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We're of a mixed mind about restaurants that change their menus on a regular basis. On the one hand, we're creatures of habit, and when we find something we like, we want it to still be there when we go back. On the other hand, a changing menu means we can keep trying a restaurant if there's nothing that particularly appeals to us on any given visit.
We're not sure which way we'd prefer Imagine to do things — we ate there twice in the space of a month, and would have been sorely tempted to order the same thing both times (Caprese salad, New York strip with green beans and cheddar au gratin potatoes) if we'd had the option. But this is a restaurant that features locally grown produce — a very good thing — which pretty much demands that the menu change with the seasons.
Since the Caprese salad and au gratin potatoes are no more, we'll focus on the fall menu here, except to say that our first dinner at Imagine was all but flawless from start to finish.
The restaurant is located in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center, which is unfortunate only because an expansive bank of plate glass windows worthy of a much nicer view instead looks out over the Belk parking lot. But that's fixed easily enough if there are empty seats at your table — just sit facing the other way. The restaurant's décor is all warm reds and oranges, from the mahogany chairs to the hues in the contemporary artwork on the walls.
Imagine's chef/owner, Adam Rosenblum, moved here with his wife after Hurricane Katrina. They opened the restaurant a year ago, with plans to use Arkansas-grown meats and produce as much as possible.
In late October and early November, that means squash and green beans, which feature prominently in the side dishes. The sides, by the way, get a lot of attention at Imagine. It's one of those rare restaurants where you could just order side dishes and be at least as happy as you would be with an entree.
We started things off right, with a look at the wine list. Imagine's, thankfully, includes more than a token offering or two off the beaten cab/merlot/chardonnay path: Half a dozen pinot noirs, two sangioveses, a viognier, even an organic French rose. We settled on a bottle of Cambria pinot noir ($43), a choice we'll happily recommend.
The appetizer menu is heavy on the seafood: Mussels, scallops, fried calamari, jumbo shrimp. There are also three salads, a flatbread pizza that changes daily, and butternut squash soup. Prices range from $5 for the soup to $10 for the mussels.
We went with one of the salads — mixed greens with goat cheese, candied walnuts, orange segments and an apple vinaigrette dressing ($6.50). We didn't notice much flavor in the vinaigrette, but the salad didn't need it — the cheese, nuts and fruit were perfect left to their own devices.
Our companion ordered the fried calamari ($9), which came with a basil aioli and a charred tomato sauce for dipping. His verdict: better than calamari he's had just about anywhere else. Served in strips, not rings, Imagine's version is more lightly breaded than we're used to seeing, and not as crispy — so it had less of that generic fried-food taste. The basil aioli in particular was delicious.
The entree options at Imagine are all over the place: seafood bouillabaisse, Arkansas-bred rabbit, duck breast, cod, salmon, Ahi tuna, lamb chops, chicken breast with a rosemary stuffing. And according to a note on the menu, they'll happily whip up a special request, particularly a vegetarian entree.
The New York strip is still on the menu, served now with Tuscan potatoes, Arkansas squash and a red-wine reduction sauce ($30). Good as that sounded, we branched out to the pork loin, which came with braised red cabbage and a hash of sweet potatoes, apples and walnuts. The pork loin — all-natural, as is the New York strip — was cooked perfectly, but it's the hash that really stood out: an inventive sweet/tart, mix that even won over our sweet-potato-hating companion. If we ever find ourselves alone in Rosenblum's kitchen, that's the recipe we'll go for first.
Our companion ordered the 8-ounce filet mignon, served with a four-cheese macaroni, Arkansas green beans and a mushroom demi-glace. The steak was very tender, cooked a perfect medium-rare, he said, and the demi-glace complemented the meat nicely without overpowering it. The macaroni and cheese, we can attest, was heavenly — rich and thick and so flavorful we couldn't stop stealing bites.
Fortunately, Imagine doesn't load your plate down with enough food for three people, because this is not a place to skip dessert. Choices include a cheesecake and creme brulee of the day, a creamsicle float and a berry tart with lemon-infused caramel. We ordered the old-fashioned ice-cream sundae and our companion chose the chocolate walnut pie, which came with a scoop of ice cream. The sundae wasn't quite old-fashioned — its base was a piece of spiced pound cake with a scoop of ice cream, a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a mound of whipped cream. We were on a chocolate tear, though, so we passed it along to our companion after a couple of bites and tucked into the chocolate walnut pie. Heavenly.
The service was exactly as you'd like it, attentive but not overbearing.
Overall, Imagine is a little expensive to be a regular stop for us — dinner for two with a bottle of wine and tip was $170, although we could have trimmed it considerably if we'd had the notion — but with food this good and a menu that changes with the seasons, we'll be back come springtime.
11525 Cantrell Road
(Pleasant Ridge Town Center)
Side dishes shine here thanks to the chef's emphasis on local, seasonal produce, but you can't go wrong with any of the entrees. There's enough variety to please any whim.
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; dinner 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday through Saturday; brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Reservations and credit cards accepted. Full bar, great wine list.