Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
There's something familiar about Pasta Grill in Conway. The dim lighting, exposed brick and the view of downtown through tall front windows give the restaurant a welcoming, cozy feel. It would be a good spot to hang out with friends, as we did, or take a date. A fellow diner was even bold enough to propose to his girlfriend at a nearby booth. All indications are that she replied in the affirmative.
Despite how busy the restaurant was on the Friday night we went, the service was top-notch. Our server took the time to explain menu items and narrow down our choices since there is no shortage of offerings — pastas, sandwiches, steak, chicken and seafood. Skip the meatballs as an appetizer, he said.
He did, however, recommend the Pasta Grill Sampler ($12.99), which really is the way to go if you're feeding a table of friends. It comes with healthy portions of mozzarella sticks and fried ravioli, along with spinach and artichoke dip. The mozzarella sticks and fried ravioli were good — nothing unique or exceptional — but enjoyable. If you're wondering, the fried ravioli probably isn't the same as you've had at other places. These are round, ricotta-filled and good sized.
We liked everything here but the spinach and artichoke dip, which is served with tortilla chips a little too flimsy to handle the dense concoction. It was a bit too heavy on the cream cheese (or sour cream) and had a bit of a sour/bitter taste. The complimentary garlic bread was better for dipping than the chips.
For dinner, we ordered the Shrimp New Orleans ($15.99) and the Blackened Shrimp Scampi Pasta ($16.99), one of only a few non-cream based-pasta dishes on the menu. The serving of shrimp was generous, cooked just right, and well-seasoned, just a bit heavy on the salt. The roasted tomatoes lightened things up a bit, and the flavor of the lemon butter sauce was balanced. There was a lot of it, too. After eating half of the order, the remainder of the pasta was swimming in a pool of oil and butter. Overall, it was a nice dish, but a theme of overdoing it was starting to emerge.
The Shrimp New Orleans knocks you back with some nice seasoning (from the pan-fried shrimp), some richness (due to a creamy sauce and a smattering of parmesan), and then smacks you with bacon, baby. You brag about it to your friends. You're happy you ordered this dish because you were hungry, and it's delivering the goods. And then you get five bites in and realize it's heavy. Like, really heavy. The sauce is dense and there's lots of it. What started out as a nice touch of bacon starts to overwhelm. There is, you now understand, such a thing as too much bacon. We definitely didn't leave hungry, but that's about all we can say.
For dessert, we ordered Pasta Grill's take on a cannoli ($5.99). Some dishes should not be tinkered with. This monster comes out with two fried flour tortillas filled with sweetened cream, topped with brown sugar and caramel and served with vanilla ice cream. A smallish cannoli with a crispy, flaky crust would have been welcome. But fried flour tortillas? Come on. The cream was too sweet, and the "shell" tasted like a chimichanga. It just doesn't work.
The dessert round was redeemed by the lemon tart ($5.99), a crust made with vanilla wafers, brown sugar and butter topped with a creamy fresh lemon curd, homemade whipped cream and a little powdered sugar. It was just sweet enough. The buttery crust was perfectly complemented by the slightly tangy curd. We passed this dessert around our table of six a couple of times, and the verdict was unanimous — this is the dessert to order.
Those who visit Pasta Grill will probably leave full and satisfied. The portions are large and the food is better than what you would get at, say, Olive Garden, but it's just a bit much. Just about every dish we had could've been walked back a notch. The place was packed, though. And the service was outstanding, some of the best we've had. Conwegians definitely love it, as did four out of six at our table. We were warned by friends to get there early and barely beat the masses who started to gather on benches outside the crowded eatery. It's familiar. The dishes are hearty, and loaded. But don't mistake it for great food.
915 Front St.
The Creamy Crawfish Dip appetizer ($10.99) is exactly that, but if you don't mind that creamy tang, it's good. The crawfish are nice and plump and the dip itself is very satisfying. Sidestep the chips and put it on top of the gratis garlic bread instead. You'll be glad you did.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Beer and wine, credit cards accepted.