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Tomas Bohm is doing many things right at The Pantry, his uber-cool yet comfortable restaurant in West Little Rock.
The Czech native has created an interesting but approachable menu that includes several items true to his heritage, and there's not a lot of local competition in the schnitzel/spaetzle sphere. He buys locally grown and produced foods and makes most things from scratch, including bratwurst. He spends much of his time going table to table, and his ability to make people feel welcome is clear. That has helped create a loyal group of regulars. And he's created a nice vibe in the bar and offers happy-hour specials that draw crowds to an area of town not teeming with fun places to hang out.
All of that combines to create a pleasant experience in sharp contrast to the atmosphere at the many chain restaurants prevalent out west.
The Pantry sits on hallowed ground — the space where decades earlier Alouette's became the first fine-dining offshoot of the famed Restaurant Jacques and Suzanne. Later, chef/owner Denis Seyer, one of the star J&S alums, morphed Alouette's into the more casual Gypsy's Grill. The Pantry is the logical next step in that direction.
The crowning glory would be if every dish at the Pantry was as successful as the concept, approach and atmosphere. But a fairly thorough testing of the menu resulted in only slightly fewer misses than hits. Coincidentally, our first visit, for lunch, comprised all the misses, while a return trip for dinner was mostly a hit parade.
First, lunch: We'd never seen deviled eggs on a restaurant menu, so we just had to try the Pantry's truffled version ($4.95). We found them creamy, a bit over-whipped, and somewhat bland. Exactly what they needed wasn't clear. That they needed something was.
Bland became a theme. The mushroom soup ($3 for a cup) was thin with little zip, not off-putting but boring. Same with the homemade pate — whipped light, certainly creamy, not overly liver-whang-y, but lacking in herb, spice or zing.
Ditto the weiner schnitzel ($9.50), a huge slab of pork, battered and fried crispy. Other than the juice of the accompanying lemon wedge there was no taste enhancer, and it needed one. Double ditto the porchetta sandwich ($8.50), slices of overcooked pork topped with a red cabbage and served between way-too-thick slices of artisan bread.
We left lunch dissatisfied and a bit puzzled. Nothing was inherently wrong, but every dish was missing the magic. Or maybe our taste buds were napping. We loved everything about the Pantry but the food; yet it had the potential to wow. And when we came back for dinner, it did.
The 180-degree difference surely owed only to our selections. The cheese spaetzle ($6.95) is a decadent cousin to mac/cheese — homemade noodles in creamy bechamel sauce, served in a small casserole dish. While creamy and dreamy good, it could have been boring, but it wasn't, thanks to the kick of caramelized onion.
It's been a while since we have enjoyed a main course as much as the Pantry's "Stock Pot" ($14.75). Tender filets of cod swim in a delicate fish stock dosed with dill and accompanied by long slices of perfectly crispy yet tender carrot and fennel. This was a subtle but flavorful dish. We were early diners, having hit the Pantry right after work, so we were surprised when the waitress told us we got the last "Stock Pot" of the night. Turns out his supplier was out of fresh fennel, Bohm told us. No fennel, no "Stock Pot."
Though it didn't seem the right choice on a 103-degree day, we also opted for the Pantry pie ($8.95), a twist on shepherd's pie — mashed potatoes layered atop a succulent goulash stew and baked. The strong points here were the bold flavor of the stew (almost like a beef burgundy) and the tender, succulent hunks of beef.
Bratwurst is not traditionally a side item, but we didn't want to miss the first homemade bratwurst we'd encountered in a Little Rock restaurant. And at $3.75, it was affordable. The Pantry's brat is a subtle delight, more the thickness of a regular hot dog, served on a soft roll and topped with pungent but slightly sweet homemade kraut. Add spicy mustard and you have a damn fine meal — or accompaniment in our case.
Were we to have taken another step down the gluttony highway, we know where it would have led — to the "Rustic Bowl," the Pantry's one-pot meal whose ingredients and price vary each day based on what's on hand. It offers printed proof of the restaurant's reliance on fresh ingredients and its trust in chef Titus Holly's ability to make something great out of what's in season and in stock.
Journalistic obligation forced us to order a couple of desserts (it's a dirty job ... blah, blah, blah). The honey brulee ($6) was a bit thicker and more custard-like than most brulees, tasty but with little direct honey taste. The "chocolate salami" ($6.50) is named, we were told, for its shape, and if so it must be because the three crunch slices of chocolate and nuts, layered with vanilla ice cream, look something like sliced salami in texture. A bit of a stretch, but who cares — this is good stuff.
Best we can tell, Bohm's formula is working. We've already been back for happy hour — got to love a $2 Boulevard Pale Ale in addition to other drink and other appetizer specials. We know we'll be back to eat. We also know what we will and won't order.
11401 Rodney Parham Road
Most area diners are more unfamiliar with German and Czech dishes than other ethnic cuisines more common in these parts. One can't-go-wrong jumping off point is the cheese spaetzle ($6.50), a decadent cousin of mac/cheese — homemade noodles in creamy béchamel sauce with a nice caramelized onion kick. Creamy and dreamy.
11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday.
Full bar. Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted.