As if great beer weren't reward enough, you can earn prizes for sampling local craft beverages
When last we checked in with the Afterthought Bistro and Bar, the restaurant portion of the shared dining/bar space was still called Vieux Carre, and a promising young chef named Greg Wallis had just come from a stint at Ya-Ya's Eurobistro to take the helm after a change in ownership. Fast-forward a year and a half, and Vieux Carre is no more — and neither is Wallis, who took over chefing duties down the street at the newly opened Kemuri. Now, both bar and restaurant are called the Afterthought, an unfortunate choice, because the biggest afterthought here is the food.
Warning sign number one: It's 6:30 p.m. in Hillcrest, and we're struggling to find a parking spot. All around us, people are walking (often being towed by dogs), and the neighborhood's nightlife is gearing up. Having finally found a spot to park, we enter the Afterthought's dining room, sure that there will be a wait for a table ... only to find that we are the only diners there, and although a group of about a dozen people showed up soon after for an event in the private dining room, we remain the only diners in a quiet and empty space for the entirety of our meal. Worry begins to set in.
Warning sign number two: We take a look at the menu, which used to be a small selection of Creole dishes and bistro sandwiches, but has now swelled into a bloated, unfocused mish-mash of things that no one kitchen could ever pull off well. There are burgers and sandwiches, flat bread pizzas, a selection of tacos, and a few entrees that seem to be sad, forlorn holdouts from the previous regime's repertoire. Generally, when a place has this sort of random, hodge-podge menu, it means the kitchen has no real focus, something that was soon to be proven woefully correct.
Our troubles begin right at the start, with an order of Salmon Bruschetta ($8). Good points: decent bread, some flavorful pickled onions, and a thin layer of dill-scented cream cheese. Bad points: all those good points were knocked to the curb by a layer of fishy, funky smoked salmon that left a taste in our mouths that would stick with us for most of the meal. When fish is this fishy, it's a sure sign that freshness went the way of the dodo sometime back.
Our other starter, the Southern Salad ($8) isn't much better. Described on the menu as containing "roasted peaches," we find ours to be closer in consistency to chewy rubber without any of the caramelized flavor that normally comes with a roasted fruit or vegetable item. A spattering of spiced walnuts does little to help out this dreary plate, nor do the globs of bland goat cheese. Top all of this off with a vinaigrette that was supposed to be "champagne" but was over-flavored with garlic and what's left is a salad doomed from the beginning.
Entrees follow the same uninspired theme. An order of crabcake sliders ($13) manages to be an insult to crabs, cake and sliders all at once: mushy, fishy, and bland, these crab patties aren't even worth the bread they were served on. The Farmhouse Burger ($9), ordered medium, comes out cooked so well done that we joked that the kitchen must have misunderstood our request and sent us a burger that could talk to the dead. Doubly well-done is the egg atop the chewy patty, and the whole sad affair is sealed by the greatest of Arkansas sins: a bland, soggy, store-bought tomato — and this, during the season of abundance.
We finish this farce with the only reasonably well-prepared dish of the night, the Shrimp and Grits ($16). The grits are nicely cooked, and have a good texture and flavor, but the shrimp is overcooked, under-seasoned — just hopelessly dreadful. When the best that can be said after a meal is that the grits were decent, it's a sign that significant problems exist.
We say all this not as a rant, but rather a lament. The Afterthought is located on some prime real estate in one of the most popular parts of town. It's clear that the bar business has been keeping the restaurant side afloat for some time, but that's no excuse for a menu that reads like Applebee's and tastes worse. Our advice to the Afterthought would be this: Spend some coin to hire another good chef, and give him or her completely free rein to do whatever he or she wants. Barring that, at least pick a theme and move away from pizza, tacos and Southern food all on one huge menu. This restaurant has been great and the past, and perhaps it will be again, but for now: Don't get the fish.