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Acadia: Not just Hillcrest's shining jewel

A daring chef makes it among the best around.

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ADVENTURES: Acadia's plates are a trip to the glories of the Food Network.
  • ADVENTURES: Acadia's plates are a trip to the glories of the Food Network.
We live not far from Hillcrest’s business district on Kavanaugh Boulevard. We try to not get into the habit of staying just in the neighborhood when reviewing restaurants; but, on the other hand, we seem to spend a lot of time outside the area, going from one end of Little Rock to the other, simply in search of a good meal. We sometimes forget the gem almost hidden before our eyes. That gleaming jewel, we’re here to tell you after three recent visits, is Acadia, which has been around Hillcrest since 1999. Chef and owner James Hale’s creations should rank him among the capital city’s culinary geniuses. Venturing into Acadia for is like stepping into a series of Food Network episodes and trying everything that’s being featured. The soup always seems to be some rich and hearty bisque or chowder; the range of appetizers will suit varying tastes; the salads are never simple, and the pastas and entrees, as with the appetizers, can be daring while still pleasing any appetite. Acadia has grown in recent years, adding a multi-level deck that can seat about 32 diners. Inside, a cozy bar awaits you straight ahead, and the tables in the adjacent dining room, seating 44, are spaced in a way that doesn’t put one diner on top of the other, or curtail the desire for pleasant conversation. The wine list features anything from familiar, modestly priced bottles to expensive celebratory offerings, plus a good collection from boutique wineries not found elsewhere in this area. Acadia offers a three-course fixed-price special on Mondays and Tuesdays. At $21.50, it’s a terrific bargain. Your waiter might even warn you that selected servings for the fixed-price special will be slightly smaller than you’d find with the basic serving — don’t worry about that. For example, our appetizer serving of a shrimp and goat-cheese crepe with a jalapeno-and-peach chutney was plenty for two of us to share and appreciate the wonderful balancing of the fiery pepper, fruitiness and the cheesy seafood crepe. Same with the pan-seared scallops — large, moist, sweet and tender — which was still plenty large enough an entree along with its spinach-and-artichoke bread pudding and roasted corn veloute (in layman’s terms, a white cream sauce). Some of the entrees we tried were rich almost beyond reason: to wit, penne pasta tossed with crawfish tails and spinach with blue cheese cream sauce. We dusted off the tender tails and were forced to leave nearly half the pasta. One of us tried the soup — a creamy barbecue corn chowder that to our companion didn’t sound as good as it would prove to taste, with only a light barbecue flavor that blended well with the sweet corn. Meanwhile, our companion went with the Caesar salad, which was basic in one respect — the light coating of garlicky dressing on romaine — and a stepping-out in another with a tomato and bacon salsa. That’s not salsa in the Tex-Mex sense of the word; rather, the quartered tomatoes were marinated in vinegar, and maybe were a little too puckering for our tastes, but the bacon added yet another unique flavor to what could’ve been an average salad. The way our three-course combinations were fitting this night, only one of us could order dessert, and again that was fine as we shared spiced peaches and a thick, rich amaretto mousse. Yet another visit, not on a fixed-price night, allowed us to try Acadia’s beef: The special was a humongous portion of tenderloin, easily 12 ounces, with a caramelized-shallots-and-rosemary demiglace, each bite of the perfectly cooked (medium rare) beef decidedly different. Goat cheese potatoes au gratin (another large portion) and green beans with caramelized onions completed the plate. We began and ended this meal with concoctions that again displayed Hale and his staff’s skills with the spice rack, and in particular with cayenne pepper, which in others’ hands can border on dangerous. In this case, a pinch in the lobster bisque along with some brandy elevated this soup offering into the spectacular realm. The homemade fudge ice cream also included a dash of cayenne and opened our taste buds to the best of both worlds: five seconds of heavenly sweet and chilled cream, then five seconds of mild afterburn at the back of the throat. Desserts change nightly under the guidance of dessert chef Davis Clement, we’re told, and some are made out of house. We’ve come to love the Domaine Alfred vintage featured by the glass at Acadia — its chardonnay and pinot noir from this smaller California winery complement anything we’ve had on the menu. A knowledgeable, attentive and yet unobtrusive wait staff also makes for an enjoyable experience. The intimate indoor setting of Acadia with its dark walls, soft track lighting and candles on each table make it one of Little Rock’s true romantic dinner getaways. But we can understand the folks who would want to sit outside on a nice evening, where there is probably no better place to dine while watching the world go by on Kavanaugh.

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