Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sultry & Hep, SpeakEasy’s Vibe Transcends.

SpeakEasy is trying very hard to please two different crowds. It has a real chance as long as it sticks to good food and good music, and as long as both stay as sophisticated as its patrons.

I dropped by on a Friday afternoon to check out the scene and grab some lunch. I was shocked to find myself the only customer in the place - but that could be attributed to the bitter, bitter cold outside. On my waiter’s suggestion, I went for the Shrimp Scampi ($11 at lunch, $16 for dinner). I was rather pleased with the dish. Served up with fantastically well-seasoned black eyed peas and typical kernel corn, the large shrimp were delivered perched upon three slices of crusty toasted bread. One bite and I was in love. The delicious balance of mushrooms, white wine and the tiniest amount of red onion won me over immediately. Serving the shrimp up on toast rather than in a buttery bath allowed the shrimp to breathe and not become chewy, and the “sop” factor of the toast was well appreciated.

Went back with my dining companion for dinner on a Saturday night. The mood was relaxed, with just a few customers at the bar and another couple across the way at a table. Our waitress gave us recommendations and brought us beverages on a short turnaround while we enjoyed the atmosphere.

SpeakEasy has the feel of a good high-end nightclub; it reminds me a whole lot of one of our favorite New Orleans hotspots, the cabaret at Le Chat Noir. The room is dark but with plenty of comfortable seating, including a couple of rather large red couches in the corner. The neat and original bar is embossed with vinyl and LP covers, and capped at the end with a live piano. There are live musical acts on Friday and Saturday nights ranging from classic rock to R&B and soul, and the wait staff is casual but kind. It lacks some things you might expect with a more established business, but that may just be a matter of maturity. After all, that takes time, which SpeakEasy just hasn’t had yet.

On the recommendation of our waitress, we tried the Crab Fondue ($8) and utterly could not find fault. I’ve had the seafood and cheese sort of fondue so many other places have attempted, but SpeakEasy has it so dead-on, it’s almost worth never ordering it again anywhere else. The unassuming bowl of hot dip and platter of baguette fingers held within the very essence of sweet lump crab meat, a delicious Parmesan-and-other-melty-delights cheese blend, and a talented dance going with the buttery-salty-crunchy heft of the baguette pieces. We were thankful when our waitress came to retrieve the dish; I was mere moments from committing an etiquette faux-pas and absorbing the last of the dip clinging to the sides of the bowl with my fingers.

We were quite entertained by the musical selections while waiting for our dinners. French love songs and Doris Day are smattered aurally between layers of Delta blues and R&B dotted trance. The tunes were apparently called up via Yahoo Music to fill the time before the evening performance began. We found the mix eclectic and charming.

Our dinners arrived; I’d asked for the chef to surprise me with whatever he considered to be his best, and was surprised to receive the Chicken Skewers ($7), hunks of grilled chicken and pineapple with a bit of jerk seasoning. They were delicious but absent the cherries mentioned on the menus.

My dining companion was quite pleased with the offering of the Filet Mignon ($19), a gorgonzola sauced and stuffed round of meat that fell apart on touch with the fork. The sauce, while thin, was a nice salty balance to the steak. The day’s vegetable, asparagus, was delicious, and I even thought the starch of the day (red beans and rice) was a nice hearty accompaniment.

We were doing pretty well, but couldn’t turn down dessert once it came. And here’s where we found the true idea of where SpeakEasy is at. I ordered the Pecan Bourbon Pie, while my companion went for the Orange Chocolate Bundt Cake. Now, when I get pie at a restaurant, it usually comes with whipped cream or ice cream or some sort of garnish. This pie was… frankly, flat. But with one taste all was forgiven. The house-made salty crust was so well matched with the sweetness of the darkly scandalous Karo-bourbon filling and the solid bite of the pecans, I couldn’t help but feel both guilty and happy.

