- FERNEAU: For many good reasons.
With one meal, Ferneau has landed on our Top Three list, as in top three favorite restaurants in Little Rock. That’s an accomplishment because we’re set in our ways, and our previous top three had been the top three for the last, oh, five years at least.
If the sole consideration were the food, this Hillcrest restaurant would probably be our No. 1. As it is, the only element that keeps Ferneau from the head of our list is the noise factor. But because its liveliness is a result of its popularity, the restaurant probably shouldn’t be penalized. So let’s just go ahead and say it’s our favorite lively restaurant.
On a lovely mid-April evening, few spots could be more pleasant than Ferneau’s patio, where, at the suggestion of the knowledgeable server, we surrendered our snobbery and ordered a glass of rose. The wine (and its makers) have matured in recent years, and no longer is it the automatic choice of those who don’t like wine. This raspberry-colored rose smelled of strawberries but tasted like the love-child of a chardonnay and a merlot — full, fruity, but not at all cloying.
Swirling and sipping while watching Hillcrest foot traffic only four feet away made the wait for our companion uncommonly relaxing. Once she’d arrived and had sampled her Vertus Tempranillo, a Spanish red, we moved inside, where the cheerfulness of the crowd proved infectious, buoying our spirits (though the wine had done its bit, too).
Our server appeared at our table immediately, a genial genie ready with the specials of the day and, when the time came, good advice on the difficult question of scallops vs. salmon.
The tomato bisque ($6) both tasted and smelled fresh and healthy, complete with quarter-sized bits of tomato, with the bisque satisfyingly smooth but not, we think, in an overtly artery-clogging way. The Caesar salad with parmesan crostini ($6) pleased our companion, a world traveler who despite her sophistication agrees with us and chef and co-owner Donnie Ferneau about anchovies — just say, “No.”
Small scoops of tart lemon sorbet served after the soup and salad did what they were supposed to do — cleared the palate in preparation for our entrees — but, in larger scoops, would serve well as warm-weather desserts.
We’ve been around long enough to know that it’s usually good to go with the specials of the night, so we said yes to the Hawaiian opah, a mild but firm-fleshed fish served with creamy orzo studded with generous chunks of lobster ($38). Three barely cooked spears of pencil-thin asparagus shared the plate, and though we didn’t detect any butter on the asparagus, it was so fresh, like the bisque, that butter would have been a distraction.
Our companion was delighted with her pan-seared “cumin-dusted” citrus-sauced scallops served with a pineapple-jicama salsa over polenta ($23). We tend to steer clear of scallops because they’re so easily overcooked, but these were perfect, tender but not underdone.
The delights of the appetizers and entrees promised that dessert wouldn’t disappoint, so when our server listed bananas foster among the offerings, we bit — and bit and bit. The restaurant doesn’t make a table-side flame-lit show of preparing this classic, which we appreciate. When we dine, it’s food we’re after, not a circus act.
Ferneau’s version of bananas foster ($8) deserves its own paragraph. It serves two more than amply, and four sharing the dessert wouldn’t feel deprived. The bananas are properly rummed-up, carameled and sauteed, but the star is the soft mound of homemade vanilla ice cream — better than Mom’s. Our companion devoured her crème brulee ($5) and then pitched in on the bananas foster, but though we both tried hard, we couldn’t finish the dish.
Ordering the bananas foster taught us an important lesson for next time — and there will be a next time: Consider skipping a glass of wine or even the appetizer to save room for dessert, or at least this delectable dessert.
Service was impeccable, unobtrusive yet timely, professional but friendly, the sort of service we’ve experienced only in Paris — as in France, not the one in Logan County.
Oddly, perhaps, considering the strong impression made by the food and service, the decor didn’t imprint itself on our memory banks. Ferneau seems spare yet comfortable, elegant though clean-lined, softly but not dimly lit, altogether perfect, really, because the focus is, as it should be, on the food.
Ferneau isn’t cheap. Dinner for two hit $151 with tip, but that included two glasses of wine apiece, two appetizers, two entrees and two desserts. It also included fresh ingredients, an imaginative menu, flawless service and one of the nicest nights out we’ve had in recent memory. Considering all that, it’s priced right. And had we availed ourselves of the $35 three-course prix fixe menu the restaurant offers on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we could have saved some money and still experienced one of the best restaurants in Central Arkansas.
2601 Kavanaugh Blvd.
If the weather’s right, take advantage of the patio — and some great people-watching — while you sip an aperitif. Trust the chef’s specials and save stomach space for dessert.
Restaurant open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tue.-Sat., bar open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Expensive. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.