurant has maintained a faithful clientele from the Heights and Hillcrest over the years, the younger Petit told us recently.
The homey, small place is cordoned off into tinier rooms, where getting around can be difficult when you’re moving at the same time the waitstaff is delivering food. The walls are covered in classic French movie posters and the like. There’s plenty to look at while you wait for your meal.
First out, and quickly, is the foccacia, along with olive oil and ground pepper for dipping the bread. Someday, we will make a meal simply out of several foccacia loaves, some wine, and some brulee for dessert and not worry what the scale ends up reading a few days later. We forgot just how much we enjoy the bread — our table went through four loaves easily. They could have just sat the oil and a pepper grinder down beside our plate, too.
The lone special choices this night were a tomato-basil cream soup and a pan-seared grouper filet topped with mushrooms and a rosemary cream sauce. Back in the 1990s, Prego may have been the first restaurant where we had tomato-basil soup, and it’s ubiquitous these days, but the Prego version is still among the best we’ve had, with just-right creaminess and bits of garlic to enrich the flavor.
The grouper was some of the best fish we’ve had in Little Rock in some time. There was just enough of the brown cream sauce to accent, but not overwhelm the taste of the moist, flaky, large filet.
Our plate was cleaned in a few short minutes. That was the case throughout our table, where pork tenderloin was the choice of several diners.
Prego and Caesar salads, both garden fresh, were also earlier meal starters for some at our table, and again it reflected Prego’s exceptional presentation skills and work with fresh mixed greens and savory dressings.
As for wine, we chose two bottles of Maso Canali pinot grigio ($26) for the table. It’s listed under the “proprietor’s list,” but diners can go with slightly less-expensive bottles and wine by the glass. Some at our table indulged in heavier drinks –- our gin-and-tonic lover said his drinks had a little too much tonic, but our whiskey fan appeared to have no complaints other than with the sarcastic company he was keeping.
No meal at Prego can end without at least one or two desserts passed around the table, if not hogged all for yourself. We’re all health conscious now, to a point, so we passed two around. And while you won’t go wrong with any of the desserts, we’d suggest you start with chocolate creme brulee, as good as any in the city, and the tiramisu, which also is spectacular, with soaked but not soggy lady fingers, powdered chocolate and velvety, sweet mascarpone cheese.
Prego is a loud, happy place, though not so boisterous that conversation is impossible — difficult in places, to be sure, but not impossible. “Young” Louis Petit has told us his goal is making diners feel like they’re going to someone’s house for a good meal.
We’d call our most recent visit a great meal, with a great time had by all.
5510 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Specials are top-rate, and the shrimp and pork tenderloin dishes tend to excel, in our book. Don’t leave without having the creme brulee, and bring enough diners along to have the tiramisu and New York cheesecake, too.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Reservations accepted.