A longer string of complimentary adjectives can be applied to Starving Artist Cafe than any other area eatery that immediately comes to mind. Among them: creative, affordable, fun, versatile, comfortable, unpretentious, refreshing, arty, funky — and let’s not forget locally owned … and delicious.
Its relatively recent relocation to Main Street in the Argenta downtown neighborhood of North Little Rock from a less-traveled section of Seventh Street across the river seems to have inserted Starving Artist into more local diners’ regular repertoires. At the same time, the cafe’s new home represents a significant step forward in achieving restaurant “critical mass” along a few-block stretch of Main, making Argenta one of the more concentrated restaurant rows these days.
Early interest and curiosity should translate to enduring popularity, because owner/chef Jason Morell does fine work and has the resume to support the leap he and his wife, artist Paula Morell, took in opening Starving Artist Cafe. Jason spent post-culinary school time at New Orleans’ famed Commander’s Palace, and he was on the ground floor of Sonny Williams Steak Room, an enduring River Market fixture. The Morells’ commitment to food, art and the logical fusion of the two, is everywhere you look — and taste — at their eatery.
Lunch and dinner entrees are very different at Starving Artist — check out the menus among all the colorful clutter on www.starvingartistcafe.net — sharing only the atmosphere of the place. (Clutter is a real-world theme as well, primarily as defined by the fun mishmash of art packed on the walls and all around the large, high-ceiled, refurbished storefront.)
Soup is a must-have starter here. Rich creaminess characterizes the hearty chicken corn chowder, and the smoked ham and white bean soup. Soup is downright cheap at Starving Artist, with the $3.50 and $4 price tags on the bowls lower than the cup-o’-soup option at most spots.
Five paninis — all under $7 with roasted potatoes or chips — are the dominant lunch menu feature. Ten years ago nobody around here knew much about paninis, but the concept behind the Italian pressed sandwich certainly is nothing new: It’s basically a grilled cheese with additional ingredients. Starving Artist’s paninis feature tried-and-true combinations — salami, pastrami, mortadella and mozzarella; smoked turkey and mozzarella; ham and Swiss; mozzarella, tomato and basil — all to good effect (the latter when tomatoes are in season). The less predictable combo, tuna and cheddar, was the lone dud, a bit boring and skimpy. Lunchers, note that a panini and soup combo is available for $7.95.
Those fabulous soups carry over to dinner, as do many of the salads, but the entrees are elevated to a new level of creativity and painstaking preparation. Thankfully, they remain low-priced relative to other restaurants. While the fish special might nudge past $20, none of the menu regulars tops $18.95. And the variety is impressive as well — beef, pork, salmon, shrimp, mahi-mahi.
Pork tenderloin has become almost ubiquitous, but Starving Artist’s stands out — succulent medallions that are a bit thicker and juicier than most, offset nicely by tart apple chutney. Our fish special was flaky and mild, the delicate fillet not overwhelmed by a lightly herbed cream sauce.
Desserts are uniformly good, and the wine list is interesting — with creative, almost “out there” choices that nevertheless are solid and good values, with fewer of the tried-and-true standards than most restaurants lazily fall back on. Service was uniformly good, particularly at dinner.
411 Main St., NLR
Soups and sauces are one of the clearest indications of a chef’s talent and creativity, and at Starving Artist, the soup is not to be missed. We adored the chicken corn chowder, savory and hearty, as well as the simple but rib-sticking ham and white bean. At $3.50 or $4 — for a BOWL, not cup — they’re bargains, too.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Credit cards. Full bar. Moderate prices. Reservations accepted for dinner.