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Maybe it's our humble upbringing, but we've never felt comfortable in restaurants that couple a pricey menu with dining rooms so dark that we can't get a good look at whatever it is that's making us drop serious change. The folks at Vieux Carre in Hillcrest must harbor some similar sentiments, with a dining room that is just on the right side of pleasantly bright and large picture windows that let in the sunshine by day and give a nice view of Kavanaugh Boulevard at night. It's a space that's cozy without feeling cramped, and with a menu of fine food that features no item over $17 dollars, the self-described "Southern Bistro" remains one of our favorite places to dine for lunch and dinner both. The service is attentive and low-key, and while the restaurant could easily flaunt itself as a stuffy, high-end place, the efforts at keeping prices low, quality high, and the atmosphere casual make it a fun place to eat.
Choosing something from the extensive starter menu can be a challenge, with everything from crab cakes to bruschetta to tempt. An appetizer unique to Vieux Carre is the Black-eyed Pea Caviar ($7), and it's as fine a way to start as meal as we've found. The caviar is a cold salad of black-eyed peas, peppers, tomatoes and onions mixed together in a tangy dressing and served with toasted baguette slices. We weren't too sure about the stuff at first bite, not being used to eating our peas cold, but a second bite won us over. Firm, tender peas gave way to a slight pepper bite, and the onions and tomatoes completed a flavor profile that we enjoyed more and more as we continued eating. We would have liked to turn the heat up on the peppers just a notch. Still, it was a fine start to our meal and a dish that sets Vieux Carre apart.
We followed up the peas with a couple of sandwiches, and once again Vieux Carre made it hard to choose with items like a Reuben, a Hawaiian-style burger topped with pineapple and ham, and the decadent-looking Kavanaugh Club. We finally narrowed it down to two: the Honey Dijon Chicken ($8) and the Poppy's Steak Sandwich ($10). Both sandwiches are served on soft, chewy ciabatta bread with a generous side of house-made potato chips — and these chips were so good that we wished we had ordered the appetizer featuring them with a Gorgonzola dip. It's possible to substitute fries for a couple of dollars extra, but these well-made chips are a quite tasty and shouldn't be missed.
As for the sandwiches, both were excellent. The chicken sandwich featured two thin-pounded chicken cutlets that had been breaded and fried to a crisp golden brown, topped with Swiss and cheddar cheeses, lettuce, tomato, pickles and creamy honey mustard. Each bite was crisp and cheesy. Too many restaurants make the mistake of frying or grilling an entire chicken breast for their sandwich, resulting in rubbery chicken that is hard to eat; Vieux Carre's thin cutlets were juicy and tender and very easy to handle.
The steak sandwich was another success, with tender, thin-sliced ribeye steak holding up a pile of melted Swiss, lettuce and tomato. Unlike the sweet, mild mustard used on the chicken, this steak sandwich went with a bold, stone-ground mustard that accented the juicy beef without overpowering its flavor. Texture was again excellent, with no piece of steak sliced too thick, and no gristle or fat to be found throughout. It was a quality cut of meat prepared with skill and care, and while we would have liked the beef to be just a touch more rare, we still polished off the sandwich in record time.
If sandwiches aren't quite your thing, the Shrimp and Jalapeno Quesadilla ($8), a large flour tortilla filled with cheese, bacon, and shrimp and grilled to a crisp, is an option. The quesadilla is large and loaded with melted cheese, and there's a definite spicy bite of peppers present. The rest of the ingredients don't come through nearly as well, however, with no discernable flavor of bacon and a just a scattering of chopped shrimp. Still, coupled with a side of sour cream and the fresh tomato and onions served to the side, the quesadilla was good.
Vieux Carre prides itself on creating New Orleans-inspired dishes, and one of the best is the Creamy Bowtie Pasta ($15), an ample portion of pasta served with blackened chicken, shrimp and a decadent cream sauce. We paired this dish with a bowl of smoky-flavored Red Beans and Rice ($4.50) for a trip to Creole heaven. Each piece of finely chopped chicken was well-seasoned and had just the right amount of char. The shrimp were (in contrast to the quesadilla's) ample, and the pasta cooked just right — a perfect vehicle for the rich sauce. It's one of the pricier dishes on the menu, but the large portion and abundance of good flavors make it worth the cost.
Kavanaugh Boulevard is a street that is lined with some of Little Rock's best restaurants, and it can be difficult sometimes for one to stand out from the crowd. Vieux Carre does this by hitting the sweet spot of good quality, well-prepared food for a price that other restaurants of its caliber can't match. The menu is simple, but skillfully executed, and while some items are similar to those on menus in other South Louisiana-inspired kitchens, there are enough unique touches here to make what might seem commonplace at first glance special.