What do we actually want from a restaurant experience? I think how you answer that depends mostly on you: your preferences, your experiences, your lot in life. Maybe you just want a good, familiar, hot meal; or maybe you want a generous portion size; or maybe you want an artistic, exciting performance on a plate. Some people want an efficient meal delivered quickly and affordably; others enjoy sipping and savoring the meal slowly and deliberately. We all have different expectations when we come to dine, which makes a challenging proposition for any restaurant to please every diner who comes in the front door.
And while nobody can make everyone happy, Ciao Baci in Hillcrest has as good a chance of doing that as any other restaurant. The newly released winter menu draws on inspirations from around the world, but the common thread that runs through the entrees is chef Jeff Owen’s expert handling and clear vision. That vision is one of warmth and comfort, and it can be found in both the lightest and most substantial dishes he offers.
“We’re getting into Mardi Gras season, crawfish season,” said Owen. “It’s food that I want to eat, food that I want to share with everybody. I guess you could find something like this around town, but we want to make it even better.”
Getting a comfort food philosophy onto a vegetarian plate is not easy, but Owen handles it deftly on the Roasted Wye Mountain Mushrooms starter course. Shiitake and Enoki mushrooms star on a nest of arugula, pistachios and smoked bleu cheese. A hearty rice middlins porridge gives the plate a little more weight, but this one is all about the mushrooms. Owen and Wye Mountain Mushroom Farm owner Jess Wilkins are longtime friends, and Owen has been using his mushrooms for a few years.
“We picked him up when he started, and we’re doing 10–15 pounds per week,” said Owen. “We wanted to feature his product, and it’s so good that it doesn’t need just a whole lot. We gave it a little texture, a little acidity, and let the mushrooms speak for themselves.”
If a plate of mushrooms shows Ciao Baci’s European influences, the Crawfish and Andouille Gnocchi brings the focus back to the South. Owen gets Louisiana crawfish and prepares the gnocchi from scratch every week, pairing the two with a “Cajun cream,” fresh lemon juice and scallions. Much like balancing influences, Owen also has a confident touch with melding bright flavors in this weightier plate.
The use of regional seafood continues with my favorite dish on the new menu. The Blackened Mississippi Catfish is a gorgeous interpretation of a Southern staple. Seared, fresh catfish rests on black-eyed peas and okra, with smoked gouda grits providing the plate’s depth. It would all weigh too much except for the amazing bourbon pepper jelly that makes the catfish soar. Spicy, sweet and tart, it’s a plate that brings new life to Arkansas’ most popular fish.
“It’s food that I want to cook, I want to eat,” said Owen. “I think five years ago, this plate might not have worked, people might have been iffy. I think we’ve picked up enough of a following that we can do something like this.”
The Beef Short Rib Stroganoff is there for folks who don’t necessarily seek adventure at a restaurant. That’s not to say this is a boring plate; the beef is packed with flavor and shines with Wye Mountain mushrooms, peas and shoestring potatoes playing delicious side roles. But for cold weather comfort food, it’s hard to beat this elevated take on a classic American dish. Owen keeps the traditional-yet-fun theme going for dessert with his Pink Lemonade Cheesecake, a whimsical treat that frames light sweetness with the fresh notes of lemon zest. It’s a noteworthy finish to a satisfying meal.
No matter what your expectations are of a restaurant, the crux of it boils down to this: you want to feel good about what you’ve just eaten. Chef Owen is in the feel-good business, and his new winter menu never forgets that making the diner happy is the chief goal. It’s the goal of the entire Ciao Baci restaurant team, really, and it’s obvious when you walk in. With food this good and a vision this clear, you have to wonder if Ciao Baci might be the best restaurant in Central Arkansas right now.