My companion’s dessert, though, proved this is indeed a grown-up establishment. The humble slice of cake held within its moist and delicate morsels layer after layer of flavor, some chocolate, some orange and something dark and secret, perhaps a coffee liqueur or Frangelico. It was something that remained a true mystery, one I’d like to investigate further.

The restaurant does sport a small but mighty wine list, with most by-the-glass offerings sliding under the $10 mark. While the kitchen closes at 10 p.m., the bar remains open until the wee hours, and during our visit remained cluttered with casual drinkers and conversation.

SpeakEasy has that sort of an air to it, as if it’s set to be a stage for some great accidental performance ahead. It’ll be interesting to see how that story unfolds.

You’ll find SpeakEasy at 412 Louisiana in downtown Little Rock, open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Friday and Saturday it’s open from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., with dinner service from six to ten. And Sunday’s you can visit from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call (501) 374-2008.

As published in the January 2010 edition of Emerald City of the South.

Big on Brittle.

According to Foodimentary Guy, today is National Peanut Brittle Day. The notice turns my thoughts to the Arkansas Peanut Brittle is actually one of those rare dishes that can truly be considered a state food.
sweet nut-dotted confection and its many variations.
The town of Arkadelphia itself is blessed with two of the best brittle makers known to man. As far as the average consumer knows, Arkadelphia is about the only place that can send you some of that great brittle directly to your home. But there are a few other places you might give a try. 

You have to talk about the big operations first, right? Andrew’s Candy Kitchen in Arkadelphia has this massive, massive operation. They’ll go through more than 100,000 pounds of peanuts each year -- and that’s not mentioning the cashews, pecans or sunflowers that go into their different brittles. The big tubs and little packs also come in a sugar-free option. For a 1 ½ pound tub, you’re looking at a setback of $20-24. They also offer three pound tubs for $29-35. Check out their website or call them at (870) 246-2796.
A thinner variation is the other Arkadelphia stalwart, Juanita’s Candy Kitchen. The thin butter-free brittle is almost crystalline -- the pecan version comes out almost clear. I dig on the cashew brittle most. They go through 350 pounds of sugar a day to knock out those big tubs. Those range from $11 for a 1 ½ pound tub of peanut brittle and $12.75 for the same in pecan or cashew to $23 for the three pound variety tub. They have a website, too, or you can call (870) 246-8542.  Diane’s Gourmet Luxuries over in the Market Street Shopping Center carries both companies' products.

Look further afield, and you might stumble upon some monk-created goodness. Subiaco Abbey does its own Abbey Brittle, made by the monks and their helpers. It’s more of a traditional peanut brittle, and comes just in 32 ounce cans for $25. Right now their website says it’s sold out, but I’m sure that’s probably just from the Christmas rush. Worth a check-back. It’s thicker than Andrew’s or Juanita’s, and not quite as hard.
I haven’t tried out some of the other brittle operations in town -- like Hamburg’s Toffee Time or Karen’s Candy Kitchen out of Gurdon. Chances are, I’d like their brittle, too. After all, I am an Arkansas girl.

Martin Greer makes brittle at his store in Gateway.
Then there’s brittle that’s so much more like what I remember being given in-family for gifts when I was a kid. Martin Greer’s Candies up in Gateway still makes their peanut brittle with butter and cream. It’s softer, and it has a particularly vanilla essence to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometimes those folks might dip it in chocolate; the strongly chocolate scented shop west of Eureka Springs is the only place I know where you can pick up chocolate covered pralines. The recipes haven’t changed in a century. It runs $11.90 a pound and you can order it on the company website or by calling (479) 656-1440.
Now, if you're the sort of person who just has to make it yourself, check out Foodista's Arkansas Peanut Brittle recipe.  Oh, if I only had the time today.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Revisiting Facci's.

We all have one, at least one restaurant that we go to not just for the food or the ambiance but for the memories evoked at that location. I’m blessed with several, and Facci’s Italian Ristorante is one. Fortunately, it’s the good food that keeps me coming back just as much as the memories.

