FRIED HOMINY WEDGES: Rumors of their deliciousness turned out to be true.
Successfully changing a concept has to be one of the more impressive feats in the already challenging restaurant business. If a recent visit to the newly opened Leverett Lounge in Fayetteville is any indication, then Hannah Withers and Ben Gitchel — also operators of the venerable Maxine's Tap Room — are doing just that. Earlier this year, they opened Sit & Spin, which served donuts, sliders and fries, and was joined to a revamped laundromat of the same name. We went there a handful of times and thought the tiny burgers, donuts and crispy fries were top-notch. But when it became clear that the concept wasn't panning out as planned, Withers and Gitchel decided to shift gears dramatically.
Leverett Lounge straddles the line between upscale restaurant and comfy neighborhood joint where you can drop in for a quality meal without dropping a $100 bill. The small plates, desserts and appetizers range from $4-$14. Head chef Gitchel, a native of Little Rock, trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York (now called the International Culinary Center). The menu reflects both highbrow classic French cuisine and down-home Arkansas cooking.
Exhibit A of the latter would be Mel's Diner ($7), one of the appetizers we tried. While grits have moved beyond their humble origins and are now featured on menus all over non-flyover country, we would be surprised if anyone has elevated them beyond Gitchel's take, based on a recipe his grandmother used for leftover grits. Two thick slices of garlic cheese grits are fried and served with a drizzle of remoulade. We'd heard raves about the dish and are happy to say it more than lived up to the hype. The fried hominy wedges were crispy on the outside, perfectly smooth and piping hot on the inside. If they served these up by the half-dozen in a paper-lined basket, we would've ordered them and wolfed them down.
The other appetizer we chose was the Bravissimo ($9), bacon-wrapped pork roulettes served in Shakshuka sauce, with feta and cilantro. The pork nuggets were tender and juicy, and the sauce — a tomato- and pepper-based concoction of North African origin — was a delicious, outside-the-box pairing. Shakshuka is typically served with eggs and vegetables and is a breakfast staple across the Middle East, but it worked well with the pork, adding a bright, fresh dimension to the dish.
RARE TREAT: The beef tenderloin medallions were complemented by a green peppercorn sauce.
For entrees, we opted for the Tournedos au Poivre ($14) and seared cod ($12). The former consists of beef tenderloin medallions in a green peppercorn sauce, with a side of grilled asparagus. The tenderloins were crusty on the outside and rare to medium-rare on the inside, though the kitchen will cook them longer if you ask. The peppercorn sauce was a nice complement to the beef.
The seared cod was exceptional. It was served bathed in an intoxicating herbed butter (rich without overpowering the flavor of the fish) and sprinkled with fried crouton bits that soaked up the butter while retaining their crunch. If there was a complaint with this dish, it's only that the piece of fish could have been a bit larger. Still, for the price, it was hard to beat.
The ambience inside was cozy and intimate, but not cramped. Our service was impeccable. The food came out promptly and our glasses were never empty. The music was low-key and lovely (Charles Bradley's soulful R&B was a perfect soundtrack). As part of the revamping, Withers and Gitchel added a patio area, which will be a draw in better weather.
The neighborhood has changed in the last couple of years: Gone are the 800-square-foot, low-rent cottages and empty lots, replaced by (relatively) towering brand-new townhouses and condos. Foot traffic in the area should increase, and with another dining or drinking addition, this stretch of Leverett Avenue could become a destination, away from the bustle of Dickson Street and the roar of College Avenue. Here's hoping that Leverett Lounge becomes one of the anchors for the area. We'll be back for sure.
737 N. Leverett Ave.
Leverett Lounge has a small-plate menu, but also one titled "Noshes," great for a quick bite. This list features the Mel's Diner grits mentioned in the review as well as several other dressed-up classic appetizers, including Fancy Hank (handmade jalapeno tater tots with creme fraiche, $8) and Richard's Coconut Beer Battered Shrimp (hand-battered shrimp with orange marmalade sauce, $9).
5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
CC accepted. Beer and wine.