From the outside, E's Bistro in North Little Rock looks like any number of Central Arkansas storefronts, so anonymous that we drove right past the place on our first time through. Once we made our way back down the street and inside the small restaurant, we found ourselves in a cozy, well-decorated eating space hung with art and with a fresh flower on each table. We were seated by a young man who was dressed as well as any server we've seen: starched white shirt, pressed black pants, and with the friendly-yet-not-overbearing manner that fine restaurants seem to cultivate. The dining room itself was sparsely populated with patrons, though, something that had us worried that perhaps the folks near E's knew something we didn't — few occupied tables usually mean the food isn't worth eating. After eating a meal there, however, we feel that maybe the opposite is true and that maybe we know something that other folks don't: With a combination of excellent service, delicious food and shockingly low prices, E's Bistro deserves to be among the elite dining establishments in the city.
The first thing that caught our eye when we entered the restaurant was a Crab Cake and Fried Green Tomato ($7) special, and while we try to stick to menu items that are available all the time, we also have a severe weakness for crab cakes. Our gamble on the special paid off well with a golden-brown cake of sweet, succulent lump crab meat just barely held together by the smallest amount of bread crumbs. Bite after bite was a study in contrasting textures: slightly crunchy on the outside, tender and firm in the middle. The fried green tomato was also a tasty treat, but with a crab cake of this caliber on the plate, we're afraid the Southern delicacy was forced to play second fiddle.
As a companion to our crab cake appetizer, we ordered the Hummus Duo ($5), a fresh tasting mix of black beans, chickpeas, cucumber and garlic served with lightly fried pita chips. This dip was as far away from traditional hummus as can be, but the flavor was so good that we didn't care a bit. Deep, rich bean flavor on first taste gave way to the fresh flavor of cucumber, and the house-made pita chips were crispy with just a little bit of chewiness to them — far preferable to the rock-hard variety so often found. As with the crab cake, flavors and textures were in perfect balance here, with no ingredient out of place.
By the time our entrees arrived, we were already discussing with some surprise how good everything had been. The trend continued with the Tomato Pie ($10), one of E's vegetarian dishes and the sort that puts the lie to the idea that meatless eating is no fun. The pie here is a phyllo shell filled with slices of tomato and shredded cheese, then baked into a crispy, gooey combination of good flavor and crunch. To balance the richness of the pie, it's served with a mixed green salad dressed with just a touch of light vinaigrette and a small pile of fresh fruit. Heartier eaters may think it too little for their appetites by that description, but we were stuffed full after finishing the plate.
Fish lovers will find a lot to love about E's as well, and we spent some time waffling between the Pan-Seared Salmon ($17) and the Crunchy Fish Tacos ($11), finally settling on the latter. What arrived at our table, much like the hummus, was something outside the norm of what we're used to with a fish taco — and once again the playful variation was a homerun. Toasted flour tortillas were piled with crisp-fried white fish, pickled cabbage, cherry tomatoes, fresh avocado, and a light sprinkle of feta cheese, then drizzled with a balsamic reduction that was both tangy and sweet. There was a lot going on with this dish, and while we could have used just a touch more spice and acidity, these were still some very fine tacos, especially the slices of ripe, buttery avocado. The tacos had a black bean and onion side with them that made a nice, earthy companion to the light and airy tacos.
We would have ended our meal there, except that the table next to us ordered a piece of chocolate cake that looked so good that we couldn't resist. E's chef Elizabeth McCullen makes different fresh desserts daily, so while we can't guarantee this cake will be there every time, it was certainly enough to prove that dessert is necessary at E's. Moist chocolate cake was layered with a slightly tangy white cream, then topped with a light chocolate buttercream that had even those of us at the table who aren't huge fans of sweets going back for bite after bite. It was a great end to a near-perfect meal.
Given the quality of the food, we've been hard pressed to come up with many places that are as good a value as E's Bistro. It's a truly gourmet experience that can be had without breaking the bank, even down to the elegance of the service and decor. E's may lack the extensive wine lists and posh locations that some of Central Arkansas's other palaces of fine dining enjoy, but with food this good, it's impossible to leave E's out of the picture.