OPINION | TED TALLEY: A trip down Interstate 40 leads to Capital City memories

Eclectic tastes satiated in visit to central Arkansas

I motored down Memory Lane last weekend. It was multi-laned.

Interstate 40 took me to Little Rock for a culinary event recalling halcyon days of the 1970s when an amazing restaurant, Jacques and Suzanne, operated atop the then-tallest building in the state. Authentic French food and recollections of when my late wife Linda and I dined in those heights compelled me to reserve a table.

In 1981 we settled into Little Rock from Houston. It was good living for a young couple with two children on our first corporate relocation. Among many customers in my Tulsa-to-Memphis territory was a discount retailer in the small town of Bentonville. At the time Walmart had a mere 330 stores.

Jacques and Suzanne Tritten, a Swiss couple, opened the restaurant in 1975; later owners carried on with the same staff. Its popularity was in fullness when Linda and I entertained clients there, where dining was a special event. Men were required to wear jackets and ties. The soufflés were the width of hub caps. Certain specialties were flamed table-side. Among their other dishes, the Trittens introduced escargots to Little Rock. Some diners loved the buttery sauce with the crusty house-made bread but eschewed the rubbery creatures, so they ordered the dish without snails, ironic since also in 1975 Cajun's Wharf opened on the river off Cantrell Road. Locals put off by French snails eagerly slurped Louisiana raw oysters and crawfish étouffée.

The restaurant closed in 1986 because of changes in demographics: moneyed clientele moved. Upper-income holders began leaving grand old homes in Pulaski Heights for grander new spreads on fairways in new west Little Rock. Retail and office parks followed. With home and office both near the tee boxes, attire became more casual. Getting gussied up and driving downtown became a bother.

Louis Petit, an initial successor when the Trittens left town, and a friend and restaurateur Jim Keet have staged the Jacques and Suzanne remembrance menu in three annual events now at their flagship, street-level Petit and Keet restaurant west of Interstate 430.

Saturday night my escargots Bourguignon were excellent, the seafood Thermidor extravaganza was delicious, though the sauce was a tad salty, and the classic crème brûlée dessert was the best I've ever had. The owners "worked the room" old style, graciously visiting every table including mine. Sated with fine food and good service, I tipped the valet and returned to my motel where the room rate was less than half my dinner bill.

Sunday morning I drove southwest toward the Otter Creek subdivision where we had lived. Stopped at the light at Baseline and Stagecoach Roads, I recalled the church we attended was around the corner. I detoured and slipped into services already begun. The small congregation was mostly gray-haired like me. During the doxology I realized that this very Sunday 40 years earlier was likely the last time we worshiped here since we soon left for house-hunting in New England.

After church I continued to Quail Run Drive and passed our former home, an odd-looking contemporary that had been mired in a divorce. We barely squeezed into this desirable community with a clubhouse, 10 tennis courts and a large pool. Our Realtor Minnie Lou, in her Arkansas twang, convinced the owners who lived several states apart that "this young couple coming up from Texas don't have much but have put all their nickels together to come up with this offer" and it's a solid one -- so you really should take it. They did. Two years later we traded this lovely neighborhood in Arkansas for an acre, a well and a septic tank in Connecticut.

A new memory made was brunch at Root Cafe in the trendy SoMa district downtown where they delete the eggs Benedict muffin and substitute sautéed kale seasoned like collard greens for the base. A fresh-squeezed mimosa in a Mason jar completes the southern fusion. I chatted with eclectic diners -- fellow out-of-towners, young locals who were perhaps University of Arkansas at Little Rock students, 30-something evangelicals with cute kids following mega church services and same-sex couples holding hands. Bentonville hasn't cornered the market on hipness in the Diamond State.

But that a slew of grandchildren live in Northwest Arkansas, I might consider moving back. Little Rock is more an urban center than our glommed quad-cities and the locals are still as much to my liking as when I first set foot in the capital last century. And that's especially so today if the Legislature is not in session and our governor is out of town on a trade mission to Germany.

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