Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Asian cuisine has been considered a cheap option in these parts for a long time, relegated to white paper take-out containers or left to slowly wilt and die under the sneeze guards of an all-you-can-eat buffet. It's an unfortunate state of affairs for a group of culinary traditions that stretch back further than the lifespan of many Western countries. Lucky for us, more elevated options for Chinese and Japanese dining have sprung up over the years to offer a new perspective on Asian cuisine, in atmospheres that are far closer to fine dining than fast food.
The latest entrant onto this scene is A.W. Lin's, a sleek and subdued new addition to the Promenade at Chenal, a shopping center that is quickly growing into a destination for good food along with high-end consumer goods. Of all the places we've tried in the Promenade (which at this point is most of them), A.W. Lin's is among the best in terms of food, service and overall dining experience.
Stepping through the door into the modern decor of the dining room, we were greeted by no fewer than three people, including servers who wouldn't even be waiting on us and therefore had no need to butter us up for a tip. The welcoming nature of the service persisted when we met our server, Carla, who was the excellent sort we pray for every time we go out to eat: friendly, courteous, knowledgeable about the menu, and unobtrusive during the meal. We ordered some soup and salad along with an appetizer and settled in to enjoy our meal.
The first thing to hit our table were the Vegetable Spring Rolls ($3), a savory mix of shredded cabbage wrapped in a thin wonton wrapper and fried to a crisp. The cabbage was well-spiced and still slightly crunchy — a cooking style that allowed the vegetable's natural sweetness to come through. Served to the side was a sweet and sour sauce that we found to have a nice spicy kick to it that cut down on the cloying effect such sauces normally have on us. There is a pork egg roll on the menu, but these light vegetarian rolls were so good that we didn't miss the meat for a moment.
Our first soup was the Hot and Sour ($3 cup, $5 bowl), a piquant and pungent soup of tofu, bamboo shoots, peppers, and other vegetables all swimming in a rich and glossy broth. Hot and sour is one of those soups that can be hit or miss, being neither hot nor sour, but the A.W. Lin's version was a hit with us on both counts. People looking for lighter fare will be pleased by the miso soup, a simple chicken broth soup spiked with salty miso. Again, this is a simple soup that most places don't get right, often serving a variety that eats like watered-down Campbell's, but we found this cup to be quite nice, bright and robust in flavor and warming all the way down.
Paired with our soups was a House Salad ($5), a large bowl of fresh mixed greens and grape tomatoes covered by one of the best ginger dressings we've ever had the pleasure to taste. Thick and chunky with grated ginger, the dressing was still cool and creamy to the tongue with just a slight bite that grew on us as we ate more and more of it. All too often, dinner salads are afterthoughts consisting of some dry iceberg coated in store-brand ranch — this was a salad full of spinach and green leaf lettuce that we could have easily made into a light meal by itself.
We ordered entrees from both sides of the menu: one dish from the Chinese side and one from the sushi-oriented Japanese side. Our Chinese dish, or rather Chinese-by-way-of-Thailand dish, was the Pad See Ew ($11), a large bowl of wide rice noodles served with grilled shrimp and a spicy sauce that was perfectly accentuated by the lime wedges on the side. This is a dish that is a good combination of sweet, tangy, and spicy flavors, and while we thought the noodles were the perfect vehicle for the dark-soy-based sauce, it was the plump and flavorful shrimp that were the real star. Served in a family-style bowl, this is a dish that could easily feed two people.
For sushi, we decided on the Sushi Dinner ($21), a selection of tuna, yellowtail, albacore, shrimp, eel, squid, salmon and red snapper nigiri sushi, with a spicy tuna roll on the side. And because we can get a little greedy with sushi, we decided to add another roll to the plate, opting for the spicy salmon. The rolls were pretty standard, and people who like a little kick to their fresh fish should find nothing they won't like here. The nigiri sushi was some of the best we've sampled in Little Rock: thick, succulent slices of seafood on small pillows of rice that were still just slightly warm. The tuna, albacore and yellowtail were all delightful, with each bite coming through with the clean taste and buttery mouth-feel of high-quality fish. A particularly pleasant surprise was a tender piece of smoked eel, so good it made us realize that we've been missing out on good eel for years now.
The entire platter was finished by an upside-down martini glass with a sliced strawberry nestled in a thin puddle of whipped cream. It's a touch gimmicky, but we liked it.
A.W. Lin's is an impressive place, from the wonderful service to the wide range of flavors in the food. It's a place where sushi purists can find a lot to love, while their friends who don't touch raw fish can also have a number of excellent choices from the rest of the menu. The restaurant is executing well across the board, providing a meal that is as close to flawless as any we've had in recent memory. With the numerous choices present in the Promenade, it can be hard for any one place to stand out, but A.W. Lin's certainly does.