Ever since chef Jeffrey Owen took the helm at Ciao Baci, the Hillcrest restaurant has put out a regularly rotating menu that celebrates a blend of Southern and Italian cuisines. Every three months, diners can find a new line-up of dishes that match with the produce of the season and the temperature. This summer, Owen has kept that same approach, but added a twist: the new summer menu takes a thematic spin.
“These aren’t necessarily tropical flavors,” says Owen. “They’re flavors from places where you would go on vacation. We wanted to work in that vacation element while keeping it grounded and approachable for people in Little Rock, Arkansas.”
The vacation theme works in two ways. It gives Owen and the kitchen a chance to flex some creative muscle and show off their skills at cooking food from other regions of the country and around the world. It also gives the menu a solid foundation that ties all the dishes together. The fact that this is really good food doesn’t hurt matters, either.
Those of you coming into Ciao Baci from the summer heat will appreciate the new Cucumber Dip. This is a dish that comes directly from Owen’s grandmother, featuring grated cucumbers, sour cream, mayo, cream cheese, fresh salsa and a little sweet chili oil. I always crave the fresh taste of cucumber in the summer, and this dish fit the bill beautifully. Sweet and tangy with just a touch of heat, this is a dip that works well as a starter or a patio snack.
Pretty much every restaurant serves a soup of some kind, but Ciao Baci is changing things up by offering a rotating chilled soup of the day. When I visited the restaurant, it was the new Chilled Carrot Soup, made with coconut, honey and curry paste. The extra spices made for a deeper flavor than you might expect. It’s a thoughtful touch that balances out the sweetness well. Other chilled soups that will be available this summer include an Heirloom Gazpacho and a Potato Vichyssoise.
The new entrees continue the “foreign yet familiar” concept nicely. I really enjoyed the Pistachio/Coconut Crusted Mahi Mahi, a massive portion of fish that sits on a bed of creamed corn. A jezebel buerre blanc and a tropical fruit pico de gallo bring the textures together, but it was the sweet corn blending with the clean flavors of the fish that made me smile. This is a plate I can see myself ordering multiple times.
Also delicious is the new Braised Lamb Tamales, owing in no small part to Ciao Baci’s very own Oaxacan black mole sauce. Owen and his team have come up with a mole with 30-40 ingredients that is wonderfully complex and nuanced, with a sweet depth that not many plates can offer. The tamales themselves are made well, with juicy, shredded lamb and thick masa blending nicely and a fresh cucumber salsa to brighten everything up.
I’ve saved what I thought was the most impressive dish for last. It’s the Coffee-Rubbed Flat Iron Steak, a dish Owen says is a play on breakfast for dinner. The coffee and spice rub is bold and aggressive, yet still lets the flavor of the surprisingly tender beef shine through. The steak sits atop a chorizo hash that ties in with the spicy flavors of the steak, and a chimichurri aioli keeps everything from tasting too heavy. Oh, and you will never make me upset by putting a perfect egg on top of a steak.
Owen says many of these dishes will also be found in smaller portions in the restaurant’s daily Chef’s Tasting, a five-course meal of small plates that rotates every night. That makes the tasting menu a good option for those who can’t make up their mind on what to order. Regardless, you should easily be able to make up your mind to give this menu a shot. Even if it’s too hot that day to sit on Central Arkansas’ best patio, these dishes will give you the feel of a vacation right here at home.