THE PLACE TO BE SEEN: Nu Cuisine.
Nu Cuisine Lounge is unlike any restaurant to open in Little Rock, both in concept and look. Filmy white curtains drift from its high ceiling to the cement floors, chairs and tables are covered in white slipcovers and tablecloths. Cobalt blue goblets, blue suede pillows, blue upholstery on the banquette and the tiny lime green flower arrangements complete the minimalist palette. An onyx chef’s table lit from within can be commandeered at the drop of a hat and $900. Upholstered alcoves with soft, low cubes arranged around them for seating allow for huddling in the bar. In the back, tall chrome stools, the seats like saddles, around tall tables raise the martini set to a better view. The special Blue Room, a place for VIPs, is hidden behind a door covered in tufted blue fabric. The entrance to the former home of Markham 225 has been changed, a cardinal rule, chef Paul Novicky says, for a new restaurant to succeed where others have failed, and indeed, no hint is left of predecessors in the Heritage East building at Cumberland and Markham.
The height of the dining room ceiling, the curtains, the mirrored strip along the banquette that allows diners to see who’s coming in without having to turn around created such a feel of 1940s club mystique that the reviewer was transported to childhood, to a special night out in the company of wisecracking grownups who could carry on endlessly no matter how much cold vodka went down the hatch.
We liked that feel. We enjoyed our soup. We adored our entree. But we were so lonely!
Nu is noisy, purposefully so, to create buzz and glamour — and in this respect, it’s the success story of the year, drawing the beautiful people in droves. There’s laughter, and music, and the sound bounces off the concrete walls and floor like ball bearings in a tin can. But the fact is, we are no longer a child spending all our time looking around but an adult who would have loved to converse with our three companions at the table.
Even the waiter, handsome, professional, knowledgeable, had to shout out the evening’s special entree.
Thankfully, though we wore our throats raw talking, this diner at least had food and drink to console her. We started with a glass of the 2000 Newton Red Label Chardonnay. It was quite nice, and though pricy ($9), a generous quantity was poured. Then on to a roasted yellow bell pepper and jalapeno soup that in theory had a touch of cilantro-infused oil in it. We would prefer a poke, rather than a touch, when it comes to cilantro, but that’s our palate, of course.
Next: A French cut pork chop, a dish chef Paul Novicky called “rustic” and so suited us to a T. Despite the noise, the cost and the fact that we spend most of our evenings doing laundry and watching bad TV, we would return to Nu for this one dish alone. The enormous chop was surrounded by a white bean cassoulet, beans slow-cooked in chicken broth and then bathed in butter, cream and chunks of parmesan. Atop the chop, braised fennel. Brown fig preserves on the side. Terrific.
Drinks — a rose-colored margarita and stems of champagne and pomegranate juice — were good. Rave reviews went to the other go-befores: A mixed green salad dressed with a pomegranate-balsamic vinaigrette and dotted with Granny Smith apple slices, camembert cheese and sweet walnuts, and an outstanding foie gras with roasted duck confit. (Novicky uses duck, rather than goose, for his foie gras because he says it holds its form better.)
Our three friends agreed the chop was the best entree. One of them was not enthusiastic about her order, Three Global Tunas, which Novicky said was not a play on Three Tenors, though Nu gets cute with its drink names (i.e., fig-infused vodka is a Figment of Our Imagination; a sake and lemongrass-infused vodka concoction is Splendor in the Lemongrass, and so forth). It was tuna prepared three ways — one sashimi and two pan-seared a la Italian and French modes. Tuna is not something one orders lightly, but our companion is no rube.
The special, sesame-encrusted salmon atop blood oranges with rice-paper wrapped Asian vegetables, did not compare with the pork, but then it was a lean dish that did not lend itself to comparison. The grilled shrimp served with fresh basil oil fettuccine was good, but not $17 knock-your-socks off good.
There were little goofs — the wine steward forgot us and we had to grab him to get our lovely bottle of Sancerre, a dry and fruity French sauvignon blanc. The tables are so close together that the waiter couldn’t directly serve diners at banquette seats, handing over the plates instead. A stray fork found its way down our companion’s back after the table was cleared. (A chocolate dessert of dense mousse spheres helped make up for all that.)
But Nu is new, and no doubt all service problems will be worked out.
A little more consistency in the menu, a confidence that no matter what you order it will be as special as the surroundings, will bring back the gourmands (like us). Visit Nu sun, and see what u think.