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In a city brimming with excellent hamburgers, it's no small feat that, a little more than a month after opening, the House appears ready to stake claim to the local burger crown. The restaurant enters the fray riding the zeitgeist. It's the latest among, suddenly, many practicing a gourmet, organic brand of localism. Which is to say, its meat is “grass fed”; its produce and bread local, and its condiments, fries and just about everything else house-made. Michael Pollan's sphere of influence knows no bounds. Now, instead of hating yourself for eating stockyard-diseased, over-processed fare, you can just hate yourself for all the cholesterol.
The restaurant comes by its name obviously. It's situated in a two-story, 80-year-old house in Hillcrest that's long served as a restaurant, most memorably as Sufficient Grounds. The new tenants are a pair of young Hendrix alumni, co-owners Josh Blevins and Nick Coffin, plus recent New England Culinary Institute grad chef Nathan Miller. They've redecorated sensibly — with new carpet upstairs and comfortable new furniture and dark hues of brown, green and blue on the walls (otherwise known as the young dude palette). Perhaps wary of appearing too sensible, they've hung modish, colorful local art throughout.
If the decor says coffeehouse, the menu argues gastropub. To be fair, there are four sandwiches — all on “House-made” country bread — including vegetarian options, like the seasonal veggie ($7) and salads of lush Arkansas seasonal fruit and greens ($6.50). But the House is nothing if not a burger joint.
In all, it offers 10 inspired options. Which is to say, non-traditional. On the menu, there's a gourmet air. “Mayo of the day” is a regular topping. But after first bite, you might conclude that it's simply the burger, evolved. The Peter Singer ($9), named, cheekily, for the “Animal Liberation” author, stands out in particular. It starts with what must be the answer to Miller's kitchen quest to find the ideal patty — a half-pound slab of ground lamb, pork, beef and roasted garlic. That comes topped with roasted tomatoes, basil mozzarella and basil mayo and on, as all the House's burgers are, a Boulevard Bread Co. bun. The BBQ burger ($8), too, is an early favorite. It's topped with a tangy, spicy, kitchen-made sauce, poured, liberally, over a roasted poblano pepper, lettuce, red onion and smoked cheddar. Other options take traditional entries — a bacon, egg and cheese burger ($9), a chili cheese burger ($8), a turkey burger ($8) — to new heights. There's even a vegan burger, the “Dirty Hippie,” composed, primarily, of a black bean, pine nut, mushroom and bulgur wheat patty. We found it a bit mushy, but then again, we don't have much experience with bulgur wheat-based foods.
The entrees come with either a delicious sherry shallot vinaigrette-topped side salad (lest you feel guilty, but not too guilty, for indulging?) or “House-cut” herb fries that aspire to, but (in one opinion, not shared by all on staff) fall just short of the Capital Hotel Bar's perfection.
Service at the House begins at the big black bar just off the entryway and follows the Vino's model. You order, either pay upfront or start a tab and take a small, numbered foam cutout of a house to your table so your server can track you down. We've noticed those little houses get lost on tables easily and servers often have to question individual tables to match numbers. Maybe a clip on the napkin stand, so as to prop the number up, is in order? Otherwise, though we've heard complaints about the order line being unwieldy (in busy times, two registers open, only one of which can process credit cards) and long wait times, in the dozen times we've visited, we've never had any problems beyond running out of drink before our server could refill.
The House, initially, promised to fill the coffee shop void in Hillcrest and offer the best breakfast in town. After a couple of weeks in business, those plans have been scrapped, mostly. Breakfast is gone and morning hours don't begin until 11 a.m. There are still a wide variety of coffee drinks. Coffin and co. have decided that they only have the manpower to fill one neighborhood need: They're serving food, daily, until midnight and serving coffee and beer until 1 a.m.
It's true the neighborhood needed another low-key spot to hang out in the wee hours. And Little Rock has long been late night food deficient. But, to digress briefly, what the hell? Are we, as a young local restaurateur recently suggested to us, really breakfast cursed? How can the area's daily options — at least without driving to West Little Rock — begin and end with Ozark Smokehouse and Satellite? A plea to investors and chefs: Bankroll a sizeable spot in the Heights or Hillcrest that gives breakfast special attention. You'll do gangbusters.
Meanwhile, here's hoping the House does gangbusters. We're not sure we can go back to regular burgers.
722 N. Palm St.
Monday through Friday, from 4 to 6 p.m., for $8 you get either a House burger (a cheeseburger, more or less) or a vegan burger and a beer. There are eight beers on tap, including four varieties of Diamond Bear, and PBR and Stag cans are always $1. There's a smart, if concise, wine list, too, with six red and six white options. On Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m. there's live, usually acoustic, music on the restaurant's side deck.
11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.
The House maintains a dynamic Facebook page, with updated specials and live music listings at facebook.com/TheHouseInHillcrest.