I’VE ALWAYS BEEN the kind of person who likes having his own “secret” spots, those places that seem to avoid throngs of people and that I can claim as being my own undiscovered little corner of town. For several years, Forty Two, the ground-floor restaurant of the Clinton Presidential Center, has been one of those spots.
The Center’s presence just east of downtown is hard to miss, but for most locals, Forty Two has flown under the radar since opening more than a decade ago—which, if I’m being honest, has always been part of its appeal. It’s been the kind of place I could duck into for a nice lunch and feel like I was at the center of something, a hive of activity, without ever feeling crowded or hurried. When it was announced in mid-October that my go-to lunch spot was about to undergo a remodel, change its name to 42 Bar and Table and begin offering a dinner service, one thing became immediately clear: The jig was up.
While dinner service at the restaurant may seem like a new concept, to many of the area’s luckiest foodies, it’s just an expansion of what’s become one of Arkansas’ hardest-to-get reservations. For more than 10 years, they’ve served a monthly “Around the World” dinner, with each meal shining a spotlight on a specific cuisine. Always sold out, these dinners have become a local unicorn of sorts for many of us (read: yours truly). The wait list for reservations is long: over 300, with my own name sitting somewhere near the bottom.
It was with that in mind that I sat down with Executive Chef Gilbert Alaquinez and Mike Selig, the Clinton Center’s director of food, beverage and special events. When I brought up the Around the World series they both laughed, and admitted that the decision to add a dinner service was partially born out of those monthly dinners. “We wanted to be able to share that experience,” Mike said. “We’ve been talking about it for eight years, but we really began working on it at the beginning of this year.”
Mike waved to the dining room’s wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the new outdoor patio, where workers were making the final touches, arranging chairs around the patio’s multiple fire pits and making sure the oh-so-essential outdoor heaters were ready for use. “When you’re here at night, with the lights from the bridge catching on the glass and steel above you, it’s just beautiful.” I imagine he’s right, as the restaurant’s seemingly underground location allows its patios to open onto the sidewalks and trails tracing the river’s edge. The perspective of looking up onto the Center’s massive belly creates an intimate, secluded atmosphere, making it easy to forget that the noise and congestion of downtown Little Rock is just a few blocks away.
As our conversation turned to the menu, I was surprised to find how diverse it was. An Indian curry is sandwiched between a Mexican take on lamb chops and a classic chicken pot pie. “We have people come here from all over the world,” Gilbert said, “and it feels good when they see the menu and see something they recognize.” Whenever possible, he’s blended Little Rock’s Southern heritage and even his own Texas upbringing into the food from other cultures. His take on a classic German schnitzel gets a Southern makeover with a helping of a mac-and-cheese-style späetzle, and where most chefs would simply serve a crab cake, Gilbert offers up crab empanadas. “We wanted to try and offer people the kind of comfort foods they would have in their own home,” Mike added.
Gilbert admitted there’s an element of pressure to interpreting food from around the world. “You always want to make sure you’re offering [a guest] the best, ” he said, “but I’m always happy for the feedback and criticism.” While so many chefs try so hard to give their guests something new, Gilbert found his niche by giving his guests something familiar. “When you have a family come from India or Venezuela, and they come back to tell you that the food was just as good as they would have done it at home, that’s when it’s rewarding.”
THE NEXT DAY, when I visited for dinner, there was an air of excitement in the newly remodeled dining room. The room’s previous incarnation had been sleek and minimal, but now I found a place redressed in a style that can only be described as bold and unabashedly patriotic. If ever there was a doubt about what the building above housed, it’s quickly silenced by the red and white stripes that run the length of the room, while on the opposite side, crystalline stars (42 of them, of course) are spread across a field of blue.
The menu, varied as it is, offers guests the chance to travel the world in a single meal, and I found myself stamping my mental passport as dishes were delivered to the table: India, Italy, Korea, Mexico.
I selected a half dozen oysters on the half shell from a list of appetizers that offered everything from cheddar-and-chicken biscuits to Greek spanakopita, and even a deeply aromatic Japanese noodle bowl. The oysters were paired with a housemade hot sauce that’s now my front runner for best housemade anything in Little Rock. I hope it won’t be long before it’s bottled and available in the upstairs gift shop.
When I asked what dish they would recommend I try, both Gilbert and Mike had been quick to mention the lobster bisque. It comes, just as it would in Spain, with a small carafe of sherry, allowing guests to flavor the soup to their liking. Gilbert also recommended the osso bucco, a perfectly cooked shank of veal surrounded by a cannellini ragu. Another highlight: a rack of molé-spiced lamb chops served atop sweet potatoes and creamy mustard.
After dessert, a decadent slice of key-lime-and-basil cheesecake, I made my way out of the restaurant and passed once again by the renovated patio. In the warm glow of fire pits and heaters, the oversized chairs seemed more inviting than ever. As popular as my hidden gem is about to become, I suspect that I’ll still be able to get a table. And if not—well, there’s always the bar.