Jerry Barakat didn’t wait long to fill his vacant space off Rahling Road after moving his Gaucho’s Grill further east to Shackleford Drive. The veteran Little Rock restaurateur, who has taken on all types of food offerings (Spanish tapas, Asian fusion, Mediterranean, Brazilian churrascaria) his way, rather than buying into expensive nationwide franchises, has delved into what he describes as authentic Mexican Caribbean seafood, and more, at Blue Agave Grill.
Just as Gaucho’s wasn’t necessarily just off every Little Rockian’s beaten path — situated way out west before its move to Shackleford — and was hidden somewhat in the back of Barakat’s restaurant fiefdom off Rahling, it takes some looking to find Blue Agave Grill at first, but it’s well worth the search.
What you’ll find is a sea treasure of delights.
We enjoyed two recent visits there, one in which we dabbled throughout the menu with friends and another stop late one evening in which just two of us took in specialty drinks and appetizer-style portions. Across the board, every item was prepared wonderfully.
Such entrees as the Veal Blue Agave (a stuffed veal scallopini) and the paella are not to be missed. Salads and soups offer many layers of depth. For a more Mexican approach, Blue Agave presents tacos of eight different fish varieties, or other meats if you still haven’t caught on to the new fish taco trend that’s hit the market.
A full bar covers the gamut, and the wine choices are broad. But to get in the spirit of things, we chose a Blue Agave margarita. A tropical flavoring nearly hid the tequila at first, but then the tequila also sank into the taste buds, and we soon pictured ourselves beach-bound. The drink was the blue-green color of a hideway bay in the Virgin Islands, and before long we were staring at the beach-like mural that covers one of the restaurant’s walls.
Barakat hasn’t had to change much from the space’s Brazilian predecessor, except for what comes from the kitchen — somewhat. Our foursome on our first visit summoned the queso fundido and calamari strips for appetizers.
If you’re familiar with other restaurants’ attempts at queso fundido, you know a lot of it is the show where the waiter flames cheese and mushrooms, and you wait until the blue flame dies down and then you dig in by spooning the white cheese mixture (and add-ons such as chorizo, which we recommend, or grilled shrimp or chicken) onto tortillas. We didn’t have enough tortillas on first go-round, but they’re quick to bring out more.
The calamari steak slices, tenderized by a sauteing with garlic, olive oil and lemon and lime juice, were huge hit.
Veal Blue Agave is listed under the house specialties, and deservedly first, in fact. If there were a better specialty on the list, we’d probably faint dead away, as the veal was as tender as any we’ve had, and it was accentuated by a chili hollandaise sauce. Oh, and did we mention that the breaded veal was stuffed with shrimp, cheese and avocados? It’s one of the best dishes we’ve had in the city in quite some time.
There are variations on the “Blue Agave” house specialty list with chicken, pork and duck. One of our companions enjoyed the tender pork, which was stuffed with pistachios, cranberries, mandarin oranges and cheese with a jalapeno cream sauce. This offsetting of a hot sauce against a sweet or fruity taste is found throughout the menu (especially in the salad dressings like the mango chipotle that tops the fresh-tasting shrimp tequila salad). The sweet potato mash that accompanied the entree drew praise as well.
Paella Espanola, Barakat later told us, is a West Indies style version of the Spanish rice casserole. It was loaded with such seafood as shrimp, mussels and calamari as well as pork and chicken.
Our taco eater wouldn’t venture toward the fish, but was OK with her Havana tequila lime chicken tacos, but they weren’t the strong suit of the dinner. If you do try the fish tacos — and we will soon enough — prices range from $12.95 for mahi mahi to $16 for halibut. You can also make the tacos with rib-eye, shrimp and pork (sounds a lot like Gaucho’s, come to think of it).
Barakat doesn’t boast when he says the “best deal” in the city is his Siete Mares (“Seven Seas”), which is another name for a Caribbean-style bouillabaisse. It’s chockfull of large shrimp cooked to perfection, along with mussels, calamari strips and scallops. All for $7.50 and served in a deep-dish plate.
The dessert choices at Blue Agave include cheesecakes that they also have downstairs at Jasmine’s/Sesame’s, also owned by Barakat.
It’s all good eating, and service is friendly and informed, and the final price tag on the meal doesn’t cause heartburn.
3 Rahling Circle (off Chenal Parkway and Rahling Road)
Groups will want to order the Queso Fundido to start, and add some chorizo. The Veal Blue Agave is an outstanding entrée.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday for lunch; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday for dinner. Closed Sunday.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.