Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
When restaurants start giving free meals in their first days of operation we’ll stop offering assessments based on food and service during those early days.
But having said that, we can’t remember EVER getting better service than we received at the new Crew Restaurant and Bar in the Pleasant Ridge Towne Center on Highway 10.
It was the first week of operation. A Friday night of a Razorback game day at that. Our team-style service by the black-T-shirt-clad crew was so solicitous, so quick, so persistent that we wanted to shout, “Ignore us a minute, will ya? Let me drain that water glass to the bottom just once!”
Crew’s niche? Hard to define. From the outside, where you could see a thicket of beer taps and big TVs tuned to football, we expected maybe a Friday’s, albeit with sleek, modern decor in place of kitsch. It actually is far nicer inside than it appears from outside, though a little bare and hard for our tastes, with the polished concrete flooring, wooden tables and interior adornment mostly in the form of dangling light globes.
The jeans-wearing waitstaff tells you that casual is OK, but it’s still dressy enough for date night. The menu is broad and occasionally intriguing, not just fern bar fare.
A jaded member of our party described it as “Applebee’s plus 10 bucks,” but I found it much more ambitious. (And I’m not knocking Applebee’s, which uniformly delivers reliable, popular food. Right, Ricky Bobby?)
I love a place that offers three daily soups (butternut squash, spicy white bean and black bean chili have been recent choices), but we had other plans. Among starters including sauteed tiger shrimp, crab cake ravioli, portobello fries and baked brie, we chose cigar rolls. Those were crunchy spring rolls ($5.95), stuffed with Szechuan pork and accompanied by a sweet soy dipping sauce. Yum.
We also love interesting, meal-sized salads. Score another point for Crew for beet salad with walnuts and goat cheese, Cobb salad, club salad (with turkey and bacon), Chinese chicken salad and Caesar salad topped with chicken, shrimp or, for us, a huge filet of moist, mild salmon ($7.50 for a bucket portion of greens).
The dinner menu will take multiple trips for adequate exploring — from a Southwestern flavored chicken dish, to braised lamb shank with garlic mashed potatoes, to Cajun-style shrimp, chicken and corn maque choux, to a giant blackened pork chop, to duck breast and steak, stir fry, pasta and fish.
Overwhelmed by the variety, we defaulted to the menu’s top-dollar item, a $23.95 ribeye. It’s big, flavorful and was cooked rare, as ordered. It comes with a cup of what’s said to be house-made steak sauce, a savory dip similar to many bottled varieties but good just the same. The steak also came with rosemary-flecked shoestring french fries — if not the best in the city as good as we can recall in a long while. Other vegetable sides were included — a choice of French green beans, sauteed vegetables and, hold your hat, pureed beets. Entrees, not counting sandwiches, start at $12.95 for blackened catfish.
Sandwiches and wraps — chicken, burgers, club, reuben (stacked high, but short on Russian dressing at our lunch visit), pulled pork (full of overly nuked meat), roast beef, roasted vegetables — dominate the lunch menu and cost around $6, with the obligatory fries $1.75 extra. You can eat sandwiches at night, too, making this an affordable oasis for Parisian department store shoppers, and West Little Rock neighbors.
Desserts ($5 to $6) are big enough to share and house-made, our waitress said. Cheesecake, chocolate mousse, pecan tart (with a superfluous chocolate drizzle), white chocolate bread pudding (a little bland), fudge brownie sundae, espresso creme brulee. Top marks for the apple crisp with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. Four of us dipped into it, finding, firm, tart apples beneath the crunchy topping. It tasted fresh-made and it satisfied on an autumn evening.
Another thing we like: the 10 beer, ale and cider choices on tap (a pint of Stella Artois for us, thanks), plus 40 or so more in the bottle, and the two groups of identically priced wines by the bottle and glass. Full bar, too. And 40-year-old port, if you must know.
Quibbles: We might turn down the music a little — some pop and rock identifiable to the younger people in our group but not the fogeys. There’s nothing to be done about the horrendously designed traffic approaches to this shopping center except to pray. Still, it’s worth taking your best shot to drop by Crew, a promising new stop that reflects the strong professional resume of owner/chef Scott Holtzhouser. He has a similar Crew restaurant in New York, among other restaurant ventures.
Crew Restaurant and Bar
11525 Cantrell Road
Pleasant Ridge Towne Center
Take a bite of the apple. A cider to start and the apple crisp to finish. Don’t miss the French fries.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, except 9 p.m. close on Sunday.
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.