By Todd Barron @ FoodieCuisine.com
My wife and I joined three of our long time friends (one a husband/wife couple) for dinner at The Pantry in Little Rock, Arkansas last night. We had not planned on going out to eat there but were hungry after leaving our friend’s 40th Birthday Party (Happy 40th Shane!). We showed up at around 7:30pm and were told there would be a twenty minute wait. Not too bad, especially given the multi-hour long waits you can experience in larger metropolitan areas. We took our seats and proceeded to wait.
After about forty-five minutes we got the impression that they had forgotten us. One of our group members complained and we were seated within just a few minutes. Something tells me they did indeed forget us. Anyways, on with the show. I really enjoy the decor of the restaurant as it has nice warm colors and feels very inviting. I forgot to mention earlier that the waiting / bar area was very nice and had a few tables to eat at. It appeared to have a nice bar as well. The place has been completely overhauled from before when it was Gypsy’s Restaurant. The structure and layout is still the same but nothing else is.
As it turns out, we picked probably the worst night to review the restaurant. We were seated next to an 18-top table. For the non-restaurant speakers out there that means a table that had 18-seats or people at it. Look at the picture I posted above and notice the wall on the right side. A group had pushed together all the chairs and tables on that side of the restaurant to form one long table full of people. They were also insanely loud. I think the libations may have blocked their hearing canals given how loud they were. The restaurant staff even had to partially shut the doors towards the back of the restaurant to block some of the noise from the back room. Unfortunately, we were in the corner in the same room with the loud group and had nowhere to go. I understand enjoying a good time, but at some point you need to listen to how loud the group you are in is and assist in reducing the noise output. I’ve done this many times when in large groups and it’s an easy and courteous thing to do. If the group is being too loud, point it out to your group and tell them to lower their voices some.
Now on to the service and the food. We had a friendly waitress who was attentive to us given the rather large distraction next to us. We received our drinks and placed our appetizer order after about ten minutes. I prefer to place drink orders right away, along with appetizer orders, but gave them some slack given the circumstances. I ordered The Pantry’s Board ($16.75) for the entire table to share. It’s a meat and cheese board complete with Smoked Pork, House Made Pate, Italian Ham, Feta Cheese, Kalamata Olives, Toasted Bread, and what appeared to be homemade bratwurst. The pate is made from chicken livers and had a nice flavor to it. The bratwurst was the most tender bratwurst I’ve ever had and was very well cooked. The only problem I had with the bratwurst was that it lacked a spice kick. I expected more spice to it given how well it was prepared and was a little disappointed in that category. The cheese was, well, cheese. The smoked pork was too smoky tasting for my liking and was a bit dry. Overall, I give the appetizer high marks though and would order it again.
In addition to the Pantry’s Board we also ordered (2) orders of Truffled Deviled Eggs ($4.95 per order.) You receive (4) small half-eggs per order which is why we ordered (2) of them. The deviled eggs are made out of small eggs, and are sliced on the bottom so that they stand up well on the board they bring them out on. The eggs have the deviled mix in the middle as you would expect and are topped with a small Parmesan cheese crisp. I ended up eating (3) of the eggs, way too many for me, but somebody had to do it and they were too good to let go to waste. Of everything I had for dinner the deviled eggs were the best choice. I would definitely order them again and recommend you try them out if you visit.
We finished off the appetizers and then waited for our entrees. We ended up waiting half an hour or so, which is too long to wait between courses. You typically should wait no more than ten to fifteen minutes at a restaurant. They have to turn tables to make money after all and they don’t need you sitting around any longer than you have to. The entrees all arrived, with the roasted pork shoulder coming last, and we dug in.
I had given up on ordering lasagna at restaurants because I am always disappointed. My family has lasagna every Christmas, instead of Turkey, and I look forward to it all year. My grandfather used to make the lasagna and since he passed away my grandmother has taken over for him. They were both kind enough to share the family recipe secret with me several years ago though and now, on occasion, I make my own pan of lasagna. The lasagna takes (2) days to complete though and is quite expensive to make; therefore, I only make it once or twice a year. The point here is that the lasagna I get for Christmas or that I make myself tastes much better than anything I can buy at a restaurant. But, this time I heard how much the staff at The Pantry likes the lasagna, and the menu says it uses homemade pasta. I love homemade pasta, and it’s such a rare thing to find in Arkansas that I had to order the Lasagna al Forno ($12.50) for my entree. So how was it? Did the world break out in peace and song after I ate it? Turn on the news and you will find otherwise unfortunately. The lasagna was well baked, and had a good flavor to it, it just lacked the punch I expected. It kind of reminds me of the bratwurst. It looks like it should be good, and has all of the textures done right, and appears homemade, but it lacks kick or spice. Maybe the chef is going after more generic palates? The pasta did taste fresh, which gives them high marks in my book. Overall it tasted good, it just wasn’t great. Would I order it again? Probably not, but then again, I’m very picky when it comes to lasagna. It was better than some of the other dishes we received though. Read on for more info on those.
