Park Grill at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts
- Address: 501 E. Ninth St., Little Rock
- Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch; 2-8 p.m. serving small plates only
- Cuisine: New American with a slight Southern accent
- Alcoholic beverages: Full bar
- Reservations: Recommended for lunch — otherwise, expect to sit at the bar
- Wheelchair access: Yes
- Credit cards: No cash — credit (V, MC, AE, D) or debit cards only
- (501) 396-0390
There was a restaurant at the former Arkansas Arts Center -- actually, there were several restaurants over the years, since ownership and/or management changed every so often, as well as the name, which usually involved something art-related (in its latter years, for example, it was called Best Impressions, Canvas and Watercolor).
It is only fitting therefore that the posh new Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which has replaced the Arts Center after a several-year rebuild, should have a posh new restaurant. It boasts a familiar name to Central Arkansas diners as its executive chef -- Patrick Herron -- and a menu focusing on somewhat upscale Southern comfort food (from a pimento cheese appetizer to a Savory Meatloaf entree).
It's called Park Grill, reflecting in part its overlook at of the south end of the museum over a newly and gorgeously landscaped area of MacArthur Park. It's bright, spacious and inviting, with dining-room seating at curved banquette tables and comfortable high chairs at the bar, plus a private dining room that can serve as overflow seating and a capacious patio for pleasant-weather dining.
There's sort of a topsy-turvy approach when it comes to food service. You can order from a full slate of sandwiches and a range of dinner-price, dinner-size entrees for lunch. After 2 p.m., however, your choices are much more limited, to a small assortment of small plates. (It's possible that once the museum starts scheduling more evening events, that might change.)
Customers who show up for lunch without a reservation are likely, if not almost certainly, to be consigned to the bar, where the personable bartender provides full service but, being only one person, might take a few minutes while concocting cocktails to take your order or bring or collect your check. Oh, and by the way, the restaurant doesn't take cash -- credit or debit cards only.
We split a high-end appetizer -- Blackened Tuna ($12), bits of sushi-grade tuna sort of smushed up with an "avocado sesame smash," all atop a small crispy rice cake. It was tasty and appetizing, and, of course, did not sit long upon the plate.
We opted for the Park Grill Burger ($15) because it was one Herron's pre-opening "brags": a large beef patty topped with raclette cheese (a semi-hard Swiss Alpine cow's milk variety), arugula, tomato, caramelized onion and undefined "Comeback Sauce" on a brioche bun. Although our patty came out closer to medium rare than the medium we had ordered, and we were initially a little wary about the tomato and the arugula, that didn't stop us from wolfing it down in short order (the tomato was to-the-instant ripe, passing the approval of our tomato-averse diner, and the arugula was minimal). It comes with a choice of sweet potato fries or chips -- in this case, house-made Bloody Mary kettle chips, which were crunchy and pleasantly kissed with salt but for which the Bloody Mary flavor was more of a hint than a statement.
Intrepid Companion was less than thrilled by her Pan Roasted Bone-In Chicken Breast ($21, and which appeared as "Airline Chicken" on the check), a standard-sized but actually boneless chicken breast cut into four pieces, served (at least according to the menu) with tomato confit, roasted garlic and preserved lemon (with the appearance, if not the flavor, of an almost-pesto), with broccolini and over spaghettini. The sauce on the pasta had a bit of a spicy kick; the chicken was just a bit on the dry side. (Salt and pepper are available but by request only.)
We had no particular complaints about our Seared Salmon ($24), with watercress pistou, shaved asparagus, bits of heirloom tomato and, allegedly, charred lemon, other than that the salmon, a perfectly prepared filet, could have used something more uplifting, flavorwise, than the slight salt-and-pepper garnish -- perhaps some of that charred lemon the menu mentioned but of which we saw no actual evidence. It came with a salad of field greens and halved cherry tomatoes, lightly touched by a light vinaigrette.
On the radar for subsequent visits, Herron's other "brag," his Park Smoked Chicken Waldorf ($15), with grapes, orange, walnuts, butter lettuce, apples, radishes and a citrus dressing; a couple of sandwiches -- the Cheesy Grilled Cheese Fontina ($13), with goat cheese, Pecorino Romano, smoked tomato jam, arugula and pickled onion, and the House Roasted Turkey ($14) with brie, apple and apple butter on sprouted bread; and the $8 dessert items -- the Brownie Bar topped with house-made salted caramel ice cream and the Orange Almond Cake with honey soaked berries (both gluten-free) and the Peach Melba Fried Pie.