I’ve written about the place before… back when I first started blogging about all the cool places I had been. Facci’s used to be the place my husband and I would stop for lunch or dinner when we were in Hot Springs back in our courting years. It’s where we chose to have our first post-nuptual meal together. And… as my friends have jokingly pointed out to me… then the place burned down. You can read all about it over at my Tie Dye Travels review from November 2007.

Thing is, this past year I’ve started this practice on my Facebook fan page, where I reference an Arkansas restaurant each weekday where readers can go find a good meal. And I get to Facci’s, and I look at the entry, and frankly I’m embarrassed. No, it has nothing to do with the food; I still recommend it to everyone who’s heading to Oaklawn or going down for Garvan Woodland Gardens.

It’s because the photos are terrible.

Let’s face it -- when I started Tie Dye Travels I was just a writer with a camera, not a very good camera at that. I snapped shots with no training or experience and just threw them up on the blog. But with time and patience has come a better understanding of how to convey a good dish through photography.

Finding myself in Hot Springs for the opening day of Oaklawn Racing Park, I just had to drop in and do it all over again. And that’s where this really gets funny to me. Because that little blog entry, that two year old posting combining the story of my favorite little Italian gem in Spa City and some truly deplorable shots that resembled those taken by visitors to Scotland out on Loch Ness… was posted ever so proudly in the foyer.

So that’s how I found myself at one of the dark little tables crowded inside the comfortable little house on Central Avenue, scanning the menu and chuckling, trying not to grin too big. Of course, the menu drew back my attention. I almost went for the $3.99 all-you-can-eat spaghetti, but with much running around Oaklawn still to be done, I didn’t want to drag. I ordered mostaccioli and my dining companion chose a sandwich.

We giggled over the menu, its frank descriptions entertaining. Things like “Cheap red wine: It’s red.” Yeah, that sort of thing.

I’d ordered the #2 lunch special -- soup or salad, mostaccioli and tea or coffee for $6.50. I had three choices for soup: Italian wedding, minestrone or cream of mushroom. Well, I just had to give the cream of mushroom a try, since it was housemade. Glad I did. The thick masala-like soup was creamy, but not in that congealed canned soup sort of way. Big hunks of mushroom littered the bowl, and the soup mated perfectly with fresh hot garlic bread.

The bread? Ah, yeah. I went ahead and ordered Foccacia Bread ($1.75) to go along with our lunch. I’m used to foccacia being thick spongy bread with some sort of cheese in it. At Facci’s, it’s a light six inch round, somewhere between a flatbread and a dinner roll, airy and a little salty. It and the garlic bread were served up together with a plate of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette for dipping, a perfect sweet and tart combination.

My dining companion chose a sandwich for lunch, the Italian Beef ($5.50). Out comes this big hunk of crusty bread stuffed with beef and white cheese, with a steaming bowl of au jus on the side. The sandwich bread was crunchy on the outside and studded with sesame seeds, the interior was soft and steamy, and the au jus was definitely housemade, very savory but not too salty. It was served up with French fries and ketchup, as are all lunch sandwiches.

My mostaccioli came out on a big platter, big tubes of pasta covered in mozzarella cheese and then the thick red sauce and finally a baseball sized meatball on top. The red sauce at Facci’s is very tomato-y, somewhere between a thick relish and a paste in consistency and the sort of clear tomato flavor you only get from homemade. The oregano is evident, but other spices hide behind the tomato like toddlers behind their mother’s skirts, playful yet bashful. The mozzarella is generous and binds the noodles together quite well. A lunch plateful tends to be about twice as much as I need; our hostess made the kind offer to box up half to take home, which I graciously accepted.

A good lunch, indeed, the sort of thing to stick to your ribs when the weather is cold, the sort of food that’ll get you through an afternoon at the races. I’ve already said a lot about the place. It’s that sort of place. I haven’t even delved into the delightful cannoli or my favorite dish on the menu, the Veal Scallopini. Well, I guess I’ll be making another blog entry eventually.

