There we were, at a restaurant known for daring entrees of both the meat and seafood variety, eyeing a choco-holic’s dream. The Vermillion Water Grille waiter called it their version of an ice cream sandwich. Rich, gooey chocolate ganache covered two chocolate-chip cookies that braced a thick mound of vanilla ice cream, an almost unnoticed raspberry drizzle on the edges.
Even though we were feeling full from the risotto that cushioned a flavorful filet of tilapia for lunch, we daringly dove in.
“Don’t eat anymore, honey,” my wife urged as I kept shoveling in bite after bite. I finally stopped, only after separating the ice cream from the sugar-coma inducing chocolate.
There we were, surrounded by tables all filled at lunch inside, and the outside soon to be — lawyers, a state Supreme Court judge and staff, FOBs, bankers, a sports agent, an athlete, legislators, many faces you’d easily recognize. It was the place to see and be seen. We half expected Phyllis Brandon, Becki Moore and the Inviting Arkansas entourage to come dancing through.
It was any old day, nothing special except that it was unusually mild for late summer in Arkansas — and all the bigwigs were at Vermillion Water Grille. You can’t tell us it isn’t doing things right.
This was our second visit in about a month. We joined 11 others for dinner a few weeks earlier; it wasn’t quite the society page crowd that night, but still a boisterous lot, many planning for a later show.
We had an ample enough crowd to try about five appetizers (all good to exceptional ), some soups and salads, several entrees.
(A caveat: The proprietor, Michael Selig, was away attending the birth of his second child, and, with the top cat away, the mice in the kitchen played a little daringly with the spices. For example, our roasted tomato gazpacho was chokingly fiery, the risotto accompanying the swordfish overwhelmed the fish steak, that sort of thing).
Two of us knew quickly what others found out that night after they sampled our entrees: They should have ordered the beef tenderloin, served with shittake mushrooms and merlot demi glaze over a bed of garlicy mashed potatoes. The aged beef was as tender and delectable as any steak we’ve had in Little Rock. We were maybe a little disappointed that a place whose title plays up its great seafood — a la Kinkead’s in Washington, D.C. — would star more like a Morton’s.
But wait a minute, we’re forgetting to tell you that the cilantro battered and fried calamari appetizer (squid for you non-seagoers) was the best we’ve ever had, anywhere. Where calamari sometimes comes out rubbery and chewy, this oh-so-tender variety made us long for an entree portion. The jalapeno-cheddar cheese grits and spicy sweet corn coulis on the small plate enhanced the blending of unusual flavors.
The good news is, it was an entree when we stopped in for lunch a few weeks later. But we had our minds on fish, and the tilapia answered our sailor’s call. So did our companion’s seared shrimp Caesar, a massive bowl of lettuce and tenderly cooked shrimp topped with asiago cheese instead of the usual parmesan, plus a light bathing of dressing and garlic croutons.
We started with soups, and the chilled strawberry and raspberry soup was amazingly fresh and a nice capper alongside the ice cream indulgence. The spicy black bean soup with cilantro, always on the menu, was hearty and carried just enough heat to set the palate for a fish entree.
The tilapia was a visual as well as tasty feast, with chopped red peppers, onions, cilantro and more accenting the filet, and even the risotto was far from bland.
Both lunch entrees were $12.95, but you can spend as much or almost as little as you want (our bill for two was more than $50 with the tip); there are sandwiches (turkey melt, ham and cheese, burgers) for $4.95, including the fries and a pickle spear.
At dinner, the two of us rang up a bill more than $120, but that included a well-prepared cosmopolitan and a single-malt scotch to start, and a couple of glasses of wines by the glass (a good pinot grigio and a merlot that nicely complemented the tenderloin).
Crème brulee, the requisite dessert for every fine Little Rock eatery, was good. The lemon mint ice seemed more suited for a between-course offering than a capper.
But that dichotomy of desserts spells out a lot of what Michael Selig and his two Vermillion restaurants are about. He pulls together flavors from, say, Asia, south of the border, California and the Northeast and experiments. What works for one diner may not work perfectly for his or her companion, but it’s always interesting. At the Water Grille, with three fish entrees and five other meat entrees, there is always something that should meet a diner’s demands. Selig, though, puts out the call that the daring can live a little, experience something new if you want, and even step out a little at lunch. Just have a cot handy at work if you fall for the Vermillion ice cream sandwich trap.
Vermillion Water Grille
200 S. Commerce St. (Capitol Commerce Building)
Don’t be scared away if you aren’t a seafood eater. The quality of the steak may be the best around. If you’ve been skittish about trying calamari in Little Rock, try it here.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, bar opens at 4 p.m. daily.
Inexpensive to moderate at lunch, moderate to expensive at dinner. CC accepted. Reservations not accepted, but they will set up a table for 12 if you call the day of. Full bar.