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“Will this place make it?” is a natural question to ask the first time you go to a new restaurant, given the volatility and riskiness of the industry and the fickleness of the dining public. Quality of food, scope of selection, service, differentiating qualities, ambience and location all factor into that initial assessment.
And from each of those angles, we foresee a bright future for Diversion, the extremely stylish Hillcrest spot that specializes in wine, martinis and tapas. This is the second venture for co-owner Joe St. Ana, whose first establishment, Crush, is in transition as it moves from downtown Little Rock to Main Street in Argenta. And while there has been much to like about Crush, Diversion takes significant steps forward.
The former home of Lemon creperie has seen a major overhaul, with a brilliantly shiny, hip floor, a pair of elevated booth seating areas, a semi-private wine room for small parties and events, and even a pair of rotating chandeliers that are sure to be conversation starters. You'll feel good just being there. Plus, only a couple of doors down from the always hot Ferneau on the main Kavanaugh drag, Diversion has the location thing down. (OK, parking can be a bit of a pain at peak hours, but that's just the nature of the lovable Hillcrest beast.)
Crush — and By the Glass, the Heights wine bar — don't have real kitchens, serving only a nice selection of meats, cheeses, fabulous Boulevard bread and the like. Diversion's food, on the other hand, in itself is worth a trip. It's not hard to quickly familiarize yourself with the small menu: three versions of bruschetta, four paninis and five interesting takes on tapas. Heck, bring along a couple of people and try every item for a combined $83!
Our favorite of the bruschettas was the white bean ($5), the soothing, almost creamy topping nicely offset with herbs. Prosciutto and fresh mozzarella melded into a salty, gooey delight when served panini style on tender Boulevard bread, and a bag of crunchy kettle chips came along, making this a moderately substantial $7 meal. Two of the paninis are creative, meatless offerings: one featuring portabella mushroom with herbed goat cheese and one with zucchini, roasted red pepper and basil aioli.
The tapas are equally diverse, and the handful of choices should suit almost any taste. The most basic, though well executed, are the meat plate and cheese plate, each $8. The former features prosciutto, herbed sausage and hot coppa, and the latter includes St. Andre, Brie and smoked mozzarella. The key with both is the local availability of high-quality ingredients — again, likely thanks to Boulevard Bread — which wasn't necessarily the case 10 years ago.
At $10, the seared pork tenderloin is the priciest item on the food menu and also the one that comes closest to making a real meal (outside the paninis). Several tender medallions of pork are paired with well-crisped roasted potatoes and fabulous tendrils of chanterelle mushrooms, the three featured ingredients thematically joined with a generous drizzle of rich balsamic vinegar. Our forks were flying furiously as we silently competed to see who would get the larger share.
A somewhat surprising star was the squash with tomato fennel broth, which sounds soupy but isn't. A mound of cubed, well seasoned yellow squash chunks were merely dosed with the broth and served with a slab of baguette. When the chef stopped by to see how we liked everything, he said this was a family recipe he'd adapted for Diversion.
Which leads us to saying that the service on both our trips was just what you'd want. Our servers were friendly, well-informed and attentive but didn't hover and weren't painfully chatty. The decor, the selection and the overall feel of Diversion made us conclude this was a place we'd more expect to find in a larger city.
And then there is the liquid refreshment.
Food, wine and martinis each get the same one-page menu treatment. That there would be good wines at Diversion was a given with St. Ana's background at Crush and at Colonial Wine & Spirits. The appeal of Diversion's list is the variety. Rather than have a dozen choices in the predictable cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, etc., categories, Diversion features smaller groupings of many varietals — 10 types of reds, plus blends; five kinds of whites, plus blends. Then there are sparklings, sherries and ports. Plus, 36 of the selections are available by the glass. One recommendation: if you like fruit-forward, supple reds, try the Marquis Phillips Sarah's Blend ($9 a glass, $34 a bottle).
A classic, uncluttered gin or vodka martini tops the martini menu, followed by an eclectic collection that stars all sorts of vodkas, liqueurs and even Maker's Mark, Crown Royal and Southern Comfort (not in the same drink!).
Drink prices are reasonable, particularly at happy hour when a couple of high-quality wines — Avalon cabernet from Napa Valley was recently the featured red — are served for $5 a glass, and there are $4 well martinis and $2 beers.
Based on where it is, how it feels, what it serves and how it treats its customers, Diversion would seem to be on its way to attracting a large, loyal following and securing a bright future.
2611 Kavanaugh Blvd., Suite 200
A couple of premium wines are featured for $5 a glass during happy hour, 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, when well martinis and beers also are discounted.
5 p.m. until close Monday through Saturday.
Full bar. Credit cards accepted.