You’ll find Facci’s Italian Ristorante across the street from Oaklawn at 2900 Central Avenue. Their website seems to have passed the way of the dodo, but you can reach them at (501) 623-9049. They’re open 11am to 9pm Monday through Thursday and until ten on Fridays and Saturdays, closed on Sunday. And you can have a good laugh at my expense over that bad photography in the window. That’s all me. I claim it.

Facci's on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 8, 2010

Grillin' Up Good Eatin' at Blackwood's Grill and Gyros.

So, you want Greek food. In Conway. Well, you can get what you’re looking for at Blackwood’s Gyros and Grill. But you’d be missing out on a lot of you didn’t pay attention to all the neat stuff the restaurant has to offer.

It’s not a new place -- in fact, I believe it’s been in business about 20 years now. It’s just relatively new to me. My mom and I found the place while driving around one day in May 2009. It looked promising, so we walked on in. Our waitress greeted us with a smile, quick drink service and a lot of suggestions.

We scanned the menu and went for a couple of sandwiches. We decided to try out the spicy Feta dip ($1.95) that was served up with celery sticks. The dip was also a good match for the potato chips, a spicy mix of Cajun seasoning and Feta cheese you can also get as a spread on your sandwich .

Mom went for the signature Blackwood sandwich ($5.45), a Reuben with extras. The corned beef on rye also sported Swiss cheese, grilled onions and tomatoes, and a specialty sauce. You know my thing about Reubens -- I like them, and I’ve discovered a Reuben sandwich listed on more than 90 percent of Arkansas menus, no joke. And I have to tell you -- though I love Reubens, this one was far better. And in case you were asking -- yes, there’s a true Reuben on the menu, too.

I went for the Louisiana Rex ($7.29), a hunk of chicken breast cooked in Cajun spices and served up on a French bread roll with shredded Cheddar cheese and tomatoes with a hefty dash of mayo. Tasty, but not especially hot, which was fine with me.

We decided to share dessert -- and enjoyed Fried Ice Cream ($3.50) -- a deep fried pita topped with a cornflake-dipped and deep-fried ball of vanilla ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce and strawberries. Oh, man, it was good. I’m glad we only ordered the one, because it was rich. But oh so good.

So, of course we have to go back. And we did. She ordered up a salad and the Roy Allen ($6.49), an Italian sausage link sautéed up with peppers and onions in marinara sauce and topped with marinara on a French sourdough roll. The sandwich was so spicy Mom broke out in a sweat -- spicy, indeed. The salad was pretty decent, too.

Well, you know me. So many people ask me about where to find the best burger… and yes, one of these days I’ll do a post on the best burgers in the state. I’m sure Blackwood’s will qualify. See, there was this mention of the Giant Jerry Double D Burger ($10)… which was just listed as being a two patty giant burger. We order it -- but our waitress, perhaps surprised that anyone would order the monstrosity, put us in for a Giant Jerry D Burger ($6.89), which in itself is still a rather large burger. I didn’t recognize at first that this was a smaller burger… a 12 ounce burger served up on a French roll is pretty big in itself.

Our cook, though, came out and asked us if we really had ordered the Double D. And he whipped it up again, 24 ounces of burger (two long patties), a kitchen sink of condiments and two types of cheese and burger veggies that still managed to seem light compared to the sheer amount of meat on the bun. The only problem with that sort of burger is there’s no really good way to get it into your mouth. It took a lot of smushing, mashing, squeezing, and flattening to get it to oral-consumption size. In the end, I used a fork and didn’t even get halfway through. Thank goodness for little brothers who like burgers… he got our take-home box.

I’d gone for the onion ring upgrade -- a good choice, since the batter and onion were of excellent quality and cooked to a fantastic crisp. Chips come with all sandwiches, French fries are 75 cents extra and onion rings will run you $1.40 as a side.

