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RESTAURANTS: Bennigan's big portions sate inner glutton

by Jennifer Christman | October 5, 2007 at 4:04 a.m.

— "Feed your inner leprechaun," urges Bennigan's menu.

But Fish 'N Chips and Guinness-glazed items aside, Bennigan's - from the huge portions to the fork-not-required starters (insists the starters menu: "Cast aside the tools of oppression known as silverware"), to the dessert called "Death by Chocolate" - is really all about feeding your inner American glutton.

And now Bennigan's is back in the metro area. A little over a year since the chain's tired University Avenue location closed in Little Rock, a shiny, new one has opened north of the river in the back of Pershing Boulevard's Holiday Inn. Because it serves as the hotel restaurant, this Bennigan's also serves breakfasts of cereal, pancakes, French toast, omelets and the like ($3.99-$8.99) from 6 to 10 a.m.

The rest of the accommodating menu, which includes salads, sandwiches, burgers, seafood, pasta, chicken dishes and grilled plates ($7.29-$15.99), is available all day in the clean, generic dining room of tables and booths with minimal Irish pub-style decoration, as well as in the bar that has been bustling during evening hours. A nine-item Kids' Menu includes items like pizza and fettuccine (all $3.99).

Staff members are friendly and attentive, even if they don't always get it right the first time. (More on a less-than-perfect takeout experience in a minute.) And even if the up-selling of specialty drinks and dessert can get tedious.

During several dinner visits, we tried a variety of items, most of which were better than we anticipated and remembered. Maybe Bennigan's wasn't my favorite restaurant in college just because it was relatively cheap and close and because anything was better than dorm food.

There isn't an appetizer ($3.49-$9.99) that isn't "breaded," "golden-fried," "with cheese, bacon ..." and/or "crispy." (Bennigan's even found a way to deprave broccoli in the form of fried Broccoli Bites.) But they can be dreamy. Maybe the spicy Boneless Buffalo Wings ($7.99) were a bit too harsh, served with an extra bitey blue cheese and maybe the Ultimate Nachos (sold as part of a pick-two or pick-three sampler for $8.29 and$9.99, respectively) smacked of canned chili and featured a pale, spiritless guacamole. But the intriguing Southwest Egg Rolls ($7.49) - fried bundles of chicken, cheese, black beans, corn, red peppers and spinach served with salsa and a slightly runny pineapple-pepper cream sauce - tasted smoky and savory. And the plump Potato Skins ($7.99) were plush with cheese, bacon, green onions and a side of sour cream.

Whether ordered as a starter or main meal component, Bennigan's serves several good soups. A bowl of French Onion ($4.49) was picture-perfect with broiled cheese capping a flavorful golden broth and bread. And the Ultimate Baked Potato Soup ($3.49 crock, $4.49 bowl), dotted with bacon and green onions, offered creamy comfort.

Salads are no wimpy affair. We got quite full on a Spinach Chicken Salad ($9.49) - a big bowl of baby spinach, grilled chicken, bacon, chopped pecans, sun-dried tomatoes, crumbled blue cheese, golden raisins, red onion, chopped egg and a sweet-pepper vinaigrette dressing (served on the side as requested), and it didn't even look like we put a dent in it.

Also gigantic are the burgers and sandwiches, served with seasoned fries.

We couldn't manage more than half of a Bleu Cheeseburger ($7.99), a thick, if a bit too charred and dry, beef patty on a puffy wheat bun (white or pretzel bun are other choices) with melted blue cheese, lettuce, tomato and fried onions. The demiglace mentioned on the menu either soaked into the bun and escaped our attention or was left off - not that the burger needed anymore going on.

The sweetly sauced ribs ($10.99 half rack, $14.99 full rack), served with fries and coleslaw, weren't the most tender we had tried. But a 12-ounce Ribeye ($15.99), served with a loaded baked potato and broccoli, was quite juicy and nicely seasoned.

It wasn't so much the foodthat was a problem with a carryout order we placed. It was the lack of food.

Maybe we could have eaten the Monte Cristo sandwich ($8.49) - batter-fried handfuls of ham, turkey and Swiss topped with powdered sugar - without the missing side of raspberry preserves (and probably we should have, considering the extreme calorie content of the sandwich that resembled fried chicken and tasted like a doughnut). But we couldn't eat the Southwest Fajitas ($10.49-$10.99), strips of meat, bell pepper and onion, without tortillas. And we also noticed dessert, a slice of thick but slightly bitter Creme Brulee Cheesecake ($4.49) was left out of the bag.

We didn't appreciate having to make a return trip, but staff was quick about replacing the forgotten items.

Bennigan's Address: 120 W. Pershing Boulevard (Holiday Inn), North Little Rock Hours: 6-10 a.m.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily Cuisine: Burgers, sandwiches, pasta, grilled dinners Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: No Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 812-0019, www.bennigans.com

Weekend, Pages 88 on 10/05/2007

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