As we reported on Eat Arkansas
last week, Velo Rouge Brasserie has opened on the corner of President Clinton Ave. and Cumberland, in the space that once housed Nu.
Velo Rouge is the first concept developed by Riviera Restaurant Group. Rebekah Hardin, who was part of the team behind Nu, remains a part of Riviera; she declined to identify other investors. Little Rock-native Robbie Lewis, who's spent the last 16 years in San Francisco, steadily racking up accolades as the chef for two of the city's finest restaurants, Jardinière and Bacar, is the executive chef for the restaurant group.
Yesterday at Velo Rouge, Hardin and Lewis stressed that the new restaurant is no Nu. "This isn't a pinkie in the air spot," Lewis said. "It's somewhere you can come wearing whatever and chug a beer and have a steak." The decor, which you can see below, is all warm lighting and stained white oak.
The menu is typical brasserie cuisine, "lots of proteins and fried things," said Lewis. Entrées range from $16, for the roasted free-range chicken, to $59 for a 48-oz bone-in Ribeye meant for two. There is a variety of tasty-looking appetizers — duck leg, fried whitefish and vegetables, homemade gnocchi, pork belly — and a handful of "bar bites," low-priced appetizers like crab beignets, pommes frites (fries) and Parmesan puffs. There's also focused and impressive wine list by the bottle and glass along with a full bar.
Lewis is still serving as the executive chef at Bacar in San Fran, though he says he hopes to eventually move his family back to Arkansas. In the meantime, Lewis has brought in a "pedigreed" team to run Velo Rouge and said he'll be in Arkansas month to month to supervise the brasserie and to monitor progress on Restaurant Artesia, the second project Riviera is planning for the Heritage East building.
Artesia, as its name sort of suggests, will be more artisanal, a "chef-as-artist-restaurant" that will reflect Lewis' cooking style. It will be "sleek and pretty and comfortable," Lewis said. "Hopefully, the kind of restaurant you could find in LA or New York City." Lewis concedes that Ashley's probably has fine dining wrapped up in the city and suggests that Restaurant Artesia will be "less austere and formal." It will seat 50 and 50 in a private dining room and will only be open for dinner and special events.
"It will for sure be the best food in the city," Lewis said with a grin.
In San Francisco, Lewis' cooking style has been intensely market driven (he has a full-time forager who goes to markets every day searching out produce and meats). He makes his menu daily depending on what's available. Transitioning that idea, from the mecca of fresh markets to Arkansas, will be difficult, Lewis acknowledges, but he says he's prepared to work with local producers to help them understand the market and develop an infrastructure, "even if it means getting a bunch of farmers together and putting on a cooking demonstration."
Lewis says he's eying Valentine's of next year to open Artesia. Meanwhile, lunch and happy hour will begin at Velo Rouge in about two weeks, Lewis and Hardin say. Until then, the kitchen will be open 5 p.m.-midnight seven nights a week.