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A winning Packet House revival

Menu, service and atmosphere impress.

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When a certain redhead of whom we're extremely fond was a young girl growing up in Stuttgart, she envied her parents and their friends going to Little Rock for an occasional fine meal. She heard about Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne and the Packet House, but by the time she was old enough to experience them, both were gone.

Soon after we walked through the gorgeous stained glass doors and sat down inside the recently reopened Packet House Grill, she got a tear in her eye — a date-night moment she thought would never come. Her decade-older companion had eaten at the old Packet House as a right-out-of-college rookie journalist, and what brought a tear to his eye was not reminiscing about the place but the quality of the food and overall experience.

Owner/chef Wes Ellis has achieved a nice balance at his Packet House Grill — sophisticated but approachable Southern cuisine that is reasonably priced, delivered by fun, friendly but not hokey servers — in a space that mixes old and new, sophisticated and comfortable.

Despite a large post-happy-hour crowd, service was prompt. The first arrival was a plate of three mundane rolls that looked like Pepperidge Farm, and they went untouched. But what followed — a bowl of butternut squash soup, the "Topping Trio" and the seafood Bienville — were scarfed in their entirety and with gusto.

The soup was creamy as in silky smooth and rich, but not a cream-based soup. The taste of the squash came right through, and the accompanying flavors were subtle. The large bowl was well worth $6.

The Topping Trio ($9) is a neat, well-executed concept — three decent sized dishes of tasty treats served with slices of toasted baguette. Deeply caramelized onions studded with diced bacon were sweet, salty and kicked up a notch or three in heat, probably with red pepper. Homemade pimiento cheese is all the rage today, and the Packet House Grill's is in the Capital Hotel Bar and Grill's class, a mix of shredded yellow and white cheeses, with flecks of pimiento and green onion, very lightly bound. We weren't as keen on the large scoop of black olive tapenade. It was rich, a bit overly salty — as olives tend to be — yet not too oily.

We adored the Seafood Bienville ($12), which featured diced shrimp and oysters in a creamy but not over-the-top-rich sauce. A layer of Gruyere and breadcrumbs made for a cheesy, crunchy topping, and it too came with baguette toast. We might make this our main course on our next trip.

We saw the shrimp and grits — another all-the-rage Southern dish these days — on its way to a nearby table. There were five grilled shrimp and two huge puck-shaped grit cakes alongside that we'd call polenta. Given that viewing, we were surprised the grilled shrimp entree ($20) was a few bucks higher since it included the same five shrimp but with pureed cauliflower and a few well-prepared haricots verts. Grilling shrimp is always dicey; it's so easy to overcook them. These walked the line but clung narrowly to the good side — the grilled taste came through and they weren't leathery. Cauliflower isn't our favorite, but the puree was creamy. The long, thin green beans were just a hair past al dente and delicious.

The cheapest item on the menu at $13.50, the "Mac N Cheese," may very well be the best entree in the house. This rock star features what in Italy is known as conchiglie, or small shells, in a creamy sauce with slivers of wild mushrooms, chunks of salty, house-made bacon — the melange topped with a layer of gooey Gruyere and breadcrumbs. This is not your granny's mac-n-cheese. The 'shrooms offer an earthy taste complement; the bacon bites make the dish seem reminiscent of carbonara. This is a winner. Try it.

There were three desserts available — all homemade, all intriguing and each uncommonly low priced at $4: a peanut butter and jelly cheesecake, a s'mores cheesecake and a walnut bread pudding. The s'mores cheesecake featured a thick layer of chocolate cheesecake on a graham cracker crust topped with oozy marshmallow cream with graham cracker dust sprinkled on top. It was fabulous and plate-licking good.

The bread pudding was more spice cake-like in texture and taste, studded with walnuts and topped with a scoop of brown sugar ice cream. We like most bread puddings, but they sometimes are a little wet and gooey; we appreciated the different approach here. It too disappeared.

The Packet House Grill menu isn't huge, but it has variety. There are two steaks, trout, a pork chop and a variety of salads — none appealing enough to add to our already large meal, but we did see a few, and they are huge.

The food can definitely hold its own, but the ambiance is a big part of the new Packet House's appeal. Swanky light fixtures and other modern appointments accessorize the historic building. The art is first-class. There's a comfortable vibe, and it was easy to feel that folks were enjoying the experience of just being there — whether it was their first time, like the redhead, or they were returning to the scene of some decades-old, plate-cleaning crimes.

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