THAT'S ITALIAN: A makeover at Vermillion.
They say all roads lead to Rome, but Chenal Parkway seemed a safe exception to that rule — until now.
Chef/owner Michael Selig has completely overhauled the menu of his Vermillion Bistro, turning it into an Italian restaurant and thereby requiring him to change its name to Vermillion Italian Bistro.
It was an inspired move, from what we could tell when we dropped by for dinner during its first week of operation. And the transition was so smooth that you would think Vermillion has been serving up authentic Italian cuisine for years. There is even soft Italian music playing in the dining room.
The new menu is a huge departure from what Vermillion is known for, which makes its sophistication and quality all the more impressive. Following in the footsteps of Ristorante Capeo, the downtown North Little Rock restaurant that opened two years ago, the new Vermillion Italian Bistro offers true Italian food — not the Italian-American fare we’re used to getting at many other area establishments.
There are antipasti (appetizers), such as calamari, roasted eggplant, clams, carpaccio (thinly sliced beef) and Portobello mushrooms (all $4.25). There are insalate (salads), such as Caesar, caprese (basil, tomato, and mozzarella) and spinach ($4.95 or $5.95).
A separate section for frutti di mare (literally “fruit of the sea”) offers shrimp ($17.95), scallops ($17.50), mussels ($13.50) and salmon ($16.95). Selections for the piatti principali (main course) run from sauteed chicken breast ($12.50) and veal medallions ($12.50) to roasted pork loin ($12.50) and grilled strip steak (market price).
That said, the weekly specials sounded more interesting. Zuppa di pesce (fish soup, $3.50) or an asparagus and red pepper salad ($4.95) were offered as starters. A pasta section included rigatoni alla arrabbiata and raviolette con funghi (both $3.50). The frutti di mare were steamed clams in white wine with angel hair pasta ($13), and the piatti principali were osso bucco ($18.50) and angellino ($13.50).
Even before we started, our dinner companion asked, “Why is everything so cheap?” It was a good question, considering our white tablecloth surroundings and attentive service. It became a seriously vexing question after we actually sampled the food, which was generous in portion and taste.
The wine list may be the one thing that hasn’t changed at Vermillion, considering the familiar selections, which are mainly Californian. A few more Italian labels, especially reds, would be nice.
We paired a Santa Margherita pinot grigio ($11/glass, $48 bottle) with our starters, the clams and a caprese salad. The clams were delicious, though small. There were about 15 of them in a small bowl, steamed and simply seasoned in white wine and butter. The caprese benefited from the mozzarella, made in house, which was thick and had a nice bite to it. Unfortunately the tomatoes were not what you would expect in Arkansas — they tasted bland and hydroponic — but our native crop hasn’t ripened yet. Happily, the mozzarella, combined with the basil and a sprinkling of asiago cheese and black pepper provided by the server, compensated for the tomatoes.
The bread served with the meal was not particularly good, but we were impressed with the crostini that preceded it. The toasted bread crisps were accompanied by a tasty selection of tomatoes provencale, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, and an anchovy paste with capers.
Feeling obligated to eat as the Italians do, we had both pasta and an entree, allowing us to sample most of the weekly specials. The pasta dishes may have been the best value of the meal. At $3.50, you get more than enough food for any normal person. The raviolette especially were very filling — imagine toasted ravioli stuffed with a creamy ricotta cheese sitting in a small puddle of marinara sauce. The rigatoni portion also was generous, but not what we expected. Normally arrabbiata is a spicy red sauce. This didn’t have a sauce, and instead seemed to be cooked in olive oil with a nice smoky garlic flavor.
We were very satisfied with the osso bucco, a traditional Italian dish consisting of a center-cut veal shank that includes the bone, so you can eat the tender marrow, which is a treat. The meat was very juicy and we enjoyed the sauce, although it was unusually sweet, perhaps even including a touch of molasses. The angellino, a lamb loin with a mint and marsala reduction, was also good, although the cut of meat was small, more like a filet. We had a full-bodied, dry La Crema pinot noir ($9.50/glass, $38/bottle) with our entrees.
For dessert, we sampled a chocolate and sun-dried cherry cannoli, which was huge, and the raspberry gelato, which was very sweet and flavorful. Selig made his own daring versions of ice cream with Vermillion Bistro and has continued with the in-house gelato. We also could have had a mocha espresso torta, an Italian cheesecake, or a vanilla bean brulee, and everything on the dessert menu is $5.95. Finishing off with an espresso ($2), it was about as good a meal as could be had in Little Rock.
And, as indulgent as this dining experience was — with starters, pasta, entrees, dessert and wine for two people — the entire bill came to slightly more than $100, which is at least half of what it would cost in a major American city. With the dollar so low against the Euro, a trip to West Little Rock might be the right cure for anyone longing for a taste of Italy, as incredible as that might sound.
Vermillion Italian Bistro
17200 Chenal Parkway
Excellent authentic Italian food in an elegant setting, and the prices are relatively reasonable.
4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Lunch service begins June 20 (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays).
Moderate to expensive prices. All credit cards accepted. Full bar.