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Menu at Hillcrest restaurant still evolving but delivering high-quality, if unpredictable, dishes.
There is a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a beleaguered lord describes the arduous task of building his castle in the swamp. After sinking twice then burning down, falling over and sinking yet again, the fourth one stayed up.
That sort of dogged persistence is likewise in evidence when it comes to the edible offerings of Hillcrest hangout Next Bistro and Bar (though the surroundings are far more chic than swampland). It could be said that it’s one of those places with all the luck, but most of it bad lately after winter weather and power outages conspired to create havoc in the kitchen. According to staff, food stores had to be tossed not once but twice thanks to the uncaring caress of good old Mother Nature.
The result? A menu that went from tapas plates and sandwiches to nothing at all to limited selections from the original offerings all over the course of about a month. And that was only about two months into operations. Ouch.
However, recent weeks have seen a turnaround not only in having food once again for sale, but in a change of culinary approach. With a focus on happy hour and evenings out, the menu has taken a turn for the more fulfilling, with plans to make a mini menu of changing dinner selections that will vary depending on the day. At least, that’s what a bartender who doubled as our server said.
It’s a concept that seems to work for the space, itself formerly a host to Diversions wine bar and crepe-centric Lemon restaurant before that. But, being opposite another nightlife dining destination at the other end of the Ice House Revival, the location works for fancier fare. It’s a little removed from Kavanaugh’s other eateries and a touch more upscale. The front door drops patrons right at the bar (and, really, is that a bad thing?) but the back of the house plays home to several tables, most of them four toppers, before giving way to a heavily muraled private room. Being removed from the front windows and under dimmed lights — with candles on each table and cloth napkins to boot — provides an aura of intimacy that seems to lend itself well to a nicer meal out.
As to what that meal will be (other than tasty), there still seems to be some debate. A series of recent visits, the last being last week, yielded no printed menu just yet, but a roundup of the recent offerings seems to give a good hint of what’s in store. That includes higher end offerings like beef tenderloin right alongside plates like the shrimp pasta, both of which are addressed here. Chicken breast and salmon tacos (an original item) were also noted as specials last Tuesday. But staff also highly recommended an upscale twist on a down home favorite, a chicken pot pie jammed with veggies, pesto chicken and good old fashioned love (presumably). I didn’t get a chance to try the dish, but a diner at a nearby table did. A little creative spying seemed to indicate she enjoyed the selection. Quite a bit, actually.
Where the menu goes other than that is a little hard to say. A house salad seems a certainty, and one visit netted a Caesar. But it wasn’t among the dishes mentioned in the most recent visit. On the flip side, a starter plate of hummus seems to have been retained from the original menu and was offered last week, but not on a visit in January. Those seemed to be the only vegetarian friendly dishes noted, but past examples include things like stuffed mushrooms and a cheese and cracker plate, both offered in that January visit. Those may or may not end up as permanent additions.
If it all sounds a little unpredictable, well, it is. And that’s the reality of a business built on a perishable product that can be lost when disaster strikes. But to seize the opportunity as a chance to reinvent and exert some creativity, especially when it comes to creating more complex dishes in a kitchen where sandwiches have been the order of the day, is certainly commendable. In a sense, it sort of begs the question: “What’s next?” In a way, it also answers it at the same time.
Beef tenderloin ($28)
While I don’t intentionally avoid it, I find that I rarely order steak when I’m out. I usually just tend to prefer what comes off the grill at home. So, as odd as it may sound, I let the promised side dictate my choice here: mac and cheese. And that, to me, is the fun and beauty of dining out, because it led to a great meal. The tenderloin was no fuss, touched with black pepper and maybe a hint of garlic and grilled just right to medium. Topped with sweet sauteed onions and a few mushrooms, it let understatement speak volumes. As for that enticing side, it was bow tie, not macaroni, dressed beautifully in cheeses (several, I think, but Parmesan stood out) and sprinkled with just a hint of a red spice mixture. I couldn’t identify all its elements, but I’d buy it for my pasta any day. It was a fine reward for letting whim dictate the dinner decision. (sw)
Shrimp pasta ($18)
Having been told the shrimp pasta came in a pesto sauce, I was expecting your usual green basil-and-pine-nut type of thing. But this farfalle came out to me in a creamy, pinkish sauce that was a tad spicy and a lot of delicious. What else I noticed right away was that my seafood almost matched my pasta in quantity. This is clearly not a place where they skimp on the shrimp. I probably had at least a dozen tails mixed in with that creamy red pesto, which was filled with diced bits of green and red onions and red peppers, and topped with shredded Parmesan and some green garnish. The portion of the dish as a whole isn’t huge, it’s just right. But sometimes, if I’m going to pay $18 for a dish, I like to have some leftovers. Am I right? (sm)
IN A NUTSHELL
After poor weather and power outages caused a kitchen nightmare, a tapas bar is reinventing its menu as a place for more upscale dining with more complex meals.
Location: 2611 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
Phone: (501) 663-6398
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 4 p.m. - 2 a.m.; Saturday 5 p.m. - 1 a.m.
Prices: $10 - $30
Alcohol: Full bar