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Rocket has glitches; steaks soar

By Jennifer Christman

This article was published March 6, 2014 at 3:05 a.m.


The Porterhouse weighs in at 24 ounces at Rocket 21 in North Little Rock.

Rocket 21 might not be quite ready for liftoff.

It’s a conclusion we reached after two dinners at the restaurant that moved from Little Rock’s Kavanaugh Boulevard to North Little Rock, joining owner Frank Fletcher’s other two restaurants (Benihana, Riverfront Steakhouse) in the Wyndham Riverfront hotel.

While the food - from a limited American menu (less than a dozen entrees) with upscale prices and an emphasis on steaks and seafood - was quality, service snags and atmosphere issues that should have been worked out during the restaurant’s soft opening detracted from our overall enjoyment.

Rocket 21 occupies a renovated ballroom, next to and sharing a sometimes jammed lobby with Benihana. A hostess at a podium leads diners into the dim, sleepy one-room space that seems rather sparsely decorated - except for Fletcher’s beloved George Rodrigue Blue Dog prints and an illuminated wine cabinet - and seats them at a table with black padded chairs, black tablecloths and glowing blue candle holders.

Seating was a problem both times. While we had reservations both visits (taken by the manager himself; his personal number functions as the restaurant’s phone), we were led to the least desirable tables in the place.

On opening night, our table was in the very front, directly next to the musician. He was awesome, singing and plucking out on his keyboard everything from Earth Wind & Fire to Sammy Davis Jr., but we would have preferred to hear the serenade from a few tables back. On our second visit, we were seated in the very back by the door; the hostess said it was the only available table, although it appeared that others never filled.

We also got the short end of the service stick both times. Our opening-night waiter (only two appear to work the floor at a time; they might need more help) seemed distracted. He never welcomed us. After the long delay for him to address our table, all he said was, “What would you like to drink?” It was the first of several long pauses and oversights. He failed to check back in a reasonable time to see if everything was OK. (It wasn’t - he forgot to bring a baked potato.)

For the second visit, we had a true professional, Shawn Blankenship. (We know this because he gave us his business card. Twice. Again, professional.) He took excellent care of us. Only Blankenship, a waiter at the Riverfront Steakhouse, was having to cover for someone and was working both restaurants, which resulted in (understandable) delays.

That second visit, something else was off - the music. Completely off. There was no musician that Fridayand there was no sound except for the clinking of a few patrons’ silverware and muffled clamor from boisterous Benihana. It was depressing, like being stuck listening to the next-door neighbor’s party you weren’t invited to - and paying $100 (the approximate bill for the second dinner for two; the first was about $150) to do so. The manager, who walked by to check on us, explained that they’re still finishing up the place and planning regular entertainment.

Rocket 21 (named for one of Fletcher’s racehorses) has far more than 21 wines on its extensive lists - plural. There’s the regular list, proprietor’s reserve list and a special half-price bottles list. Bottles are available from about $22 to $200; glasses range from $5.75 to $16.50.

Fans of the finned will appreciate the almost-all-seafood appetizer list featuring swimmers from calamari to crab cakes (exception: escargot). We appreciated the inventive Ahi Tuna Nachos ($13.95), crisp fried wontons, diced tuna and sliced marinated cucumbers drizzled with spicy mayonnaise and teriyaki glaze. The New Orleans Shrimp Remoulade ($12.95) featured plump shellfish on slightly mushy fried green tomatoes in a puddle of mild sauce that lacked something - tang, zing or both.

Folks who don’t like seafood better find something else - a salad or soup. There’s no complimentary bread. And the entree portions aren’t always plentiful.

As in the case of the Fried Chicken ($18.95). Now, it’s a tasty, buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, for sure. But it’s fried chicken. And it’s one piece - a breast (and mashed potatoes and a choice of salad or honey glazed carrots) - for $18.95. One could get a family bucket for that, observed my date, half-joking that he’d require a fast-food stop later.

The problem with the swordfish, a recent fish of the day (that day’s market price: $21.95), wasn’t portion but preparation. It was a bit overcooked and dry, and the side of spaghetti, sauced only with a bit of oil and pesto and accented with chunky grape tomatoes, pearl onions and olive chunks, didn’t help much.

We heartily recommend Rocket 21’s steaks (there are four on the menu of 11 entrees, $34.50-$39.95), which are the same prime cuts served at sibling Riverfront Steakhouse. A heartily seasoned and perfectly cooked Porterhouse was big in size (24 ounces) as well as flavor.

Steaks come with baked potato (if they arrive at the table, that is), mashed potatoes or honey glazed carrots. A respectable Caesar salad ($5.95) made a decent opening act, but it made us miss the Riverfront’s salad bar.

Another delight was the creamy, comforting Shrimp and Grits ($24.95), served with a salad or carrots.

Other entrees include Fettuccine Alfredo ($13.95; $4 to add chicken, $5 to add shrimp), Grilled Salmon, Pork Tenderloin, Miso Glazed Tuna, two sizes of Filet Mignon ($34.50 for 8-ounce, $39.50 for 10-ounce) and a 20-ounce Ribeye Steak ($39.50).

Sides ($3.75-$8.95), from Spinach Supreme to sauteed asparagus, are sized for two to share. Creamy with large clumps of crab meat, the indulgent Bowtie Crab Mac N Cheese ($8.95) could easily and inexpensively be an entree for one. The juicy Sauteed Fresh Wild Mushrooms ($4.95) are a must to accompany red meat, while the buttery, salty Hibachi Fried Rice ($3.75) should appease anyone with Benihana envy.

There is no dessert menu, just daily choices the waiters rattle off. A slice of shared pecan pie (not made in house) was satisfactory, if nothing special and served with no plate presentation.

We would advise patrons to study their receipts at the restaurant while it’s still adjusting to the new location. We were charged for a salad that was to come with the meal. Then again, we weren’t charged for the slice of pie.

It’s not Rocket science to say we probably came out about even.

Rocket 21 Restaurant

Address: Wyndham Riverfront hotel, 2 Riverfront Place, North Little Rock Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday Cuisine: American with emphasis on steaks, seafood Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 690-2605

Weekend, Pages 31 on 03/06/2014

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