Chuck Haralson and Ken Smith were inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism
When chef Scott Rains opened Table 28, he quickly earned a reputation as being one of Little Rock's best and most adventurous chefs. Four years on, little has changed.
Well, no, that's not really true, is it? Little Rock's dining scene has changed a lot in the past four years, with much of the boom (and inevitable bust) focused west of Interstate 430. It would be fair to say that much of the city's newfound culinary growth has been focused on Arkansas's culinary holy trinity: tacos, cheese dip and pizza. So, what do you do with a restaurant that all but ignores those things? Is there room in the Little Rock food canon for a fine-dining restaurant that thinks nothing of making Rocky Mountain oysters a featured appetizer? Where bone marrow and escargot is a signature dish?
Well, there must be, as on the four nights we visited, there were almost no empty seats except for those at the bar. Table 28, out of sight and mind for many, is steadily becoming the fine-dining restaurant of Little Rock's future, blending food trends from around the world with traditional Southern ingredients and techniques. After a mid-summer renovation that saw the dining room turn from a mid-'90s country club holdover to a sleek environment with perfectly Instagrammable light, the restaurant seems to have caught something of a second wind.
The location, unique as it is, nestled in the first floor of The Burgundy Hotel, might be the best worst location of any restaurant in town. The hotel's covered atrium makes room for an indoor patio with white leather couches and matching umbrellas, where diners are welcome to have dinner or to simply eat and drink their way through one of Little Rock's best happy-hour menus.
The restaurant proper sits just off the atrium and down a short set of steps, making it feel like an extension of the hotel yet still completely separate. Somehow, after each meal, we would ascend the stairs back into the hotel's lobby only to be surprised that we were still inside.
As we mentioned earlier, the happy-hour menu is one of, if not the, best deals in town. Served daily from 4 p.m. until 6:30 p.m., a host of small plates drop in price to settle between $3 and $8. Were the restaurant located in downtown, you'd never be able to get a table, but they're easy to come by and a quick after-work happy hour can easily morph into a full-fledged dinner. On the other hand, it's easy to order a full dinner's worth of food for less than $15 during happy hours. We suppose the trick is in the time management and self-control. Personally, when we're two appetizers (or three cocktails) in and we're offered the dinner menu, we have trouble saying "no."
A highlight of the happy-hour menu, clocking in at a whopping $6 is a dish of blistered shishito peppers, a Japanese cousin to Spain's pedron pepper, caked in Parmesan and bathed in ponzu sauce. The peppers bridge the gap of smoky savoriness and sweet char without ever losing the delicate taste of pyrazines that make peppers the culinary stars they are. One note of caution: Though shishito peppers are generally sweet and mild, they're roasted whole and at least once in each of the two times we ordered the dish, there was a lone pepper that bit back with ferocious heat.
The happy-hour menu features some of the dishes that first brought the restaurant acclaim, the quail "lollipops" ($6) presented on a stick with blue cheese and buffalo sauce and a heaping dish of fried Brussels sprouts sprinkled with bacon and pecans ($3). And for those still looking for a piece of the Arkansas trinity, chorizo street tacos are available for just $6.
Where happy hour teases and tempts, Table 28's entrees earn it the acclaim it's gotten. The star attraction of its fall/winter menu is a returning favorite: At $20, foie gras biscuits and gravy is appropriately listed as "small bites" on the menu, and truly, one has to work to split the dish into five forkfuls, but it is, for our money, one of the most perfect and most decadent items on any menu in Little Rock. The foie gras is served perched atop a biscuit, each layer of which dissolves featherlike in your mouth, and surrounded by a lake of rich white gravy. It's perfectly fine to ask for extra bread to help you sop up. For those looking to top decadence with decadence, a Sauternes, a super sweet white wine from Bordeaux, is available for $10 a glass to recreate one of the best and most established wine pairings in Western cuisine. A glass of the golden-hued wine is all that's needed, as it's meant to be sipped and not slurped. You will have to ask for it, however, as it's not listed on the menu. Together, they make the perfect appetizer, entree or even a dessert alternative.
Sauternes aside, the wine menu seems to accomplish the equivalent to patting one's head while rubbing one's belly at the same time, by being both long and affordable. Almost 50 wines are available by the bottle for under $50, allowing guests to partake in one of fine dining's greatest pleasures, ordering bottle service, without paying the astronomical prices that are often seen on restaurant wine lists.
The rest of the dinner menu seems to shift effortlessly from Rains' classical culinary training and the everyday techniques he learned while growing up in Arkansas. The entrees include seemingly familiar items such as buttermilk fried chicken ($19) and a meatloaf ($17) that's based off of his mother's recipe, though upgraded with sauteed shiitake mushrooms and piped mashed potatoes. For those looking for a meal with a more subdued Southern accent, a delicious wild boar pasta ($16) is available, as well as the San Fran Cioppino ($30), a seafood stew with bass, shrimp and scallops served over squid ink noodles.
Each entree can be matched to any of the six side dishes listed on the menu. A personal favorite is the Turnpike Pike Georgia grits ($7) served with bacon and cheddar cheese. The same grits, this time topped with plump Gulf shrimp is available as a small plate for $12. The dish, in either form, walks the tightrope of perfect texture: not too creamy, not too coarse. If there are better grits in Little Rock, we haven't found them. Another standout, corn off the cob ($7) is presented with smoked jalapeño chorizo. Though delicious, be warned that it's among the spiciest dishes on the menu and will have you regularly reaching for your water glass.
Table 28's desserts, each of which are made in house and cost $8, would seem like the specialty of any other restaurant, were the quality of the rest of the meal not equally impressive. Sticky Toffee Cake is a dense cousin to bread pudding, though Rains chooses to drench it in a thick toffee sauce and serve it with a pecan gelato. It's a constant on the ever-changing menu, and we can imagine the outcry if it were ever taken off. For a lighter option, banana bread is served sandwiching a sweet cream cheese icing and alongside a delicate pecan ice cream. Even in dessert, the treatment may be new, but the Southern touch is unmistakable.
1501 Merrill Drive
Fourteen different small plates are available and, combined, they can make a meal that allows you to sample a cross-section of Chef Rains' Southern-meets-anything-but mentality. Of particular note is the bone marrow ($15) topped with escargot. It's impossible to be in a bad mood after eating anything so flavorful.
4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.