Illustration: Phillip Rex Huddleston

Cornucopia (noun): an abundant supply of good things of a specified kind.

Each month, I will be writing about a cornucopia of food topics, which include a recap of my eating adventures, food and drink news, my general thoughts on the Central Arkansas culinary scene and a quick Top 10 list. So, with that in mind, let’s get to it.

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Maddie’s Place is as good as ever

When talking about the Little Rock restaurant elite, the conversation better damn-well include Maddie’s Place. Everything on the menu is top-notch, including the grilled oysters, fried green tomatoes, nachos and shrimp & grits, just to name a few. But it is the entree of buttermilk fried chicken breast with mac & cheese and greens that is the star for me. To no one’s surprise, Chef Brian Deloney and his kitchen staff have mastered frying a boneless chicken breast, but it’s those subtly sweet, tender collards and gooey mac that make this dish stick in your brain. The Crystal hot sauce glaze adds a little sweet heat and pop of orange color, sealing the deal on many folks’ favorite dish in town.

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Kevin Shalin
ELITE FRIED CHICKEN: Maddie’s Place.

Rad-uno

In a town lacking truly outstanding pizza options, Raduno is one of the very few to have mastered pie excellence. But make no mistake, it did not happen overnight for the SoMa eatery whose pizza was steeped in mediocrity for several years. The transformation is now complete, as evident by my last several trips, including a recent Friday lunch when my wife and I took down the Sausage + Fennel pizza. While the combination of toppings was perfect — even for this self-proclaimed fennel hater — the crust is where Raduno has made enormous strides. Now crispy and slightly doughy on the edges with a thin, bendable interior, this version has officially put the restaurant at the top of my Little Rock pizza pyramid. Per usual, we also split a Chicken Parm Sandwich and Burrata, staples of any true eating experience at the restaurant. I also advise trying one of Courtney Stowers’ cocktails. She’s masterful behind the bar, creative with her creations, and one of the few who I trust to make an ordering decision for me, like the Hot Toddy she whipped up. It was well-received on a cold afternoon.

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Kevin Shalin
SAUSAGE + FENNEL EXCELLENCE: Is waiting for you at Raduno.

Consistency is king at Brave New Restaurant

Bad meals don’t happen at Brave New Restaurant. That was proven true once again during a recent dinner, although the scallops that I typically consider to be a must-order were a little off. Smaller than normal and lacking that signature sear, these mollusks still had that delightful sweetness. However, overall, this dish took a backseat to other offerings, like the Goat Cheese Mousse appetizer and a vegetable pasta entree that our table of six split and treated as a second meal-starter. Yes, you’ll be tempted to order the Mushroom Wellington or Mixed Grill or Duck with Duck when at Brave New, but vegetarians and carnivores alike will find something to like in this pasta dish with its stalks of charred asparagus, red peppers, squash, tomato sauce, and balsamic vinegar a shot.

Kevin Shalin
GOAT CHEESE MOUSSE: At Brave New Restaurant.

Coffee at Corner Café in Maumelle

Not to knock chains but passing up Corner Café at 9823 Maumelle Blvd. in favor of the 7 Brews and Starbucks of the world is a mistake.  A big one. The cafe has this easygoing, European vibe, so order an Americano or Turkish coffee and stay awhile. Pair it with a spinach and feta pastry. The buttery, flaky work of art is just as beautiful as it is delicious. The shop also has a drive-thru, which is a critical bit of information for those on-the-go.

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Kevin Shalin
PASTRY: Spinach and feta.

The ever-popular Blackberry Market

Argenta’s Blackberry Market is already a wildly popular spot. I happen to love everything about the cafe from the mellow atmosphere to the fresh baked muffins to the Intelligentsia Coffee. Heck, I’m sitting here writing this article. Count me as a regular already. The only negative? Blackberry is almost too popular and seem to struggle with keeping up during peak times. My suggestion? Just be a little patient. It’s still early and they are still working out kinks.

Kevin Shalin
VEGGIES: The veggie sandwich at Blackberry Market.

The Fast and Fantastic China

Fantastic China never gets the attention it deserves. They handle takeout about as well as anyone, and the dine-in experience, whether it’s during lunch or dinner, is about as fast and efficient as it gets. Seriously, has your glass of iced tea ever gotten below the halfway point? Never. They also make my favorite wonton soup and the shrimp and broccoli dish is a vision.

Kevin Shalin
A VISION: Shrimp and broccoli from Fantastic China.

The Sherwood sensation, Mama’s Gyros Grill

I love to travel for food, but what I wouldn’t give for Mama’s Gyros Grill in Sherwood to be closer to the casa. Why can’t that 20-minute drive be two minutes? I’d go there once a month instead of once a year. Oh well. This is my long-winded way of saying that Mama’s is such a cool spot, and a must-stop whenever I’m in Sherwood. Get a meat-packed gyro with tzatziki, fresh diced tomatoes, and raw, chopped onion. Owner and operator Randy Akel is usually manning the kitchen. They don’t come any nicer than Randy, and the man puts a masterful grill-job on the gyro meat right before stuffing it in the pita, giving each piece a little crispiness on the edges.

Kevin Shalin
MAMA’S GYROS: Worth the drive to Sherwood.

Tidbits, openings and closings

Don’t look now but breakfast and brunch are booming in Little Rock. The Purple Cow just added breakfast as did Homer’s Kitchen Table (Saturdays only for now). Mockingbird Bar & Tacos introduced its Sunday brunch, and Flora Jean’s, the new downtown vegetarian restaurant at 433 E. Third St., offers brunch on Saturday and Sunday. YGFBFKitchen closed its West Little Rock location. The restaurant lasted about eight months in the capital city and apparently was plagued by a variety of issues, including staffing and slow service. There is, however, good news. The Conway location, where the restaurant started, is back open. Food has never been a question for YGFBFKitchen, which officially changed its name to a much easier to remember Your Best Friend’s Kitchen & Catering. Here’s hoping the restaurant can get back on track and continue to crank out great eats. South on Main closed as well, as did the very last TCBY location in Little Rock. The latter has already been blown off the map thanks to the business model of 7 Brew Coffee. Get ready folks, 7 Brew is coming. In more positive news … We are getting real deal bagels in Little Rock. Well, we’ve had them for a while now, thanks to the pop-up version of The Bagel Shop. They will be going brick-in-mortar later this year at 1501 South Main St. I am cautiously optimistic about a new pizza place in White Hall. Sylvia’s Pizzeria opened recently at 6715 Sheridan Road. As of this writing, I think they are still doing takeout-only, but dining room service is soon to follow. Another place to check out is Marty’s Place, which opened this month at 11501 Maumelle Blvd.

And Finally … My Top 10 Wings in the Little Rock Area

  1. Mockingbird Bar & Tacos
  2. Certified Pies
  3. Town Pump
  4. Four Quarter Bar
  5. HallBros2Go
  6. Lost Forty Brewing
  7. Lazy’s Petes
  8. Tim’s Tavern
  9. America’s Street Food
  10. Charlee’s Good Time Drinkery

That’s it from me. See you in February!