Collins to work toward increasing visitation to Arkansas by groups and promoting the state's appeal
As a former Park Hill resident, we were pleased when voters there approved alcohol sales in the cool North Little Rock neighborhood. We've often thought Park Hill was like Hillcrest with less expensive houses, but no place to get a cocktail. Voters changed that in 2013, making Park Hill "damp" (but not "wet" — there are no liquor stores).
Ira's Park Hill Grill, in the Lakehill Shopping Center, might be the only bar in the neighborhood. We liked the place when it was E's Bistro, and we took note when chef Ira Mittleman took over the place about four months ago.
There have been interior upgrades. The decor is sophisticated and relaxing. The muted-tone cafe curtains soften the windows and do as much as you can to diminish the strip-center feel. Subtle lighting and original, framed photos help as well.
It wasn't too busy on the Wednesday evening when we visited, and Mittleman was out and about, greeting folks between his regular return trips to the kitchen. His menu is inviting — not huge, but with a lot of variety.
Ira's has an admirable wine list and a selection of signature cocktails. We ordered a reasonably priced bottle of chardonnay before digging into our food. We started with the Poblano Pepper Cheesecake ($8), which was light and fluffy, like quiche. The cornmeal crust worked well, and the poblanos came through, but mildly. The three cheeses (ricotta, cream cheese and one we couldn't quite nail) were the primary taste sensation, and the mango salsa that topped the dish provided sweet and cool counterpoints. It's a winner.
We liked the Mushroom Spring Rolls ($8), which feature chopped carrots, cabbage and mushrooms in crisp, not greasy skins. They were clearly made to order.
Both our entrees were home runs. Salmon is a ubiquitous entree, but we'd never had it done quite like this — a good-sized fillet cooked in parchment paper with artichoke hearts, red bell peppers, snap peas, asparagus and spinach. The salmon was flaky, moist and tender. Chunky garlic mashed potatoes provided a nice complement. It was a good deal for $20.
We absolutely adored the Lamb Shank ($26), a huge, HUGE shank that had been cooked four hours (the chef told us) with tomatoes, onion and grated carrot. The lamb was succulent, flavorful and tender. The same potatoes accompanied it, along with a handful of grilled asparagus spears.
Just as the cheesecake appetizer was lighter and fluffier than we expected, so was the Grand Marnier creme brulee, which was whipped with a hint of orange. We really liked it, a change from dense (and chocolate) versions. The mixed-berry shortcake was excellent and huge. The shortcake was like a giant, split scone, almost like a flaky biscuit with a sugared crust. Raspberries and blueberries worked well with a massive double dollop of whipped cream.
We later compared notes with a couple of foodie friends and found that our experience at Ira's was far superior to theirs. Whether the place is simply improving with time ... or we picked the right menu items ... or we just got lucky and they just were unlucky, we're not sure. But we had an excellent first meal there.
Ira's debuted its Sunday brunch last weekend. The menu is posted on line and looks pretty classic with such brunch staples as corned beef hash and Eggs Benedict, though $14 for the latter seems a little steep.