So, dessert again. Of course we had to try something different. So we ordered up the Choc-Oliver Delight ($3.50), a seven or eight inch square hunk of moist chocolate cake topped with chocolate sauce and Cool Whip (not frosting) and Skor candy bar crumbles. It was good, it was an excellent but not overly sweet balance of cake and cream, and it was too much for the two of us to finish.

Blackwood’s Gyros and Grill is open from 10:30am to 9pm Monday through Saturday. It’s closed Sunday. You’ll find it at 803 Harkrider in Conway -- right by the bank and about a block away from Old Chicago Pizza and Doe’s Eat Place. Give it a try. Phone number is (501) 329-3924. Sorry, no website.

Blackwood's Gyros & Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Breakfast at Stoby's

Folks know Stoby's by its cheese dip.  That cheese dip is everywhere.  And it's good.  But that's not all there is to the restaurant.  In fact, there's a lot more than just the Stoby sandwich, too.  There's a whole lot of food on the menu.

My favorite meal at Stoby's is breakfast.  Now, usually I go for The Northerner ($6.49), corned beef hash and two eggs with a biscuit and hash browns.  I've just about become predictable with that, stopped looking at the menu years ago because I just knew what I wanted.  It was the same when I went to school at Arkansas Tech in the early 90s, the same when Stoby's opened up briefly while I was living in Jonesboro.  And it's the same when I can make my way up to Russellville in the morning hours.  Until now.

You see, I'm trying out new things, because if I know more of the menu of a place then I can share it with you.

I could already tell you about the fabulous biscuits, moist and a little cakey, soft and hot.  I could already sing the praises of Stoby's housemade strawberry jam, which comes served up in a squirt bottle for easy application along with a bottle of squirt Parkay.  The biscuits are just salty enough to make your mouth water; the jam reminiscent of homemade strawberry compote for shortcakes, that bright red that almost doesn't seem natural.  Yeah, I could tell you all about those.

But I decided to give the Ole' Omelette ($5.80) a try.  I mean, how could you go wrong with Stoby's chili, cheese and such.  I was well pleased.  The chili and the cheese do fine together with the egg, in a stick-to-your-ribs sort of way.  Paired up with a hearty bowl of grits, and you have a meal that won't leave you craving lunch.

So, I can't pass up talking about the cinnamon rolls, one of the best bargains you'll find in Russellville.  For a buck-85, you get this fresh baked confection of rolled dough and cinnamon, topped with a gooey frosting and pecans.  That and a cup of coffee is really all I need in the morning, but of course I always order more.  Sometimes I just get a cinnamon roll to go to much on later.  They're made across the parking lot over at PattiCakes, the bakery run by the same folks.   You know, the place with the fudge.

I've been talking all about the Russellville location -- mostly because that's where my heart lies as far as Stoby's goes.  I was happily introduced to the rail depot-encased restaurant when I was in college and it's still a big favorite of mine.  But if you don't want to drive that far, you can go to the Conway location.  The food's just as good.

You'll find the Russellville Stoby's on Parkway (wow, seems weird not to call it "D Street") a block west of Arkansas.  In Conway, it's on Donaghey north of UCA.  Oh, heck, just go look at the website.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

El Desayuno Huevos at Casa Manana in Little Rock.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more eye-opening breakfast than that served at Casa Manana.  Forget pancakes and bacon; the restaurant's fine selection of egg dishes come complete with tortillas, beans and enough heat to get you through a cold day like today.

And the coffee's just as hot as the food.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mamma's Makin' Breakfast at the Hayestack Cafe.

You gotta give credit to a place that actually has on its menu the listing "Green Eggs-n-Ham."  No kidding, there it is, complete with byline "includes home fries and biscuit or toast 7.95."  If that doesn't wake you up with a smile, I don't know what will.

