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OK, let's write about what's right about The Pantry, the new restaurant occupying the former digs of Gypsy's (and before that Alouette's) on Merrill Drive off Rodney Parham Road:
• The spicy oil the shrimp “nibbles” came soaked in.
• The sugar-dusted apple strudel the size of a number 12 shoe.
• The unadulterated cheesecake.
• The “rustic bowl,” which the night we visited included chicken and pasta.
• The bratwurst, made in-house.
• The folks who work there: Owner Tomas Bohm, a Czech determined to make it on the restaurant scene (but who chose an odd name for a restaurant that features brats and strudel).
Executive chef Titus Holly, who came by the table a couple of times to see if we liked what he was serving.
• The attentive wait staff.
• The gin and tonics.
• The outdoor dining, in a fenced patio off the front of the restaurant.
Let's elaborate. What's right about a place are those things that make you go out and spend your hard earned-money instead of staying in and cooking yourself; food you wouldn't bother to make because you might muck it up, served in a place that's lovelier and more atmospheric than your dining room, where the week's mail and assorted school books are stacked on the table. At least that's our modus operandi.
So about the shrimp from the “nibbles menu,” a serving of six itsy-bitsy garlicky shrimps. We four shared them — which literally amounted to a nibble for each — along with another micro go-before, salmon on crostini with feta cheese. The seafare was fine, but it was the hot, red-chili infused oil that we eagerly downed, sopping it up with the bread (soft, white) brought to the table.
While the “nibbles” are truly ephemeral, the entrees are hearty, comfort food. Of the four entrees we tried, the Pantry's one-pot offering, the “rustic bowl,” got the biggest bow. It varies from night to night; when we dined, it was chicken sauteed in parmesan cheese and tossed with tube pasta in a red sauce. The Pantry Pie, a goulash beef stew, was dominated by a topping of mashed potatoes and the diner who chose it would have preferred more stew. Four grilled bratwurst sausages, made in the Pantry's own kitchen and accompanied by sliced, fried potatoes and sauerkraut, made a good meal; the brats are subtly flavored. The sauerkraut was a tad on the sweet side; some go for that, some don't. We have to give a thumbs down, sadly, on the roast pork shoulder. The pork was overcooked; the accompanying potato pancakes were discs of glue. Not even the red cabbage, which we love, could salvage things. But, as we mentioned earlier, we had a good-sized and strong gin and tonic to keep us happy.
There's some dissonance in the Pantry's offerings — which includes mussels, a New York strip, a daily fish stew, farm-raised trout, salads and panini sandwiches — and the chic setting of mustardy walls painted with fleur de lis. This isn't fancy food. But that's OK, as long as The Pantry makes sure the meals are a step above the kind of comfort food you make at home. (Not making homemade brats at my house, no sir.)
The desserts, as we said, were delicious. There's nothing in this world like New York-style cheesecake, and The Pantry eschews chocolate swirls and cherries and other cheesecake abominations to do it right. The warm strudel and ice cream made up for the sins of the pork.
Owner Bohm is an earnest, nice guy who really wanted to please. Chef Holly is late of So restaurant, the fancy bistro in the Heights. The potential is there. The outdoor dining is lovely. When the larder is bare, we'll give the Pantry another chance.
11401 Rodney Parham Road
The Pantry is making dinners-to-go; they're packaged and ready after 4:45 p.m. Call or go to www.littlerockpantry.com to see what the daily dinner is.
4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Dinner for four with two appetizers, four entrees, three drinks and two desserts just broke $100. Credit cards accepted; full bar.