Cafe Soleil is a bright spot on Eureka Springs' already sunny dining scene, combining good food with easy access, a precious commodity in the mountain town. The food's so good, though, that you'd find a place to park, even if it meant leaving the car in Berryville and thumbing a ride. The setting, in tall pines on state Hwy. 62, isn't particularly quiet if you're dining on the screened-in porch — but who would let a little traffic noise stop them from enjoying superb food on a fresh fall day in the Ozarks? Though motorcycles zoomed by, we were unperturbed, so lovely was the meal.
The sign in front of the cafe announced that “pumpkin raviolis are back!” and since that seemed to be such big news, we ordered a batch. Here we got the first inkling of Cafe Soleil's secret to success: the kitchen loves ginger and puts it to great use. The raviolis were more like dim sum, light and loaded in flavor, bites of pureed pumpkin and pine nuts and grated parmesan. We went with something fried as well: Calamari, in a buttermilk batter, served with a roma tomato sauce. Delicious. All went well with a lovely glass of dry Riesling.
OK, the go-befores already guaranteed Cafe Soleil a place in our sky, but it was even more secure after the entrees, served with a smile. Chicken fettuccini Alfredo doesn't sound like something you'd write home about particularly, but Soleil's is. Soleil is light on sauces (another happy trademark) so the flavors of the chicken, fresh peas, grated carrot and fresh cilantro — and the fettuccini of course — aren't masked, as in so many versions of this dish.
To our right, our friend dined on the pizza caprese, a plate-sized, perfect-for-one dish done just right: a thin but not too crispy crust covered in fresh (and good) tomatoes and generous slices of mozzarella topped with chopped fresh basil. It was as good as it was lovely; in fact, all of Soleil's dishes are beautifully presented, on real Fiesta Ware (our waitress volunteered) and stylishly unmatched china.
To our left, our teen-ager downed the hamburger so quickly we couldn't get a bite. We take that as a recommendation. She also said it was a little pink. We take that as a recommendation as well. Across from us, our mate downed a delicious grilled apricot ginger chicken, another fine use of our favorite rhizome.
So Soleil gets high scores on its entrees as well. What about desserts? Again we turn to our friend on the right, this time to sneak a taste of her peach bread pudding with a whiskey and vanilla cream sauce. Whiskey and cream sauce is a great combo, and while we are purists and loath to tinker with great combos, the peachy-whiskey-cream took one of our favorite desserts to a new level. The chef wasn't being pretentious; he was being smart.
As good as the peach pudding was, the apple tart was even better. It was a beautiful version of a tarte tatin, flaky crust cradling slices of apple drenched in a caramel sauce. But get this: On top was cinnamon gelato. Now remember: We'd had fried calamari and pumpkin raviolis (a wanton wonton, truly) and fettuccini in cream sauce and chicken and tastes of two other dishes at the table. But we had to finish the apple tart and ice cream. What if we never get to Eureka again?
Making a clean sweep of the dessert menu required that we also order the (new!) chocolate peanut butter creme brulee, which we can't vouch for because we can't eat chocolate and peanut butter without having to go immediately to the ER with a migraine, but our teen-ager thought it was great. We can vouch for the really good chocolate mousse cake that our cross-table companion downed because he shared one little bite.
Cafe Soleil is a small place, able to seat 12 on the casual screened porch and perhaps three times that many in its sleek minimalist indoor dining area. That may be why it can pay so much attention to the food.
If you're a steak and potatoes person, Cafe Soleil should fill the bill as well. On the flip side of its sign proclaiming that pumpkin raviolis were to be had was one touting a steak and crab combo.
Cafe Soleil's website (cafesoleilrestaurant.com) calls the food the “Gourmet Experience You Can Afford.” If you can afford $100 for two appetizers, four entrees, four desserts, a beer and two glasses of wine, then you'll agree. The most expensive item on the menu was the chili-seared wild Alaskan salmon at $18. (We think eating fresh fish from Alaskan waters in the middle of the Ozarks ought to be expensive.)
The service was great, the timing of the courses just right. We're trying to think of something we didn't like about Cafe Soleil so we'll sound smart and discerning. We just can't.
3094 E. Van Buren (Hwy. 62 E)
Do you know how hard it is to find a parking place in Eureka? At Cafe Soleil, it's not a problem. That plus excellent food — can't beat it. The wine menu (which is not on Soleil's website for some reason) is modest, but the selection is good. Soleil serves brunch on Sunday.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Hours shorter in winter; call ahead.
Several vegetarian items on menu. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine served.