My wife ordered the NY Strip ($24.95) and asked for it to come Medium Rare. Interestingly enough, steak is very simple to cook but is also very easy to mess up. Most of the restaurants I have been to don’t know how to cook a steak properly. And the ones that do know how, are inconsistent. Sometimes it has a perfect crust with tender red meat in the middle. Other times you have no crust at all, or even worse, it’s overcooked. The stars were in alignment this time around though as the steak was cooked perfectly! It could have been trimmed more and was not a super high grade of meat, but then again, we didn’t expect a US Prime steak either. It had seasoning applied very well and tasted great with the addition of melted butter on top. I wouldn’t have changed anything with it, except maybe use a higher grade of meat. But, like I said, for the price you can’t expect US Prime or better. I would order it in the future.
Our friend ordered the special of the night, called the Rustic Bowl ($15.00 but price varies.) It changes every week or so and this time it was a shrimp dish with tomatoes, tarragon, green beans, and some other flavors. It looked and tasted like shrimp with marinara sauce except the tarragon gave it a sweet flavor I wouldn’t expect in a marinara sauce. It tasted okay but wasn’t anything special. I’m a little perplexed as to what the chef was thinking as the dish was missing something. Maybe they should have tossed it with a fresh angel hair pasta? It was seasoned well but I wouldn’t order that particular special again. I hear it changes every week though so I’d have to see what it is the next time I visit. And yes, I do plan on going back.
Our other friend had the Wiener Schnitzel ($11.95). Schnitzel is fried pork and has its origins in Austria. The Wiener Schnitzel was served with potatoes and lemon. He was going to order the Jager Schnitzel, which is promised to be smothered in a mushroom gravy, but was steered towards the Wiener Schnitzel by the waitress and our friend who recommended the place. I really wish he would have gotten the Jager Schnitzel though. The Wiener Schnitzel looked great and was very tender. It lacked any spice though and was extremely bland. I would never order it again unless they promised to change the spice characteristics. It was the strangest thing, and seems to carry the reoccurring theme of the restaurant. The pork was fried perfectly and was tender. The sides that came with it were good too. In the end, it was under spiced and lacked much flavor and that is a foul ball in the food world. He did order a side of potato dumplings with cabbage and onions. They tasted okay, although uneventful. If you were really hungry I could see ordering them, but they were not something I would order in the future.
Last but not least, our third friend had ordered the Roasted Pork Shoulder ($11.95). The dish is exactly what you would expect and was served with Czech potato dumplings and braised red cabbage. The pork tasted great and was very tender. It had a great spice flavor to it and although was very basic, is something I would order again. It’s funny that I don’t have much to say about this dish but it was good and there isn’t much I would change on it. Of all of the entrees, this one was my favorite and I recommend it.
We also ordered a Goat Cheese Flatbread ($10.95) to split with the group. It would have been too much food but we did order dinner with this article in mind. I had to take one for the team and order a variety of things….It’s a tough job but someone has to do it! I expected a flat pizza of sorts with goat cheese, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and olive oil. What we received though was a burnt square of flatbread, with a few dollops of goat cheese, some onions, and no mushrooms to be seen. There was however a large mound of salad in the middle with cucumbers. The cheese and other toppings did not come close to covering the flatbread. If I would have ordered the flatbread as a main entree I probably would have asked for a refund. It was that bad. I have no idea how the taste was supposed to be but my bread was so burnt and hard that I couldn’t enjoy the food. Adding the salad in the middle to a piece did help by adding some much needed moisture, but the flavor profile was all wrong. I never plan on ordering a flatbread again and was very disappointed with their execution of the dish. The unfortunate part here, outside of them not getting money from me again on the dish, was that is sounded great. The flavors would work together and would taste great if it was executed properly. Burnt bread and too few toppings do not equal proper execution though. Never again on this one.
By the end of dinner we had spent two and half hours as the restaurant and were hoarse from trying to yell to talk to one another. The very loud group next to us left about (5) minutes before we did and the restaurant let out a sigh of relief when they exited. At least it was good to hear from the other tables that they were just as annoyed as us. The restaurant staff also apologized extensively and recognized the problem. I can’t think of much they could have done about it though. They do have a private dinning room but it had regular patrons in it.
The tab for my wife and I’s portion came to $80 USD which is very reasonable given the amount of food we had. My wife had two glasses of wine in that amount of time and I had a glass of iced-tea. While there were some misfires, I really enjoyed the Pantry Board, the Deviled Eggs, and the Roasted Pork and may go back in the future for those.
(501) 353 – 1875
11401 Rodney Parham
Little Rock, AR 72212
Lunch: Mon-Fri 11-4
Dinner: Mon-Sat 4-Midnight
Bar: Mon-Sat 4-till