In an industry where frequent employee turnover is basically a guarantee, a restaurant that has a steady, experienced leader for more than half a decade has an advantage. Take Ciao Baci in Hillcrest, for instance. Executive chef Jeff Owen is in his seventh year leading the kitchen, and it shows. Owen puts out four seasonal menus every year, and each one feels appropriate its own time of the year while still staying consistent to the Ciao Baci experience you’ve come to expect. Better still, each menu is completely confident and well executed. So we were excited to stop by and check out Owen’s winter menu for 2019, which you can find at the restaurant right now.
“A lot of this menu is heartier, kind of comfort food,” said Owen. “We used some pickled ingredients to cut through that. We don’t have access to a lot of seasonal veggies right now, so we’ve taken stuff from the end of summer and fall and pickled it. It will get us through the next couple of months until spring.”
Something that you won’t see on the printed menu is the Cowboy-style Chili, and you really should ask for it. Owen uses peppers from the end of the fall to make the chili along with ribeye cap beef for a rich, spice-forward stew. The playful addition of corn chips, cheese, sour cream and chives make this chili feel just like home, but it’s the pickled onions on top that set this bowl apart. This is what you want to order to chase away the cold. It’s great as a starter or as a meal all by itself.
While the cap of the ribeye goes into the chili, the center cut goes onto the plate all by itself. The Spice-Rubbed Center Cut Beef Ribeye is a mouthful, both as a dish name and as an entrée. Again, Owen’s taste for pickles comes up as the spice rub includes pickling spices, coriander, coffee and more. A bright risotto of spinach and shiitake mushrooms is every bit as capable as the beef itself, and the mulled wine reduction sauce is another sharp note. There is a lot to love on this plate.
And there is more than just beef on this menu. Vegans will actually find something to their liking in the Sweet and Sour Cabbage Rolls. The rolls are stuffed with a fragrant jasmine rice and topped with a fortified tomato sauce that bursts forward with notes of ginger, chilis and fennel. Again, Owen keeps everything singing brightly with acidity always playing with the heavier items on the plate. Speaking as a non-vegan, I would merrily order this one again.
I predict the new Bourbon Maple Glazed Atlantic Salmon will be a big hit, largely because all those ingredients together sound delicious. And it really is, with the fresh-tasting salmon shining through candied pecans and Southern-style cheddar grits. The restaurant’s housemade chowchow (which I think should be called CiaoCiao) is the acid element here, and the sweet and tangy relish brings out some native Arkansas flavors.
Owen brings out even more Arkansas goodness in his Bacon-Wrapped Pork Tenderloin. Needless to say the double layering of pork is going to go over well, but it was the sweet potato gratin that really brought everything together for me. Soft, rich and creamy, I could have eaten it on its own. A barbecue-beer demi glace is both clever and complimentary.
It’s apparent that Ciao Baci is in a rhythm right now, and Chef Owen is more than capable of keeping the beat going. The restaurant has an identity that comes through every dish: fun, comfortable and excellent. That charm goes a long way in making Ciao Baci stand out from the pack.