Let’s get this out the way at the start. Studio 69 gets its name from the jersey number of the owner, Victor Allotey, who played professional football for the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Don’t feel bad — we were wondering, too. From its name you would never know that this restaurant and nightclub offers authentic Caribbean cuisine, along with soul food and a few other dishes that straddle several cultures (Jamaican Jerk Chicken Alfredo?).
It’s a risky venture, not least because it is housed in a building that has seen its share of failed dining enterprises. Tuesday USA, a Cajun restaurant, was the most recent previous tenant at the State and Markham location; it’s housed Italian and Mexican joints as well, and in late 1998/early 1999 featured a hot nightclub on the second floor.
Studio 69 still has some work to do, but we hope it succeeds, because it turns out a nice product. Not to mention that Little Rock could use a little more diversity in its menu options, and a few more places to eat downtown.
In the interest of full disclosure, you need to know that scheduling a dinner reservation proved so difficult that our cover was blown. First we were told the restaurant was serving food, then we were told it wasn’t. This went on and on until finally we took advantage of what we thought might be the only opportunity to eat there, anonymity be damned.
Allotey is the chef, having learned his trade at the side of his Jamaican-born mother in the Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment where he was raised. On the evening we visited, he prepared a "tour of Jamaica," which included a sample portion of his signature dishes: Jamaican jerk chicken, curry shrimp, curry chicken, and rice and peas. Our group also shared jerk chicken wings and Jamaican beef patties as appetizers.
If you only remember one thing from this review, let it be this: You can’t go wrong if you order one of the jerk-seasoned items. (Studio 69 also offers jerk pork, shrimp, salmon, and turkey.)
The wings were outstanding. One of our dinner partners — a sophisticated, well-traveled guy — pronounced them "the best I ever had." Coated with a spicy dry rub, the wings managed to have a crispy skin and juicy interior without being greasy. We weren’t as impressed with the beef patties, which reminded us of a cafeteria hot pocket. They were definitely greasy, and the mushy beef filling was not particularly tasty.
As for the main course, the jerk chicken was again the standout. We liked the curry chicken, too, although the seasoning was muted and earthy, and not as spicy as we would have preferred. The curry worked better with the chicken than the shrimp, which were the very small kind. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the rice and peas, probably because there was some jerk seasoning included, but we can’t be certain about that.
It must be said that the atmosphere at Studio 69 lowered our expectations about the quality of the food. The primary dining area, which is downstairs, was undergoing renovations, so we ate upstairs, which is clearly designed to be a nightclub. There is a bar, a DJ booth and a stage for a live band. On each table was a very impressive champagne list, including everything from Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante ($35 a bottle) to Dom Perignon ($250) and Cristal ($350).
We can vouch for the quality of one of the drink offerings, a West Indian rum fruit punch that we drank with dinner. The printed menu includes a few other island beverages that would make nice substitutes for margaritas if your happy hour crew wants to try something more exotic.
Studio 69 is open for lunch on weekdays, and offers an array of sandwiches and salads in addition to its full entrees.
Allotey is a talented chef who is making a unique contribution to the Central Arkansas dining scene. We hope he can get things running smoothly soon, and make "69" a great place to eat out.
Studio 69 Restaurant and Lounge
801 West Markham St.
Authentic Caribbean cuisine and soul food served at lunch on weekdays, and dinner seven days a week. The kitchen stays open until 1 a.m., although at 10 p.m. both levels adopt a nightclub atmosphere. They are applying for a private club license.
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily.
Moderate prices. All credit cards accepted. Full bar, including impressive champagne list.