Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
There is much to like about Red Door, even for those who are bummed that Bene Vita, its predecessor, had to die so the new restaurant could be born.
There's a palpable fun vibe at Red Door. The newly enclosed deck area has booths, big windows and is the liveliest section of the restaurant. An inviting patio has been added out front, sure to be a bustling scene when the weather's nice. The kitchen, in the corridor separating the bar seating area from the front dining room, is now more open, which adds to the vibrant feel.
The menu is more far-reaching than Bene Vita's, and there are some eye-catching flourishes. The “appetizers and tastes” menu ranges from classic “Blue Mesa” cheese dip (more on Red Door's tie to owner/chef Mark Abernathy's past ventures in a bit) to crab cakes, fried oysters, nachos and fresh mussels served in three styles.
There is a wacky sandwich option, the aptly named “Red Door Outrage,” which features beef tenderloin medallions, Applewood bacon, jalapeno cheese, lettuce, tomato and a fried egg — with fries on top and around the sammie. That's just one example of the eclecticism of the entrees.
That said, it is with some regret that we report our first two dining experiences at Red Door were somewhat disappointing where the primary component — the food — is concerned. Not disasters, mind you, but not up to the standards we've come to take for granted at a restaurant owned by chef Mark Abernathy.
We do admit to holding Mark to unusually high standards, given our early and enthusiastic adoption of Juanita's and then Blue Mesa Grill, and the fact we probably visit and thoroughly enjoy his Loca Luna more than any other local eatery.
At Red Door we eagerly dove into these items, listed in order of consumption:
We were intrigued by the “create your own skillet” ($8.95) appetizer. The base is a sizzling skillet with onions, red bell peppers and cheese, and you choose two items among eight to add to it. We incorrectly assumed the additions would be the primary focus of the dish, but they were merely accents. So while pork loin and portabellas were a tasty addition, we thought the onion/pepper/cheese melange overwhelmed.
The Red Door Halibut was our dinner's shining star, a buttery, perfectly cooked, firm fillet served with a side dish we'd never encountered — thick, pungent Thai black rice, which on the plate visually resembled a mound of blackberry preserves more than anything Riceland ever produced. But it provided a fabulous taste, color and texture counterpoint to the fish, which was gently accented with a mild coconut beurre blanc.
What Southerner could resist a “chicken fried” version of prime rib or pork tenderloin? Not this one. But this wasn't a classic rendition, no matter the quality of the meat. The batter was more like a breaded cutlet, neither crunchy nor gnarly. The prime rib was rendered gray, though not tough, and overall was way too greasy. But damn did we love the accompanying mashed potatoes: heavenly, rich, creamy and dreamy. None better.
Creme brulee is the most ubiquitous of bistro desserts, and Red Door's is middle of the road. It wasn't as lusciously rich and creamy as some, and the crust on top wasn't crisp, perhaps rendered limp through refrigeration; we're not sure.
The peach gelato, on the other hand, was fabulous — an explosion of bright peach taste, accented nicely by two wedges of almond biscotti.
Lunch service began last week, and most of the staples of the dinner menu are there, too, some a buck or two cheaper — perhaps tied to smaller lunch portions. One section on the lunch menu offers “Bene Vita All-Star Favorites,” holdovers from that include our all-time Bene Vita favorite, Angus Tenderloin Ragout with Pasta Rags ($9.95), as well as lasagna, chicken pasta Alfredo, and the famed Bene Vita meatballs.
Red Door certainly pays homage to Abernathy's past ventures, from the white cheese dip, a concept Blue Mesa introduced to Little Rock, to the pan-seared grouper that was the best-selling Bene Vita dinner entree.
History suggests Red Door will take its rightful place as next step forward in the career of one of Little Rock's top chefs and restaurateurs. So far, based on two visits by one patron, there is room for improvement on the culinary execution. But every other signal is a positive one.
3701 Old Cantrell Road
One of the highlights of the dinner menu is a creation of Lyne Abernathy, wife of Red Door's chef and owner, Mark. Friends who have tried “Lyne's OMG Baby Backs” say they are the best ribs they've ever had, and that's saying a lot in a barbecue town like Little Rock. Lyne's ribs are served only Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and are said to be fall-off-the-bone tender yet crispy with a sweet glaze. They're next on our Red Door list.
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
All CCs accepted. Full bar.