Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
In a few years, when we're looking back on the renaissance of Main Street in downtown Little Rock, we might point to Samantha's Tap Room and Wood Grill as one of the foundations upon which the transformation was built — much like the Flying Saucer's debut in 1998 accelerated the River Market's growth, Dugan's Pub anchors Third Street and South on Main draws many to SoMa.
Bruno's Little Italy was a critical Main Street trailblazer, opening in October 2013; but with more seating, a larger bar area for hanging out and/or watching sports on TV and a broader menu than its fabulous next-door neighbor, Samantha's instantly provides critical mass for that section of Main.
One reason Samantha's opening in January was so highly anticipated — besides what it bodes for Main Street — is that one of the partners is Chris Tanner, the longtime owner of Cheers in the Heights. He has a long and proven track record of restaurant and catering success. (Samantha's is named for his wife and partner in restaurant operations.)
Frankly, given Tanner's background, it would have been shocking if Samantha's had been anything but fabulous from the get-go. Based on four visits in the first few weeks it was open, we can report that the food, the speed with which it arrives and the quality of the service have all been outstanding.
Samantha's is not a downtown version of Cheers — in look, feel or taste. It achieves the delicate balance of upscale hip and down-home comfort with reclaimed wood table tops, blonde wood walls, metal and granite accents, high ceilings, cool art, a neutral color scheme with subtle accents and a wall of simulated stacked firewood reflective of the "wood grill" component of its name. The bar area was purposely kept clean and sparse, with the typical "top shelf" bottle display kept under the bar so the view through the expansive exterior glass wall remains unobstructed.
The menu is diverse with a broad selection of appetizers, salads, sandwiches and main courses that include fish, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, quail and shrimp. Everything is served a la carte, and prices are reasonable. Just know that every side you choose adds $3 to the tab.
House-made pork skins ($6) are light, crisp and not at all greasy. A carb-eschewing friend used them to dip into the queso blanco ($7), a smooth version without a lot of spice zip. But our favorite appetizer was the roasted cremini mushrooms dosed with diced bacon and a dusting of Parmesan, a delightful combination of tastes.
The creminis are firmer but not terribly different from standard button mushrooms. The bacon comes from the famed Coursey's Smoked Meats in St. Joe, and we heard Tanner tell a diner that he made the two-hour drive just before Christmas and loaded up his car with ham and bacon — enough to stock Samantha's through Coursey's annual January-February hiatus. The ham is featured with Gruyere cheese on a warm, pressed sandwich ($10).
One thing we like about Samantha's is that while it still feels upscale, it's not frou-frou or "trendy." Proof is the tuna melt ($7), a familiar, not experimental, tuna salad served on an English muffin with a piece of processed American cheese melted on it. Tuna melts are about processed cheese, at least in these parts, and not some fancy European cheese.
Similarly, we adored the pork chops ($8), two thin chops cooked quickly, vs. the thicker double-cut chop you find more places. These are like the ones Mom cooked when we were a kid, and they're good. And where else can you get pork chops (plural!) for $8?
We got a bite of our friend's sliced, well-seasoned Southwest sirloin with roasted shallots (a bargain at $12) and were surprised it was fork-tender. The large slab of sockeye salmon ($13) is wild caught; the mustard tarragon sauce is bold but not overwhelming. It is a nice change from the more common sweet, glazed salmon treatments elsewhere. Our companion opted for the sea bass ($25), a meaty, two-inch-thick filet that again was boldly flavored with a chimichurri sauce.
Everything we tried at Samantha's was "interesting," by which we really mean it was spiced/herbed boldly, with nothing boring about any of it. And that we applaud.
Among the sides, we can offer over-the-top raves for the crock of creamy Asiago cheese grits — the best we've ever had, a superlative we can also bestow on the dirty rice: bold herbed, boldly spiced but not with overwhelming heat.
The menu at Samantha's is the same at lunch and dinner, and when we returned for lunch we stuck with the "Sandwiches and Folds" section, opting for the double-stack burger ($7) and fish tacos ($9). Two thin burger patties are bound with gooey American cheese, and came with a comically tiny slice of tomato and raw purple onion vs. grilled onions as billed on the menu. The burger was tasty but won't threaten for best-in-town status.
Grilled, largish chunks of firm, not-fishy grouper highlighted the fish tacos, served with slaw featuring sweet pickled onion on three smallish flour tortillas.
The single item that wowed us the most at Samantha's (we ordered it on two occasions) is the Liege waffle ($5), a richer, denser, sweeter, chewier version of the breakfast classic. It's eggy and gooey, like a pancake meets a glazed donut — amazing.
Tanner and his partners have been fixtures at Samantha's since its opening, and their presence and attention to detail is likely one reason things have run so smoothly from the start. They've got a winner on their hands, and Samantha's will undoubtedly be a fixture on the local dining scene and another major, critical player in restoring Main Street's glory.