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TAE shows promise 

But it needs to get its act together.

click to enlarge TAE THIS ONE ON: The Blackened Shrimp + Grits with pork-fat "redneck gravy."
  • TAE THIS ONE ON: The Blackened Shrimp + Grits with pork-fat "redneck gravy."

Dating is a straight-up, bona-fide hard thing to do. We're all on our best behavior in that initial stage, right? We maybe dress a little better than usual, we trot out our funniest stories to people who haven't heard them yet. Heck, there might even be dancing involved.

Is there anything more maddening, then, than a new romantic prospect who runs hot and cold? One who inspires fears about whether the problem is actually you? Draining.

What I'm trying to say: I'm not sure what's going on at TAE but, after three dates, I get the feeling it's not that serious about us.

TAE ("True Arkansas Eatery") is a recent addition to the Hotel Frederica, which was until recently the Legacy Hotel on Capitol Avenue. It's the brainchild of Justin Patterson, owner of the late, lamented Southern Gourmasian restaurant, and focuses on upscale Southern dishes. It offers traditional Southern dishes with twists and surprises. We heard good things from friends, so we set out to give it a try.

Our trouble began when we tried to find out the basics of TAE. Despite being open for several weeks, TAE has no functional web presence — only a home page. The restaurant's Facebook page shows only photographs of its menus. Even the "About" section of TAE's Facebook page only says, "Description?! ... Fun Arkansas-inspired food that tastes real good. Yep, that's definitely the best way to put it." No other information is to be had.

Taking a chance, we popped in for lunch, where we were roundly ignored for several minutes as staff scurried about. After a few unsuccessful attempts to ask about a table, we left and pursued other lunch options. Indifference burns.

After licking our wounds for a bit, we tried TAE again for a Saturday morning brunch. We were the only table, and discovered that TAE offers what it calls a "Brunch to Brinner" menu from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends. Happily, our choices were nothing short of outstanding. TAE's Blackened Shrimp + Grits ($12) dish was a real treat, featuring six plump shrimp atop tender grits and covered with "redneck gravy" — nothing like redeye, but rather a pork-fat-based concoction. The other hit was TAE's hot and fluffy Biscuits + Gravy ($7) offering, which came with either chocolate gravy or cream gravy. We opted for the chocolate version, a thick and sweet choice that left us nearly licking the bowl at meal's end.

Additional "Brunch to Brinner" options include the Twice-Fried Chicken + Waffle ($11), the "Li'l John" ham and cheese sandwich ($9.25), and a variety of sides, such as smoky greens, purple hull peas and candied yams.

Riding the high of our good meal, and on our recommendation, we invited two friends for dinner at TAE on a Sunday evening. Sadly, from the outset this meal turned out to be a disappointment. Our waitress wasn't knowledgeable about the beer selections, so after a bit of back-and-forth, we went to the bar and discovered TAE had no beer whatsoever, only wine and various cocktail offerings. Two wines and one cocktail eventually arrived, 20 minutes later, and only after two separate inquiries to waitstaff who happened by.

Though the TAE Facebook page features a separate menu of vegan and vegetarian options, it was not available the weekend we took our vegetarian companion. Forging on, we ordered two appetizers: the cheese dip ($6.25) and the Basket of Biscuits ($5.25). When the biscuits arrived, they were scorched on the bottom and hard, resulting in jokes about broken teeth. The cheese dip was good, however, with salty tortilla chips that seemed to have been made in-house. Other appetizers available on the weekend menu include Fried Green Tomatoes ($8) and Maple Bacon Popcorn ($5)

Our entrees did not raise the bar. TAE's weekend menu features a section headed "Burgers, Sandwiches, Etc.," which — in its entirety — consists of the aforementioned Li'l John ham and cheese sandwich, the Twice-Fried Fried Chicken Biscuit ($9) and the Homestyle Patty Melt ($9). One companion chose the latter, which is served with pimento cheese on "Arkansas Toast" — which is pretty much just toast. He was not impressed.

Our vegetarian friend sought to cobble together a meal from various sides, ordering a simple salad, sauteed zucchini and squash and an order of "country potatoes." The best part of the meal was the salad, which was dressed in an apple vinaigrette. The bowl of sauteed zucchini and squash proved relatively bland until the end, when the spices were found lurking at the bottom of the bowl. The coup de grace was his bowl of "country potatoes," which were simply chopped up french fries!

To round out the meal, we ordered the "Arkansas Toothpicks" ($12), a country-fried spare rib, with a light coating of barbecue sauce and more sauce on the side. The meat was tender, but the flavor and consistency of breaded and fried spare ribs was unappealing. Frankly, this entire meal was a disaster.

For Act Three, we gamely returned later in the week for lunch and had a much better experience. Our friend ordered the "Twice-Fried Fried Chicken Gyro" ($9.25), a giant pile of fried chicken served on gyros, with hand-cut fries. The portion was too big to eat as a sandwich, but he reported excellent flavor, with special kudos for the fries. We also ordered a fantastic "Feed Ya Soul" bowl ($10): rice, smoky greens, zucchini, squash and purple hull peas.

In sum: When it comes to TAE, we're unsure about our relationship status. Sometimes she clearly cares, sometimes she clearly doesn't. There's clearly potential for something here, but our partner needs to put in some work and end this confusion about where we stand. There's plenty of flavor out there elsewhere.

TAE (True Arkansas Eatery)

625 W. Capitol Ave., inside the Hotel Frederica

301-0892

truarkeat.com

Quick bite

The blackened shrimp and grits are fantastic, along with the biscuits and chocolate gravy. The vegan/vegetarian menu is not available on the weekend.

Hours

11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Other info

We were told this week that there now is beer, along with wine and some cocktails are available.
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