Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Heritage Grille Steak and Fin, the new restaurant inside the renovated Little Rock Marriott, by price alone has established itself as one of the city's highest-brow restaurants. Dinner entrees are $24 to $38, and that's a la carte. Sides are $6. Seafood appetizers are in the double-digits.
Those prices come with certain expectations — some of which Heritage Grille met three weeks after its Aug. 14 opening, some of which it didn't. But while there were some disappointments, more were service-related than food-related, and those would seem easier to fix as kinks get worked out.
The Marriott's multimillion-dollar redo is stunning. The lobby bar area has been replaced by a comfortable guests/visitors lounge with massive TVs and plenty of touchdown/charging stations for business travelers to simultaneously connect and unwind.
The vibe in the towering lobby is sleek and modern but comfortable and not over the top. That same look and feel characterize Heritage Grille Steak and Fin, but in a cozier way. The restaurant is highlighted by dark wood walls and a nice hardwood floor. Banquettes and tall booths share space with sturdy wood tables. There is a lot of heritage Arkansas art, stunning pictures of the signature bridges and photos from the old days of downtown Little Rock.
The hotel's bar is now inside the restaurant, and it appears on its way to becoming a popular go-to spot among hotel guests and locals alike. (It's open until midnight daily.)
Our dinner started with an odd hiccup, particularly at a new restaurant. The dinner menus presented to us weren't identical. The items were the same, but prices on one didn't match prices on the other. Our waitress had no explanation, but she knew which menu was correct and took the other one away.
We ordered a bottle of Silver Palm chardonnay, which was tasty and not exorbitantly priced, but after our glasses were poured the bottle was just set on our table rather than in an ice bucket to preserve its chill.
We started with a trio of appetizers, and though we paid fairly dearly for them, we can recommend them all. The lump crab cake ($13) is truly "lump" with minimal filler binding the crab. It's a hefty-sized cake, too. If you want no filler at all, go for the crab cocktail ($13), which presents those same lumps in all their naked glory, accompanied by a tangy Louis sauce that combines mayonnaise, chili sauce and Worcestershire. Again, the portion is generous. Finally, we passed around a crock of heavenly rich lobster bisque ($11 with a hunk of lobster claw meat lurking within). The soup had a bit of a zip and wasn't overwhelmed by the cream.
A freshly baked loaf of sourdough (with a square of creamy butter) comes standard and was a particularly apropos accompaniment for the bisque.
We went straight for the steak and fin for our main courses — a six-ounce filet ($24; the 10-ounce is $36) and the Chilean sea bass ($32). We know this is norm at many famous steak houses, but we still aren't used to our steak arriving completely unadorned on a large white dinner plate. We understand a la carte and know the sides come separately, but no garnish of any sort still makes for a naked looking plate; maybe a spring of parsley, a sprinkling of herbs or a drizzle of an infused oil might soften the look.
One section of the menu features eight "entree enhancements" — from $3 for green peppercorn sauce or to have your dish served "au poivre," to $10 for a portion of lobster. Based on our steak experience, we'd recommend stepping up to an enhancement. While the filet was cooked precisely medium rare, as ordered, it didn't have a ton of taste. We couldn't discern any salt, pepper or other flavoring. Same went for the 14-ounce heritage pork chop ($28) a buddy ordered.
The sea bass, however, was extremely flavorful — succulent, buttery and a bit crisp. It was a decent-sized filet, but $32 for a nice piece of fish alone still made us gulp a bit.
We shared three of the sides — au gratin potatoes, macaroni and cheese and grilled asparagus. We realized as soon as our wait team had departed that no serving utensils accompanied the sides. After we alerted our waitress she returned with teaspoons, not a tragedy but certainly not what you'd expect to use to serve side dishes. The gooey, cheesy potatoes had an unexpectedly heavy dose of onion that added a lot to the flavor. The mac/cheese had a crunchy breadcrumb topping and was not overly saucy. We chose the $5 lobster add-on, and we enjoyed the numerous small bites we encountered. But the dish is plenty potent on its own. The asparagus spears were larger than most but were cooked perfectly and tasted fine.
There was no dessert menu, and after our waitress recited the five choices, we asked (almost in unison): "There's nothing chocolate?" Which jogged her memory, and we ended up splitting two choices: the "chocolate bomb" and the carrot cake.
The chocolate bomb featured a hard chocolate shell drizzled with white chocolate and filled with vanilla ice cream. It was tasty in every way. We were more impressed with the thick slab of carrot cake, which had a big cinnamon kick. We thought pairing it with butter pecan ice cream sounded odd, but the flavors worked well together, and we applaud Heritage Grille for making all its desserts, including the ice cream.
We'll be back for lunch, which offers the fabulous crab appetizer, the smaller filet and a broad selection of sandwiches and substantial-sounding starters ranging from $6 to $12, as well as some higher priced plates. We expect the service side will improve.