Dining » Dining Review

Sauced shows promise

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PERSONAL PAN LASAGNA: Delightful, and available with or without meat.
  • PERSONAL PAN LASAGNA: Delightful, and available with or without meat.

It can be said with a fair amount of certainty that within the next few years, the pizza parlor-to-person ratio of Little Rock will eventually reach 1:1. While that might sound like Little Rock has become an earthly paradise, the reality is that it makes opening a new pizzeria hard. Little Rock diners have come to expect a lot from pizza, and any foray into the food group has high standards to live up to.

When Sauced Bar and Oven, stylized as Sauce(d), was first announced, it seemed like everything was in place for a sure success: a rockstar team in the kitchen and behind the bar, including Gwen Jones (Rebel Kettle), Amanda Ivy (a veteran of Yellow Rocket Concepts) and Georges Launet (Raduno); a spot in the epicenter of West Little Rock's dining scene; and a proven concept in a high-end pizza kitchen. All of this then begs the question of why the restaurant seems to somehow be less than the sum of its parts.

This is a review based on two visits, roughly two weeks apart. Our reason for going twice was twofold: No restaurant deserves to be judged based on a single night's service, especially if that single night is during its first week, and secondly, on the first night we visited, the kitchen ran out of pizza before we could put in an order.

On our first visit, we found a restaurant being put through its paces: Servers looking hurried but happy, excited to finally be able to do their job for the first time. After learning that the kitchen had already run out of pizza (and chicken), we decided to stay and take our chances with the non-pizza and non-chicken options the menu afforded us.

We opted for a round of appetizers: the pecan-smoked burrata ($9), the meatball in purgatory ($9), gnocchi and cheese ($9) and a bowl of Italian wedding soup ($8). The burrata arrived first. What should have been a runny, smokey blob of Italian buffalo milk cheese atop a salad of kale and pistachios with bread was in fact a stark white blob of sickly sweet cheese (that definitely was not burrata) over a quickly blended mash of kale and pistachios, no bread in sight. The meatball "in purgatory" arrived in its own small skillet, and while the ball itself was rather flavorless, the surrounding marinara was delicious and one of the best things to grace the table at all of our visits. The gnocchi and cheese, advertised as "mac & cheese, all grown up," arrived to the table covered in bacon (for only $2 more!) and sat largely uneaten for the rest of the night. In a meal that was full of incredible lows and, eventually, incredible highs it was not memorable aside from its resemblance to powdered cheese sauce. The final appetizer, though here they're called "tapas" on the menu because tapas makes it sound like you're supposed to order more of them, was the Italian wedding soup. It was salty to the point of inedibility.

At this point in the meal, we had two options: order an entree or cut our losses and leave. Being the gluttons for punishment that we are, we opted for entrees. We ordered the Pinnacle Pastrami ($15) and the lasagna al forno ($9) with a side of pasta salad ($3). The pasta salad arrived first and, though it was tasteless, the pasta was perfectly cooked. The lasagna, however, was delightful. Perfectly portioned, it came in its own skillet, and though it can be make with meat, we ordered it vegetarian, hoping to savor the flavors of what the menu billed as "local vegetables." It was a dish that went a long way to erasing the memory of the misfires that came before it. Our second entree, the open-faced pastrami sandwich, was the highlight of this night as well as our second visit. It came piled high with french fries and slaw, and the pastrami had been dusted with what we all agreed must have been cinnamon. As unconventional as it was, we'd happily list it as a contender for the best sandwich in Little Rock.

We left unhappy but unsure if the cause of our unhappiness was a rough night in the kitchen or a restaurant with serious problems. Before sitting down to write this review, we decided it would benefit everyone to visit Sauced for a second time. Twice we called ahead to make sure there would be pizza and on both nights we were told that the kitchen had already run out. We tried one final time (early on a Wednesday) and were finally able to snag a few pies of our own. We ordered two pizzas along with the smoked burrata tapas, hoping that our first visit's rendition was a fluke. When we asked our server for a wine list, we were directed to the large screen televisions that were hung throughout the restaurant. They featured a revolving slideshow of drinks, which had been fine on our first visit. Unfortunately, this time we were seated near the open kitchen and the only way to view a screen was to look through a mesh scrim that separated different areas of the dining room and wait the few minutes for each page of the drinks list to flash on the screen again. Our server was able to bring a list of beers on tap, though it was one of only a few printed lists in the building. Throughout the night, servers would visit our table to see the list to refresh their memories.

Our smoked burrata arrived and we instantly knew that something was different. We'd finally gotten what we'd ordered: The cheese, though we still question whether it was authentic burrata, had not been smoked on our first visit. Now, with the presence of pecan smoke the odd sweetness of the cheese was more muted and the flavors of the kale and pistachios enhanced the whole.

The two pizzas we ordered arrived one after the other. The chorizo ($14) featured its signature spicy sausage along with mozzarella and goat cheese, mushrooms and a smattering of herbs. The Rosa Dama ($15), our server's recommendation, featured prosciutto, sausage, mushrooms and a fried egg. Both pizzas tasted fine, though they both featured an overly charred crust with a still raw center.

It's clear that Sauced has had some stumbles out of the gate, but we don't judge a racehorse based on how it learned to walk. Instead, we're optimistic about Sauced's future and, if the team behind the scenes is any indication, they'll be quick to right the ship. We'll return in a few months to see how things have changed. We're rooting for Sauced to work, even if it takes a little while to fall in step.

Sauced Bar and Oven

11121 N. Rodney Parham Road

353-1534

Quick bite

The bar boasts a dozen wines and 23 craft beers, including many local options, on tap. There are a lot of TVs, too.

Hours

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Other info

Full bar, credit cards accepted.

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