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Surefire success at Petit & Keet in WLR

Whether Petit & Keet will go down as these two Arkansas culinary legends' crowning achievement remains to be seen, but it's hard to imagine a better first couple of weeks by all measures.

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CHARRED MISO SALMON: Petit & Keet prepares a good piece of fish.
  • CHARRED MISO SALMON: Petit & Keet prepares a good piece of fish.

In the fickle and risky restaurant game, there are few sure things. But the safest bet in recent memory is that Petit & Keet will be fantastic and super successful. How could it not be?

Louis Petit came to Little Rock to serve as maître d' at Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne, which defined fine dining in Central Arkansas when it opened in 1975. He later founded and ran Cafe Prego before moving to the Florida Gulf Coast to operate successful restaurants with his sons.

Jim Keet and Gerald Hamra got the Wendy's franchise for Arkansas the same year J&S opened, and four decades later Keet's restaurant resume has continued to grow, most recently with a burgeoning Taziki's empire. Like Petit, his sons are in the trenches, providing all the day-to-day support the dads need.

Other factors that pointed to surefire success: 1) moving into the former Restaurant 1620 space, the beloved capital of West Little Rock fine dining for decades; 2) the general dearth of great places to eat out that way (save for Table 28 and the Pantry); and 3) the employment of local design guru Garry Mertins, who transformed the space to assume precisely the "polished casual" term both Petit and Keet have used to describe their vision.

Whether Petit & Keet will go down as these two Arkansas culinary legends' crowning achievement remains to be seen, but it's hard to imagine a better first couple of weeks by all measures: the size of the crowds, the quality of drinks, food, service and overall experience.

We called on a Friday in search of a Saturday dinner reservation for two — early, late or in between; we didn't care. Sorry, we were told, every spot is taken. But, don't despair, the reservationist told us. All seats in the bar area and the patio are first-come, first-serve. So we were at the bar at 4:45 and it filled up around us fairly quickly.

The first things we noticed in perusing the drinks menu were the broad scope and the reasonable prices. We adore Frank Family Chardonnay; we've paid $52 and $46 for a bottle at two of Little Rock's finest restaurants; it's $41 at P&K. Several of the specialty cocktails are $7, at least $3-$5 less than at most places. We chose the Cherry Limeade Mule, and it made our Sonic cherry limeade fan very happy with the perfect blend of sweet, pucker and fizz, garnished with lime and brandied cherries.

There's not much you can do to an avocado to make us not like it. And dredging it in panko crumbs, frying it to a nice gooeyness and topping it with some shredded crab ceviche is one fabulous treatment. The dish ($12) was crunchy, creamy and not greasy; the citrus dressing was sweet and bright; the minced crab was a bonus because the avocado can certainly stand on its own. We were instantly drawn to the braised pork cheek (also $12), which essentially eats like pork pot roast — tender and flavorful with a rich juice perfect for dipping with the accompany sourdough. The fresh parsley springs were a nice touch; our only suggestion would be a bit more salt. 

FABULOUS: Panko-breaded avocado.
  • FABULOUS: Panko-breaded avocado.

The eight entrees range from $18 to $29 — how many nice places in Little Rock don't have a $30-plus entree? — and are a balanced bunch with two steaks, salmon, shrimp, pasta, pork chop and a rice hoecake with succotash.

We went for the charred miso salmon ($19.50), Southern-style barbecued shrimp and rice grits ($21) and the Maine lobster roll ($20) from the four-item "handhelds" section.

The salmon was the least-fishy, whitest and non-overly-rich salmon we've had in Little Rock; the miso glaze was a buttered-up version that softened the soy sauce's impact. The broccolini and shiitake mushrooms were perfect accompaniments.

The menu description of the shrimp and grits sounded like the classic New Orleans version that features tons of butter and a nice zip of heat provided by pepper and other Cajun seasonings. This one was similar, but the heat was replaced by a bit of sweet, not quite as pleasing. However, the seven shrimp were plump and cooked perfectly. The accompanying rice grits were a bit boring.

The lobster roll features a nice challah bun with a trough about an inch wide running from end to end of the 6- or 7-inch roll. The trough is stuffed with lobster salad that thankfully is predominantly lobster with not much filler. Like the other sandwiches, it's served with a cup of perfectly crisp shoestring fries.

We were told dessert remains "a work in progress," but there were two options — a thick, gooey chocolate cake and a round, light, not overly sweet cheesecake drizzled with stewed strawberries and blueberries in a thin sauce ($7 each). Both were decent, but we do hope for and expect more and better dessert choices in time.

Those who remember this spot as it looked as 1620 may be surprised at the dramatic redesign. There are now several floor-to-ceiling garage-door style windows all around. The double front doors open into a comfortably appointed foyer featuring a plus sofa and modern chairs pairing with the restaurant's color scheme of charcoal gray with red accents.

Those who remember 1620 will, however, recognize the two-level, rather circular floorplan of the main dining room; but, again, the new color scheme offers a sophisticated but less formal feel. There is a bar tucked into the backside of the dining room. It's the wine bar. The main bar area is through the doorway to the right, and once there, you're in a more casual but very high-end gathering spot.

This space is light and bright. Reclaimed wood accents, polished concrete floors, Edison-style bulbs and similar steampunk-esque light fixtures adorn the space, along with metal accents and pops of red. The covered patio is enclosed with open weave horizontal fencing and features nice furniture well beyond the typical plastic or metal patio chairs.

A long, family-style high-top bar table allows for sitting and chatting with strangers alongside the main bar if that's what you're wanting. We predict this no-reservations, lively spot will soon be "the" spot in West Little Rock.

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