Forty Two is the best restaurant we've been to in recent memory that requires walking through a metal detector. That it's tucked away on the bottom floor of the Clinton Presidential Center is at once an asset and a setback. Parking isn't close, you have to contend with the security needs of a major presidential library, the restaurant is only open for lunch, and you can't even see it from the front of the building.
But if those things have kept you from going in the past, it's in your best interest to let go of some of that and give it a shot. It's a simple and beautiful space, complete with a wonderful view of the Clinton Presidential Center Park Bridge. The staff is friendly. The atmosphere is sophisticated without being too stodgy, and the food is solid without being overpriced.
The decor may imbue diners with nostalgia for the good ol' days, when 42 himself sat in the Oval Office. The walls are lined with blown-up images of the Clintons attending balls and stately dinners. The flattering pictures of our former first lady certainly ask diners to once again ponder what might have been were it not for Russian meddling in the last election.
The only Russian influence you'll find here is in a turkey Reuben, which we decided against. We did order the 4 Alarm Cheeseburger ($11), a special item on the day we visited. Blackened 1855 dry-aged ground beef with house pickled jalapenos, melted pepper jack cheese and Sriracha aioli all meld together between an Arkansas Fresh Bakery brioche bun.
This may sound a bit off, but the burger was so well executed it almost seems unremarkable. They make it look easy, is what we're trying to say. Under the hood, the fixin's looked quite a mess: a mix of melty cheese and aioli coating pickled jalapenos. But the delicious, buttery Arkansas Fresh bun held everything together well. The burger was easy to eat and a pleasure to taste. The meat was well seasoned and cooked to a nice medium temperature. The jalapenos added a warm kick that was soothed by the aioli.
We passed on the complimentary chips and went for the sweet potato fries ($3) instead. They come served with either spicy strawberry jam or wasabi aioli. We asked for both. The wasabi aioli was exceptional. It's a great complement to the sweet potato, and the wasabi gives it that nice nasally oomph that only wasabi or a really strong mustard can give you. The spicy strawberry jam wasn't very spicy at all and tasted like little more than what you'd put atop toast.
On the lighter side, Forty Two offers a variety of salads. We went with the Sesame Crusted Yellowfin Tuna Salad ($15). We're glad we did. This is now one of our favorite salads in Little Rock. Sesame-crusted tuna tops a bed of baby kale and arugula, shredded broccoli slaw, chili-roasted edamame, julienned red bell peppers and burnt peanuts. It's all tossed in candied garlic vinaigrette and drizzled with a bit of Asian chili oil. (Just to look at it is a treat.) The roasted edamame were deliciously spiced and gave the salad some needed heat. The red bell peppers were fresh and sweet. The tuna was given a bit of a sear and served slightly warm with a sesame seed crust. It was delicate, gave way to the teeth very easily and had that wonderful flavor you find in good sushi restaurants. All of the ingredients — down to the lettuce — were high quality.
You shouldn't pass on dessert. The rose and honey creme brulee ($5) had a flavor that was unexpected and delightful. We're not sure we've ever eaten rose before, but in this recipe it presents a very light, springy, floral, pleasant taste that marries well with honey and cream. It had the nice burned top you'd expect.
Forty Two left us completely satisfied. The staff recommended excellent dishes. The room itself was airy and bright. And we had an excellent and speedy-enough lunch without breaking the bank. We'd call it presidential if that didn't sound like an insult these days.
Clinton Presidential Center
The dessert menu varies, but there's usually a chocolate offering and there's always a chocolate lover at the table. The chocolate torte ($5) was a hit. It was lovely, dense and fudgy. It came with a dollop of whipped cream and blackberries that help cut the richness a bit.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Full bar; the beer menu includes craft beers from Lost Forty Brewing. Credit cards accepted.