First Taste: Boulevard Bistro & Bar

An old favorite gains new French flair in the Heights

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It’s a dangerous game, messing with a good thing. And by all accounts, Boulevard Bread Co. is a very good thing.

It’s a consistent thing, too. The small cafe-bakery-deli-gourmet-grocery combo on Grant Street is the flagship location of the trio of Little Rock eateries that first launched in 2000. For 15 years, diners crammed and shuffled their way into the small seating area, while a lucky few found seats on the patio. But more often, people were grabbing something to go and continuing on their way. Even with the addition of beer and wine, the Heights restaurant never fulfilled its potential as a buzzing post-work destination.

So the owners decided to play that game this winter, when Christina Basham and Sonia Schaefer saw an opportunity to take their good thing and make it better. When the adjacent storefront opened up, the duo purchased the space and began a long-anticipated transformation into Boulevard Bistro and Bar. Walls were knocked down, a bar built, the kitchen expanded. Chef Chris McMillan, who had previously worked with the Boulevard brand, set about designing a menu that expanded on Boulevard’s European influences and created a bistro experience that is familiar and French, but still feels fresh. Classics like coq au vin, steak frites, Parisian gnocchi and pate de campagne share menu space with a roasted pork chop, fried mortadella sandwich and a baked pimiento cheese appetizer that’s the stuff of Southern-fried dreams. Served hot, gooey and ready to be scooped on toasted slices of Boulevard’s housemade ciabatta, it may well be the best cheese dip in Little Rock. And for a city that celebrates the stuff on a festival-sized scale, that’s saying something.

17_boulevardbread_webThough decidedly Southern, the mildly spicy cheese spread feels right at home with the rest of the decadent starters, such as frites with aioli, pork-belly confit with sweet-onion-and-sour-apple jam, duck rillette, and smoked salmon with orange creme fraiche. The indulgent dishes are best paired with a crisp wine or a sharp cocktail to cut the richness, like the tart Modern Royale, a mix of vodka, St. Germaine, prosecco, grapefruit, lime and lemon.

But while the barstools offer a nice option for a quick duck-in, the best seats in the house are along the north wall of the restaurant. Perched in windows overlooking Kavanaugh Boulevard is a row of two-person booths so picture-perfect it’s almost painful. Soft overhead lighting beams down on each couple, illuminating their tiny worlds for passersby. If the sight of people sipping a glass of wine in that glow doesn’t immediately make you want to get a reservation, you have no dining soul.

But the coziness of those seats doesn’t mean the Bistro is a quiet dining experience. During one visit, the chatter in the main room was so loud, it sounded like an improvisational jazz drummer was warming up. Turns out it was a toddler in a nearby booth with an antsy left foot. But the noise really adds something. It’s energizing, and it helps set the Bistro apart from the lineup of French-inspired restaurants already operating in the city. There are no plush window treatments or hushed conversation over candlelight here. Softly hued gray walls, wooden tables and metal chairs fit the minimally cool look that has long been a signature of the Boulevard brand. The kids menu proves that this is a family-friendly spot where jeans are just as welcome as a coat and tie.

80_boulevardbread_webThe only time the din seems to dampen is when plates arrive at the table. The richness of the appetizers extends to the main course, where an enormous bone-in rib-eye dotted with shallot butter comes on a bed of crispy fries. A pile of lemon-drenched kale does little to soften the caloric blow, but at $27, it’s a splurge worth taking. The roasted pork chop with an apricot and brandy sauce is similarly indulgent, if a little fatty. The restaurant’s version of gnocchi is another standout. This is the Parisian version, made not with potatoes but with a cheese-infused pate a choux—the same pastry dough used in eclairs. Here, Chef McMillan sautes his tater-tot-sized dumplings with mushrooms, spinach, truffled cream and comte cheese for a comfort-food dish that almost makes you forget macaroni and cheese exists.

Burgers, soups and entree salads are also available at dinner, including the very on-trend carrot-kale or apple-celery root salads. For lunch, Boulevard’s familiar lineup of sandwiches like the goat cheese and pepperonata is still around. The owners wouldn’t dare mess with that one. But now, diners can spread out at the Bistro’s tables, rather than throw elbows for a spot at the counter or rush back to eat at their desks.

Just months after reopening, it’s getting hard to remember the way Boulevard Bistro and Bar used to look. It’s hard to remember the crowded lines and grab-and-go dinners. Sure, it was good then. But now, with the steady buzz of the dining room luring visitors to stay for just one more drink (or one more order of baked pimiento cheese), it’s hard to think that the risk of change wasn’t one worth taking. Here, big risk has yielded bigger reward. 61_boulevardbread_web