- BONE-IN TO PICK WITH YOU
We wonder why the most borrowed template for fine dining is the French bistro. Certainly delicious, but not the fanciest cuisine France has to offer. The archetypal steak frites is a hunk of meat, some starch, and maybe a salade verte as afterthought, drowned in vin ordinaire, all served in a usually dark, red room with some cute local tchotchkes on the wall. Gallic T.G.I. Friday's, if you will. The skate wings on blood orange Grenobloise and lavender-scented plank roasted chickens that have followed, no matter how tasty, are a bit ridiculous in the face of perfect, indelicate onion soup with a Gruyere crouton.
Thus, we approached Velo Rouge with not the best attitude. A bistro with two entrees under $20 (one a steamed vegetable plate, at that) raises our hackles. This is, if we remember our European history, somewhere the Jacobins would smash. So let's talk about how we were wrong. First, about those steak frites. Velo Rouge does traditional, and many other dishes well. Very well. We avoided onion soup because it wasn't really cold enough to warrant it, but in the interest of tradition, we got some bistro chestnuts. The steak frites seemed dear at $29, but when it came, it was clear that you weren't eating the tough, gamey hanger steak sometimes pushed out of a bistro kitchen. It was a choice, near buttery cut of meat. And the frites? A good restaurant, let alone a bistro, can live or die by a French fry. These? To die for. Richly flavored, perfectly seasoned, and cooked in our mind to perfect, spun sugar crispness. Trout en papillote (“Paper bag fish,” as one of my dinner companions noted tartly) was tender and flakey — perhaps under-seasoned, but served with herbs and lemon on the side. The scallops with “crushed” (mashed) potatoes were cooked to springy, silky perfection.
What didn't work about this successful showing was that it was the second act in an otherwise messy production. Our previous appetizers and drink service were pokily served, and not much to write home about. The pear and endive salad was predictably fresh and tasty. The crab beignets, while not crab heavy, were well-fried and prepared. Things went south from there. The Parmesan puffs at $3, while priced to move, are curls of adequate puff pastry sprinkled with scant cheese and placed on forgettable marinara. The pork belly with Savoy cabbage and mustard (at $9, a surprising value for its size) proved disappointing for the opposite reason. It was a luxurious, and for Little Rock, ambitious dish. Well, it would've been had the pork belly not been so overcooked — a tasty crackling crust hid a tough (though generous) chunk of pork. By contrast, the cabbage was delicious — a tasty nod to both high-tone choucroute and low-end sauerkraut.
On top of that, there were some pretty glaring flaws in the service. A bottle of ketchup (for the frites, we swear) our table asked for was never seen nor heard from. Instead, a glass of wine was rather passive-aggressively “offered.” Entrees came out slowly, albeit warm, despite a request for fast service (one of our companions had a later engagement). The problem may have been in the kitchen on that one. What clearly wasn't the kitchen's fault was an annoying bill mix-up, adding 15 minutes to an already protracted dinner. (Call me a boorish American, but the unending, five-hour French service tradition is not one I get much joy from.) A shame, since the dessert was flawless, if picayune. The chocolate pot de creme and tarte tatin come recommended.
We are hesitant to too harshly criticize a restaurant in its first week of operation, especially when it hasn't even started its lunch service. Our problems with Velo Rouge could be fixed almost instantly with a bit more attentive service, a bit more care in the kitchen, and a few aggressively priced lunch specials. Even with the high ceilings and glass storefront, Velo Rouge is cozy and inviting in a way that previous occupant Nu's “Jetsons”-lite table settings weren't. Velo Rouge's virtues make us want to call it our favorite spot. But we could stand to be enticed.
225 E. Markham
Service is in growing pains, with ambitious, if flawed appetizers, though the salads are dependable. Entrees don't disappoint, especially the scallops and near perfect steak frites. Desserts, while small, are top notch. $16-$30 entrees.
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. Dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Entrees run 20+ on average, making a full dinner pricey, if tasty. All major credit cards accepted. Luxurious full bar for waits (expect them), small,
quirky wine list.