By Jim Harris
Fourteen years is a lifetime for many restaurants; most don’t make half that. Many have come and gone in Little Rock over that time span. But Brave New Restaurant has not only survived, it’s managed to stay as fresh as ever in its fans’ eyes, and Arkansas Times readers have again voted it the Best Overall in Little Rock.
Owner/chef Peter Brave has what he considers a simple strategy.
“It’s most important to offer value, freshness and a thoughtfulness in the presentation,” he said. “And, compared to other restaurants, I think we keep our drinks cheap. We have no $15 martinis.”
That’s a friendly swipe at some of Brave’s newer competition, but Brave, who was cooking at Ciao before starting up his own restaurant on what he terms “a shoe-string” and $40,000 in an old Steak and Egg/Toddle House on Cantrell, says the rivalry with other restaurateurs is a friendly one, even when feeling a financial pinch when a new one opens.
“I consider myself good friends with Capi [Peck, owner of the popular Trio’s], I know Paul [Novicky, co-owner of the trendy, new Nu Cuisine Lounge] well. Everybody in this business wants everyone to do well. That’s healthy for all of us,” he said.
“I don’t go out and about and see what everybody else is doing. I get my information from our core clientele who report back on what somebody else might be doing. But I like what we’re doing here. I just think people are going to look for value. You can find taller food, fancier food, prettier food, but I think ours is thoughtful in the way we present it with good, sound technique. I’m leery of places where the food is a lot prettier than here.”
After a decade in the cramprf quarters at Cantrell Road and Old Cantrell, Brave moved his restaurant to an office complex on Cottondale Lane. He says the relocation doubled the eating space (some regulars might swear it quadrupled) -- no longer were diners elbowing others at the next table. The bar patrons have room. Diners can sit at the bar and watch Brave work the kitchen line. A deck offersa view of the Arkansas River. What Brave lost in visibility on Cantrell was recouped a dozen times elsewhere, he said. And, while 9/11 hit the restaurant economy hard, his restaurant handled it well because of its regular patrons, Brave said.
Brave has gradually tweaked the new location, adding a party room for private gatherings that also serves overflow on weekends.
The chef’s newest move is getting into the farm-raised shrimp business. He and Jackson Currie began farming fresh-water shrimp in Wilmot, near Lake Village, last year, raising 55,000 pounds of shrimp tails in the 21- to 25-per-pound size (the large size, just below jumbo). He’s trying to market them to buyers in Houston and elsewhere and was meeting with a major seafood wholesaler last week.
At his restaurant, diners are served Brave New Shrimp.
“You notice a difference,” Brave said, noting the smaller amount of sodium and iodine in farm-raised shrimp compared with Gulf shrimp. “Mainly, they’re a sweeter shrimp.”
It’s hobbies like shrimp farming that keep his new ideas coming, said Brave, who admits to being more settled lately with a family. Now, the “lightning bolts” of inspiration come away from the restaurant, he said. It’s not as easy cooking on the line for up to 250 folks a night as it was 14 years ago, but he still enjoys it, Brave said. “I enjoy the humping on a busy night, the rush you get from that.”
Early on, it had been the work in hotel restaurants here (the Capital Hotel), in San Francisco and Tampa, then at Ciao, that told him what he didn’t want to do with his menu when he embarked on his own, Brave said. Diners found an easy-to-follow menu at Brave New Restaurant with staple items and one of Brave’s favorite creative outlets, a mixed grill entree.
It’s still that way today, though he says he’ll try out four or five new items quarterly. Brave says knows he has regulars who will want only the pine nut-encrusted salmon or the pork tenderloin with whole grain mustard sauce, even it they aren’t plainly listed, and the menu indicates those favorites still can be ordered (just ask your waiter).
”I’m always ready to serve the pork tenderloin the way the regulars want it,” he said.