Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
If the address and the antique staircase inside hadn't been the same, we never would have realized we were in the same spot that formerly played host to The House restaurant. Gone are the dingy walls, replaced by new paint and bright fixtures. Gone, too, are the scuffed floors; now the wood is polished to a warm walnut glow. Everything is new here, the product of a massive overhaul of the property, which was gutted and reconstructed in the image that Pantry Crest owner Tomas Bohm had in mind for casual fine dining in Hillcrest. Even the foundation of the converted residence has been strengthened and leveled, a theme that proves true for the food as well as the building.
The Pantry bills itself as having a German/Czech bent, with its schnitzels, svickova, goulash and bratwurst, but it can't be pigeonholed into one ethnic label. Rather,The Pantry is about comfort food — rustic, simple and well-made dishes that hearty eaters can enjoy over a stein of imported beer or one of the excellent cocktails stirred up at the bar. It's a place that works best with a large group, as many of the most outstanding menu items are meant to be shared, and while the food isn't going to blow anyone away with its style or complexity, it's not really intended to — which is just fine with us.
The Pantry Crest's menu is almost identical to its West Little Rock counterpart's, and while it was nice seeing so many familiar dishes, it seems a shame that beyond a couple of minor tweaks, there isn't really anything to differentiate this restaurant from the one on Rodney Parham. Still, our table was pleased to order one old favorite, The Pantry Board ($19.25), because this charcuterie extravaganza is one of those destination appetizers worth a trip out by itself. This board is like a who's who of delicious meat products. First up, a bratwurst that might be the best in town: juicy, flavorful, and with a casing that provides just the right amount of snap. Next, a one-two punch of pork terrine with pistachios and a smooth, rich chicken liver mousse, both of which kept us munching in delighted silence for a good while. The only weak point to the board was a rillette that tasted a little too strongly of fat, but we admit that's more of a personal preference issue than one of quality.
We paired our charcuterie board with a cheese board ($10) and an order of Brussels sprouts ($5), and were treated to a nice selection of cheeses: creamy Brie, a mild chevre, a sharp blue and one of the best fetas we've ever eaten. A highlight of the cheese board was the three pickled figs, which added a bold punch to the rich flavor of the cheese. The sprouts were cooked just right to maintain their texture and sweetness — a hard thing to pull off, as sprouts tend to be a vegetable that goes from great to bad very quickly.
By the time our entrees hit the table, our entire party was in good spirits and ready to dig in. A bowl of Moules Frites ($14.95), tender mussels bolstered by a wonderful white wine and tomato sauce, came with crisp fries and aioli on the side. The Lasagna al Forno ($12.50) looked fantastic but was unfortunately a little bland, with a sweet tomato sauce that didn't do the dish any favors. It was with our last entree, the Fish and Frites ($12.95), where we found true love — two massive slabs of moist, flaky cod fried in a perfect batter and served piping hot with a pile of delicious fries. Portions are always generous at The Pantry, but these pieces of fish were so huge we shared several bites around the table and had plenty to spare. Fish and chips is so simple, yet we've not found very many places in Arkansas that do the dish justice, so it was considered one of the great discoveries of the meal.
The Pantry Crest is a great fit for the neighborhood. It's tasty without being fussy, provides great service without being overbearing, and overall exists as a homey, comforting space where friends and family can bond over some delicious food. As service settles in, here's hoping that the Hillcrest restaurant will start asserting itself with more independent menu items. Those sorts of things come with time, however, and given the crowded dining room and tasty, rustic fare, The Pantry Crest will have the business to support taking all the time it needs.