A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.
Oak Street Bistro may be known outside Faulkner County primarily as one of the two Conway restaurants that earlier this year were granted private-club permits that allow them to serve alcohol in exchange for charging diners a nominal membership fee once a year.
The other one, Mike’s Place, garnered media attention because it was big, new and expensive. But Oak Street has been quietly plugging away in the heart of Conway for years, a popular spot with the ladies-who-lunch crowd, serving up creative sandwiches and salads and its signature Paradise tropical tea in an informal, colorful Old-World atmosphere. The addition of wine and beer accompanied an expansion into dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights.
We were pleasantly surprised — although we’re sure Oak Street’s proprietors weren’t — to arrive at the restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night and be shown immediately to a table, after we’d filled out our membership application and paid the $5 fee. (It’s good for a year, and only one person in a party has to be a member.)
Our first concern was the wine list, which includes a little mini-essay on how the wines were chosen with special care to pair with foods on the menu. It was about evenly divided between reds and whites, and while it wasn’t the most extensive, there was a nice variety — not all chardonnays, cabs and merlot. We put off our choice until we could look over the menu — and were a little surprised to find that there wasn’t much we could find that we would have ordered red wine with: the menu is heavy on salads, chicken and seafood sandwiches, and cream-sauce pastas. There are a few burgers to choose from, but Oak Street’s beer list is plenty deep enough to cover them.
The mystery wasn’t solved for us, unfortunately, until we were on our way out of the restaurant — but more on that later.
We started with an order of spinach dip with herbed pita chips. Our companion stuck with the beer list (Sam Adams).
The spinach dip caught us off guard — it was served cold, unlike just about every other place we’ve had it — but it was actually very good, with maybe a little less cheese than we’re used to, but with a nice creamy texture and a good flavor. We no doubt would have eaten a lot more of it if our main courses hadn’t arrived just a few minutes later.
It wasn’t exactly the ideal pace for dinner, but we got over it once we tasted our entrees and quickly figured out we’d much rather finish them than fill up further on something so prosaic as spinach dip.
From almost a dozen sandwiches, we chose the Chicken Milan ($8.95), a grilled chicken breast served with smoked Gouda cheese, prosciutto and garlic aioli on toasted ciabatta bread. (Other sandwich options include crab salad, a muffaletta, a Southwestern wrap and the chicken bacon ranch panini, which sounded a little too much like a Wendy’s sandwich-of-the-month for our taste.) The sandwich’s insides were delicious in their own right — the smoky cheese perfectly enlivened the chicken, which, let’s face it, will never be that interesting on its own. But without taking anything away from that, what really made the sandwich exceptional was the toasted dusting of dried herbs on the outside of the bread. It’s one of the best sandwiches we’ve ever had.
Nor were we disappointed with our side, which we chose from several salads and soups: the Home Style Sweet Broccoli Salad, which included raisins, sunflower seeds and — very importantly — crumbled bacon, all tossed in a creamy sweet-and-savory dressing. No one could dislike broccoli served this way.
In fact, the only part of the meal we would have done differently was the glass of Santa Margherita pinot grigio we ordered. It was fine — medium-bodied, fruity — but at $9 a glass, not worth the cost.
Our companion skipped the sandwiches and went for the “spicy” shrimp pasta, a base of angel hair tossed with shrimp, tomatoes, spinach, and garlic butter sauce. We put quote marks around “spicy” because his judgment was that it wasn’t — although he acknowledged his preferences probably run to the hot side of average. Oak Street serves its pastas as half or whole orders, and our companion had no problem finishing off a whole ($12.50).
We finished off our meal with a piece of bourbon pecan pie, served hot with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream. Add bourbon to just about anything and we’ll be happy, but we didn’t even have to try hard to love this pie. Unfortunately for you, desserts at Oak Street vary by the week, so who knows what you’ll have to make do with if you go.
Back to that red-wine mystery. We’d been surprised at both the abundance of red wine choices and the scarcity of more traditional dinner entrees on the menu — we hadn’t had a sandwich and salad in mind when we sat down. As we left, though, we heard another server tell a newly arrived group about the night’s two specials: filet mignon and a grouper dish. Our server hadn’t mentioned the existence of specials, the menu made no reference to them, and a chalkboard set up by the hostess station had been blank.
Oak Street Bistro
713 Oak St.
The sandwiches star here, and don’t miss the creative side salads. Be sure to ask about dinner specials. A $5 membership fee buys you the ability to have a drink with your meal in dry Faulkner County. In trying for the dinner crowd, the restaurant could stand more of a specific dinner menu.
11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.