Arkansas Ale House opened in mid-June in Diamond Bear Brewery's new digs on North Broadway in North Little Rock. (That's right, North Broadway -- it exists, and you access it by continuing to drive straight ahead once you cross the Broadway Bridge, or at least until the Broadway Bridge undergoes rebuilding and becomes inaccessible.
Before it opened, restaurant manager Matt Beachboard explained in a news release that his menu would be "simple, good and beer-centric."
It's all those things. The menu of appetizers, wings, sandwiches, soups and desserts is basically bar food, but it's good bar food, and a big step up from what too many area bars have been peddling. And our Ale House servers took good care of us on two lunch visits and one late-afternoon cross between supper and high tea.
You enter and leave the bar/restaurant through the gift shop, which is also where you pay for your meal. (Don't be alarmed by the rampant but taxidermied bear that greets customers when they come through the front door.) There's a lot of blond wood in the decor -- tabletops, fronting the bar (which dominates the space, and where there's always at least three Diamond Bear products on tap) and along the walls.
Seating is at four-top tables on sturdy wood-seat/metal- body chairs which, properly applied, will produce just the right hair-raising screech when dragged across the concrete floor, or at chair-and-wood-bench banquettes (the chairs are more comfortable than the benches).
Three large flat-screen TVs are each turned to a different sports channel. Or you can peer through windows into the brewery proper, where somebody with a sense of humor has stenciled names on the tanks -- big brewing tanks are "Laverne" and "Shirley"; smaller holding tanks are "Moe," "Larry" and, around a corner not visible from the dining room, "Curley." You can also see into the brewery from the patio, well covered and draped to make it possible for the hardy to sit outside in the summertime.
The Ale House's appetizers come in large, shareable portions and the kitchen did a good job with the Hummus With Greek Olives ($5.50), a rich, nicely spiced hummus with ciabatta bread, carrots and celery and a very small variety, about a handful, of Greek olives for accent.
We were much less thrilled with the Pretzel ($7). At least the menu didn't bill it as a "soft" pretzel because that would have been a lie. It was baked until it was so tough it required strength just to tear off a piece, which took a long time to chew. It came with three "dippers" -- whole-grain mustard, a spicy jalapeno aioli and a wad of beer cheese in place of the Dijonnaise promised on the menu. All three perked up the pretzel a bit, but on the whole it wasn't tasty enough to justify how long it took us to consume. It was an even bigger disappointment because the one that passed our table and induced us to order it looked so good.
Unless you're a major fan of beer nuts, we don't see much reason to get the $4.50 Borrelnootjes, the Amsterdam version in a crunchy, sweet shell, even if they are housemade. Folks at a neighboring table who'd ordered them just to see what they were bequeathed nearly the entire dish to us. Yes, we ate 'em -- couldn't stop, in fact -- but we're glad we didn't have to pay for 'em.
We were leaning toward ordering Brats ($6.75) off the appetizer menu, to be served with the same whole-grain mustard, jalapeno aioli and Dijonnaise as the pretzel, until our waitress suggested going instead for the Brat sandwich ($8.25), a perfectly grilled bratwurst served on an oven-crisped hoagie roll with sauerkraut, beer cheese, Dijonnaise and coarse-ground mustard. Sloppy, sure, and likely a recipe for heartburn, and once the brat was gone we left chunks of toasted bread on the plate. But it was worth it, even though we were feeling kind of full after combining it with a very filling $4 cup of soup of the day, chock-full-of-veggies minestrone.
Looking back on the list of sandwiches, we will someday want to try the El Cubano ($8.25) on grilled sourdough and the Flat Iron Steak ($9.25) on grilled baguette. But we're glad we tried the Reuben ($8.50), lean, thin-sliced corned beef with kraut, Swiss and a tangy housemade Russian dressing on marbled rye. It comes with chips; we found the $2 additional mustard-based German potato salad to be an even better accompaniment.
Best thing we tried, hands down (and hands up, because ours got kind of sticky and the Ale House doesn't yet offer pre-moistened napkins for relief): Thai Chili Style Wings ($6.75), a half-dozen meaty, tender chicken wings in spicy garlic sauce flecked with red chili pepper flakes. They were delicious, just spicy enough to be interesting without setting anything on fire, and we made quick work of them; the accompanying house-made ranch dressing didn't make much of an impression but we were surprised to discover that though the wings certainly don't need it, the jalapeno aioli actually made a decent complement.
We mentioned the Diamond Bear beers on tap behind the bar but if, as we do, you work at a place that frowns on returning from lunch a trifle tipsy, the Ale House provides the perfect compromise: Diamond Bear Root Beer ($2.75), served in the same pint glass as the "real" brews. It's not too sweet; the first time we tried it it even had a slight beer character to the aftertaste.
Of course, there was the lunch visit where they'd run out, wouldn't have it for a couple of days; the $2.50 20-ounce bottle of Coke we ordered looked suspiciously like a 12-ounce can, for which we were charged only $1.25.
Weekend on 08/14/2014
Print Headline: Beer-centric fare favors flavor