1620: It's dishes have new look.
We remember Restaurant 1620 as the hot spot in the late 1980s, when it was first opened by a group that spun off from Jacques and Suzanne, which then sold it in the mid-1990s to chef Evette Brady. Now long established under Brady’s ownership in West Little Rock as one of the city’s best fine-dining restaurants, it’s still an experience not to be missed.
It’s been noted for its versatility, serving as a premier candlelit romantic spot for couples dressed to the nines, as well as an unpretentious, consistent and creative “continental” cuisine eatery for diners in casual attire.
Brady, according to her nephew, Timothy Morton, has moved into semi-retirement, but is still keeping a watchful eye on the restaurant. Morton handles the chef duties and another of Brady’s nephews, Don Strickland, is sous chef and is known affectionately around the restaurant as the “souffle king.” Morton’s wife and other Brady relatives also can be found around 1620.
Recalling those early days of Restaurant 1620, we “rediscovered” the restaurant recently and decided it may be our new favorite restaurant again. In fact, the 1620 of today may be as good as it’s ever been.
The nightly specials are so inventive, interesting and attractive in description, diners may not make it to the regular menu items. Who could turn down trying (and ultimately loving) a hollandaise sauce with grapefruit and jalapeno reduction to accompany a tender veal chop, or the smoked chicken salad with cilantro saffron vinaigrette, watercress, chili oil, crumbled corn tortilla and avocado? That’s just two of many specials we encountered in two visits during the past month.
Morton learned to cook under Brady’s watchful eye as early as 8 years old, apprenticed for her while a teen, and attended the School of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. He worked for a couple of major Atlanta restaurant companies, including Buckhead Life Group, before starting a catering company there that garnered several awards.
He returned in 1999 to help his aunt, bringing his experimental nature to the nightly specials with “an appetite of a big boy,” he told us. Diners can find any number of regular presentations of meat, fowl or fish; but, Morton seems to take devilish delight in “hitting them with something different” in his specials. Some of these specials have become so special, Morton noted, that they’ve been added as regular items, such as the Maytag blue cheese salad with papaya vinaigrette.
Fish is shipped in daily, and Morton welcomes shipments from throughout the country of other produce anywhere from two to four times a week to determine the direction of his concoctions. “I love a challenge,” he said.
We noted a Southern approach to the specials on our first visit: a black-eyed pea cake sat in the middle of a massive plate featuring a large chunk of fried salmon bathed in blue cornmeal batter. Our companion devoured her jazzed-up medallions of beef tenderloin served over a grit cake and a wine sauce reduction.
Morton notes that while there are French and Southwestern style restaurants, he’s found no restaurants in the region with a real sense of Southern food, the type he was raised on. He said he hopes one day to open a fine-dining Southern-influenced restaurant “with a twist,” and some of the specials at 1620 allow him to gauge the interest.
From our vantage point, we say: here, here, go for it.
The typical 1620 experience starts with a server placing your napkin in your lap for you, and water glasses filled. Your waiter — and 1620 has a veteran staff — has spent a portion of his late afternoon memorizing the difficult-to-describe specials and in turn presents them in an appealing way.
We tried what we’re told is maybe the most popular appetizer, a combination plate of crab claws ($15.95) presented three ways: over ice cubes, drenched in garlic butter and lightly fried in a flaky, deliciously seasoned batter. A gouda salad features mixed greens and deep-fried portions of the cheese with a light dressing, was another hit.
A cup of Cuban beef stew is the day’s soup, and it’s the best deal anywhere at $2.95. This robust concoction of fresh-cut tomatoes, onions and garbanzo beans imparted a rich flavor with some kick at the end.
Fluffy cream-cheese mashed potatoes accompanied the best veal chop we’ve had in perhaps, forever, and we still can’t get over the hollandaise.
Our fish special selection was wahoo, a flaky Pacific Rim catch, served over wild rice and carrots with a peach cilantro reduction and avocado, a perfect choice for the warming weather. The fish is steamed, probably in foil, leaving a light brown crusting. Our only complaint was that it was served scorching hot, steam was still emanating from the core for a few minutes, and it didn’t live up to the moist expectations.
For dessert, the peanut butter chocolate souffle won us over with its St. Cecelia cream sauce. Souffles need to be ordered at least 25 minutes in advance, and with the large portions of the entrees, plus the addictive mixed breads that accompany dinner, you may not leave enough room. Somehow find it, because any of the soufflé choices are worth it.
Restaurant 1620 offers several popular wines (our favorite in this particular grouping, the La Crema pinot noir) at $34 a bottle, and others at $27, all of these same wines by the glass. There are other choices for even pricier tastes.
1620 Market St.
The crab claws are regarded as the best appetizer, and we’d agree they’re great. Get the combination plate.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Expensive. Credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended. Full bar.