It's a little disingenuous to call one of Jerry Barakat's restaurants "new." New concept, maybe, and given the pace with which he's moved things in, out and around in his multi-eatery complex off Rahling Road, you might want to move quickly if you find a concept you like.
Gaucho's has gone full circle from its original upstairs home to another part of West Little Rock, back to a lower-level space on Rahling and now back upstairs. There were a few other places in the old-now-current Gaucho's space, none particularly memorable. Downstairs we've seen/tasted Sesame's, Jasmine, Jerry B's — Arthur's Prime Steakhouse has hung in there a good while — and now we've got Oceans at Arthur's. And we're probably forgetting some. It's a bit dizzying.
The new-but-not-really-new is noticeable at Oceans. The tables and chairs have been recycled from former spots, and some are pretty scuffed up. The disco ball, speakers and screen with projector endure from the Jerry B's karaoke days. Meanwhile flat screens show beach scenes with swaying palms and waves that gently lap the beach. And classic rock plays over the sound system. It's an odd juxtaposition.
Patrons all seem to know Barakat, who has always been masterful at working a room. And judging by the attire — one ponytailed older guy in a tank top and gym shorts, a young woman in artfully ripped up jeans — people are pretty comfortable and casual in a place that's ostensibly a fairly high-end seafood restaurant.
First impressions of restaurants are always driven by menu choices. And given the fact we'd heard several good things about Oceans, yet were decidedly underwhelmed by the food we ate, maybe ours weren't the wisest.
We're big gumbo fans, so we had to try "Oceans Signature Seafood Gumbo" ($7), which the menu describes a bit oddly as "shrimp, classic gumbo, fresh greens." We don't know where fresh greens would fit in, but we found none involved here. Classic? Not so much. This one had a tomato-based broth with green onion, okra, onion, rice and bell pepper. Shrimp? A total of five (FIVE!) tiny cocktail style shrimp. It was vegetable soup. Thumbs down.
The avocado rolls ($8) were more pleasing — four sections of egg-roll style wrappers stuffed with avocado, tart sundried tomatoes and onion, with a sweetish sauce that worked well with them.
The Seafood Mixed Grill ($20) teams hunks of salmon, medium shrimp, huge scallops, pineapple and red bell pepper on two skewers served over couscous. The big issue here was that the seafood was grilled but not seasoned much at all. Grilled seafood often is overcooked, but not here. It was perfectly moist and succulent — but almost tasteless.
We did like the preparation on the Pan-Roasted Snapper ($21), which was tender on the inside and almost crisped on the outside, topped with a rich, creamy chardonnay wasabi sauce. We didn't get much wasabi taste, but the cream sauce accented the fish nicely. The white beans we chose to accompany it were large, firm, served cold and had a sharp vinegary dressing — a bit odd. The wedge of firm polenta was fine but not inspired.
The dessert tray was predictable to the point of being cliched — chocolate creme brulee, white chocolate creme brulee, five-layer chocolate cake, carrot cake, cheesecake, key lime pie, strawberry cake. Our waiter said the brulees, strawberry cake and carrot cake are made in house. We went for the chocolate brulee, which was served in a rectangular hunk vs. in a ramekin. It was creamy and rich — as brulee universally is — but the top had been flamed until scorched, which imparted a nasty, ashy taste.
We're not sushi folks, but we've heard great things about quality and there certainly is variety. There are also five choices for oysters — though $20 for a dozen on the half-shell strikes us as steep — and broiled mussels. A large selection of sandwiches makes dinner more affordable, and the smaller lunch menu also is reasonably priced. The wine and specialty cocktail selection is almost as large as the menu, and we delighted in a $34 bottle of BV Carneros Chardonnay.
The Cuban Sandwich is the best I've ever had. Everything at E's Bistro is good...
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