Thirty years ago this month, Terri and Jerry Barakat introduced Little Rock to a collection of simple Greek and Middle Eastern delicacies that were foreign in their heritage and foreign to Arkansans' palates. Hummus, tabouleh, dolmathes, baba ganoush, gyros, falafel — for less than $10 total you could enjoy all those at the original Terrace restaurant in Breckenridge Village. The bonuses? The Barakats' unparalleled warmth and hospitality — and a BYOB policy that thrilled at least one young, thirsty, underpaid journalist.
Decades have passed, the Barakats have divorced and the Terrace has endured in several locations with Jerry at the helm. For the last 11 years the restaurant has been Terrace on the Green, anchoring the ground floor of Cypress Plaza, the attractive building that — thanks to a street-naming quirk — can accurately be said to be at the corner of Rodney Parham and Rodney Parham.
Franke's Cafeteria is likely the only family-owned local restaurant with a longer tenure than the Terrace, as many of the enduring names — Bruno's, the Villa, Browning's — have been sold to other families at least once over the years.
Now is a logical time for a return visit as Terrace on the Green has morphed into The Terrace Mediterranean Kitchen. Jerry Barakat's daughters, Susi and Sandy, are now in charge, ably assisted by their mom, who splits her time between Spain and Arkansas, and Michael Mitcham, Sandy's husband, who also has a long history on the local dining scene as a waiter, perhaps most notably at the renowned and lamented Spaule.
The new team's flourishes are immediately apparent — in the decor, the menu, the service and the food. The lunch menu has been revamped, but it is still recognizable to long-time Terrace fans. And that's wise, because at a restaurant that has thrived for 30 years, change can be tough, particularly on the regulars. Plenty of standards that have spanned the decades live on.
There are eight salads featured, the additions of salmon and chicken qualifying three as "entree" salads. The lunch menu also includes five Mediterranean-flavored sandwiches, two burgers and 10 "lunch plates," none of which resemble the "meat-and-three" blue plates common in these parts. All but the Steak Frites are under $12.
Our lunch choices were a pan-sauteed tilapia ($11.95) from the specials list — succulent and light but still with a pleasing butter component, served with a light rice pilaf — and the gyros sandwich ($5.95), which was almost comically overstuffed with tasty shards of crisp-yet-tender meat.
A new dinner menu is on the way, we're told, and in fact it may already be rolled out. It too will blend new choices with old faithfuls. On a recent dinner visit we were compelled to start with the stand-by sampler of hummus, tabouleh and baba ganoush ($8.25); all had bright, citrusy notes. The hummus and baba ganoush were creamy and rich, and the tabouleh featured strong blasts of fresh mint.
The pear, gorgonzola and walnut salad ($6.75) was a hit. The Craisins provided a fruity pop and the somewhat oily vinaigrette was applied lightly enough to not overwhelm the taste of the fruit, nuts and creamy, only slightly blue, blue cheese.
A dish billed as "House Specialty" in the "Old Favorites" section on the old dinner menu certainly will live on — or a veteran customer's revolt might be launched. The broiled Norwegian salmon deserved its menu status. The huge, mild filet topped with a creamy lemon dill sauce was served with broccoli, slightly sweet carrot medallions and delicate rice studded with almond slivers.
The star of the show, though, was another entree special — feta-stuffed lamb chops ($24.95). We were worried the sharp cheese might overwhelm the meat, but we shouldn't have. Dabs of feta, mellowed by melting, oozed from five meaty lamb chops, including one two-bone behemoth. They were topped with rings of sauteed purple onion and a light garlic glaze.
Gloria Ferrer chardonnay, a delightfully rich white from the Carneros region of California ($32) might not technically go with lamb, but ... who cares? It was dreamy good, as was our dessert — bananas foster ($7.50) prepared tableside. In a much-appreciated gesture that surely owes back to his fine-dining days, maitre d' Mitcham stopped by to pour complementary EOS dessert wine, a perfect match for the cinnamon/brown sugary dessert.
There are other fine-dining touches to The Terrace Mediterranean Kitchen, though prices luckily are not among them. We returned to our table after a mid-meal break to find our napkin neatly folded at our place setting. Our waiter took much care to deliver and remove just the right silverware at several junctures in the meal — little things, maybe, but impactful.
Long meal and story short: Our first experiences at The Terrace Mediterranean Kitchen with the second generation of Barakats running the show generated optimism that one of Little Rock's longest-tenured family-owned restaurants will continue to thrive for decades to come. If you haven't tried it lately, you should. And if you have, you surely will again.