See, that's the sort of attitude you can appreciate at Hayestack Cafe, a local joint that calls itself a "no-frills restaurant that serves good food."  How can you go wrong with that?

I dropped in the other day just to try it out.  And boy, let me tell you what.

Home cookin' at Eunice's

BIG SPREAD:  Plate lunches at Eunices
A good plate lunch can be the difference between a good afternoon and a strung-out, digestively rugged one. Really good plate lunches require decent portions, comfort foods and experience. All those things can be found at Eunice’s Country Cookin’ and Soul Food in Fort Smith.
The restaurant has been in operation since 1976, first over on Jenny Lind near Ramsey. The old place burned down in 1997, but the owners rebuilt out east off of Rogers the next year and it’s been open ever since.
The interior is blue — blue walls, blue chairs and ad-covered tables, the sort of tabletop you find in locally owned places that have good ties to the community. The décor is more old country home than country splendor, emphasizing old items like an ancient stove by the door and an old iron bike on the wall. There are pretty quilts, and the kitchen itself is back behind saloon doors.
There’s a simple menu that covers just about everything you might need in a plate lunch. The regular plate lunch is $6.41 with one meat and three sides, the mini $4.58 with just one side. Each comes with choice of roll or cornbread. Other menu items include sandwiches (BBQ Beef, Chicken, Sloppy Joe, Meatloaf), salads and Beans & Cornbread ($2.75). Chili is offered seasonally November through February.
Grav and I dropped in for a little comfort food
on a Monday afternoon. We placed our orders with the waitress, who told us she’d be back in a moment. She wasn’t far off — less than a minute later she delivered the small salads we had both ordered. I was envious of the blue cheese dressing Grav had chosen — it appeared to be made in-house, unlike the Thousand Island I had chosen. Both salads were iceberg lettuce and carrot shreds served with crackers.

One more minute and we’d received our food. He had chosen the Chicken Fried Steak with Brown Gravy (white is also available) as his meat, along with a side of mashed potatoes. The chicken was especially golden under the golden brown gravy. The crust was crisp with a nice savory batter over carefully tenderized beef, not too salty and very filling. The steak was alittle larger than normal but manageable.
I had chosen an old favorite, Beef over Rice, and was pleased to receive a huge bowl of beef served up in gravy. The rice was completely concealed underneath the brothy blend. It was especially hearty and filling. Other meat items include meatloaf, ham, roast beef with gravy, grilled chicken breast, Polish sausage with kraut, goulash with cheese and a daily special — which on this particular day was Beef Stroganoff.
I’d chosen macaroni and cheese as one of my sides, and it was deliciously ugly — I mean, it was delicious yet ragged in the way good baked macaroni tends to be. Grav and I both ordered up black eyed peas as our third side — being so close to the New Year it was a no-brainer. The peas were slightly sweet but required a little salt (for me) and Tabasco (for Grav).
They went perfectly, though, with the sweet white cornbread delivered along with our entrees. The squares are a little dry but combined with some of those peas or topped with some margarine they’re excellent.
There are a lot of other choices for side items, including sweet and sour slaw, pinto beans, green beans, turnip greens (sweetened — but why?), glazed carrots, cottage cheese, white rice, apple sauce and corn.

The portions are so large, though, that dessert is uncontemplatable. Among the selections were coconut cream pie, cherry cobbler, chocolate pie, cheesecake and pecan delight pie. I’d had every intention of trying one of the desserts, but it just wasn’t happening. I was stuffed, and I didn’t even make it all the way through my beef and rice.
The whole meal, drink and tax, came to $8.75. That’s not bad. What’s even better is the deal for parents. Eunice’s offers a High Chair Plate of three side items for kids under three years old for free. 
You’ll find Eunice’s at 3325 S.74th St next to Sam’s Club, less than a block off Rogers Avenue. The restaurant is open only for lunch, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The phone number is (479) 484-1465 and there is a Eunice‘s Facebook page.

Eunice's Country Cooking on Urbanspoon