Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Just in case you don't have time to read everything that follows, we'll do a one-word review on Zoe's Kitchen, the fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant chain that has recently opened local outlets in West Little Rock and Park Plaza Mall. Ready? Zzzzzzzoe's.
The fast/casual/fresh trend has its ups and downs. Yes, you can now get completely custom burritos, pizzas, wraps and sandwiches that actually taste like something you might want to eat, and in about as much time as it would take you to order and receive a prepackaged gutbomb at a fast-food joint. The downside is, when fast/casual/fresh misses the mark, it's usually fast/bland/disappointing, not to mention rather expensive. Fast is good. Delicious is better. All the quirky designer decor in the world can't make up for dull food.
Sadly, Zoe's seems to be a concept that misses the mark, serving up Mediterranean-influenced grub that often tastes ... well ... is beige a flavor? Hard to see how one can prepare the cuisine of one of the most colorful and flavorful regions in the world so it makes you want to fall fast asleep, face down in your Greek salad, but somehow, they've done it.
For a starter, we tried the red pepper hummus ($5.29), which came with wedges of pita bread. While the pita bread was soft, warm and fairly delicious, the hummus itself turned out to taste mostly like nothing, devoid — other than the dollop of red pepper goop in the middle — of the tangy, spicy, lemony, garlicky and/or peppery goodness that elevates hummus from mere smushed chickpeas into a substance we can eat by the pail if somebody doesn't knock us away from the trough. Our dinner companion agreed that the goop that's shipped to your local Kroger from God knows where in a plastic tub is better than Zoe's hummus, and that's being generous.
Moving on, we tried the Mediterranean chicken ($9.29), while our companions sampled the chicken roll ups with a side of pasta salad ($7.69) and the Greek chicken pita with braised white beans ($7.59).
Everything arrived quickly and hot, beautifully arranged on lovely plates. Pretty is as pretty does, however, and there ain't no ugly like boring. The Mediterranean chicken — grilled chicken breast and caramelized onions with a Greek side salad and pita bread — sure looked tasty. Once we dug in, though, we found what turned out to be possibly half a boneless chicken breast, so lacking in flavor that it might as well have been boiled. Ditto on the onions: beautiful, but dull as dishwater. How you make a grilled onion taste like it's made of cellophane, we don't know, but mission accomplished. We'd substituted a side of their marinated slaw for the braised white beans that normally come with the dish. Though the menu had boasted slaw that included feta, scallions and a light vinaigrette, what we got literally tasted like dry, shredded cabbage.
The same song was sung by our dining companions. The chicken roll ups looked fine, with feta, tomato, caramelized onions and salsa for dipping, but tasted somewhere between nursing home fare and eating a Styrofoam cup. Ditto on the pasta salad, which was almost completely dry. Ditto again for our other companion's chicken pita, which was a snooze, lovely to look at, but seemingly without any seasoning. Our pal did brag on the braised white beans, however. Pro tip: When white beans of any sort are the star of a meal, it should tell you something.
The gold standard when we're on a review run is always this: If we were dining on our own dime instead of being treated to din-din by our Rich Uncle Alan, would we return? With Zoe's Kitchen, the answer is a resounding no. While it's likely a good choice if you're counting calories or on some kind of restricted diet — there are quite a few vegetarian options, and it is a healthier choice for those watching their waistline — life is just too short to pay (with sodas) nearly $40 for what we got, especially when it had all the zing of a military MRE.
12900 Chenal Blvd.
If you're feeding a crowd (and weren't persuaded by our review), Zoe's offers family meals that feed four to six for $39.99, with your choice of chicken or veggie kabobs, grilled chicken breasts, chicken marinara or chicken or spinach roll ups, plus two fresh sides, hummus, pita bread and a Greek salad.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
All credit cards accepted, no alcohol.