CONWAY — We hate to appear impatient, but when the dining gossip is that the next great restaurant from the owners of Mike’s Place is “coming soon,” we get antsy when we hear it’s been delayed.
Michelangelo’s is that next venture from the popular folks on Front Street, the ones who brought mixed drinks to downtown Conway in 2005 via the private club route. Last summer, we were hearing that a late fall opening was in store for Michelangelo’s, which is supposed to focus on Italian (pasta, chops, seafood) where Mike’s Place handles the steaks and seafood done in a New Orleans style. Construction delays have set back the opening until spring, they say.
But the owners, Mike Craft and Mike Coats, have been featuring specialties in Mike’s Place that are expected to be on Michelangelo’s menu. Our waiter on a recent stop into Mike’s Place told us the demand for these sneak peeks has been heavy.
While the rest of our party of nine eaters enjoyed the regular offerings of Mike’s — many opting for filets, one adding a lobster tail — we were happy to sink our fork into three bulky seafood crepes loaded with crabmeat, all swimming in a roasted red pepper sauce (if you’re familiar with Loca Luna’s roasted red pepper soup, imagine a thicker version) with baby shrimp.
We were almost willing to help with the hammering and woodwork on the new place after filling ourselves with that work of art.
That’s all we can tell you about Michelangelo’s, though, as the rest of the meal was devoted to Mike’s, which we first reviewed in July 2005. Safe to say, Mike’s is as popular as ever. Reservations are recommended on weekends.
And it’s not all about the drinks, though that seemed to create the initial buzz on Mike’s 18 months ago. But, just in case you haven’t visited Mike’s yet — and really, Little Rockians should consider Mike’s a destination, it’s that good — the bar is bright and well lit in contrast to the dark wood around it. Plenty of tables are situated in an almost-semicircle around the bar, and it’s a complete section on its own, with the wrought-iron and garden-style New Orleans look, away from the diners.
The great service deserves an early mention. We enjoyed the conversation with a lead waiter who understood what’s going on back in the kitchen, who could explain how the red pepper sauce was made with a roux to thicken it, and who was willing to steer us to the right entree that made our experience fulfilling.
About some of those dishes’ names. For example, there’s Shrimp Brantley and Pasta Brantley, but neither is an homage to this paper’s Louisiana-raised editor, who knows a thing or two about Cajun cooking. Rather, we’re told, they’re recipes picked up by the chef in New Orleans. Shrimp Brantley, an appetizer ($10.95), is not unlike the barbecue shrimp at Pascuale Manale’s in New Orleans, only smaller than those monster prawns they soak in the butter, beer and spices there. These are, on an Arkansas scale, still big shrimp, and the sauce demands you soak it up with the accompanying baguette.
But the shrimp and cheese fritters ($7.99) were even more popular with the group. In fact, in a “Talladega Nights” way of description, a couple of our diners called the dish “the best appetizer EVER.” The shrimp and cheese mixture is rolled in a ball and deep-fried. How Southern can you get?
You’re not limited to seafood for appetizers; chips and salsa are also on the menu, but really, why would you? Members of our party also enjoyed the crab bisque, parmesan zucchini, crab stuffed mushrooms and fried calamari.
Also, the gumbo was a thick version, maybe more than a Cajun connoisseur would care for, and lighter than many gumbos you see in Cajun country, but was tasty with shrimp, andouille sausage and okra. On the other hand, where we expect shrimp and crawfish etouffee to be a thick smothering sauce over rice, this version was runnier and heavy in butter, but it still appealed. All this just reaffirms that, like chili to Texans, there are numerous ways to cook up Cajun food.
There are “create your own platters” for $15.99 that allow you to match your sides with various chicken, shrimp or fish entrees. Gulf shrimp is served six different ways, each at $14.99 (including a larger portion of the Brantley). Pecan-encrusted grouper and North Atlantic salmon appear to be the favorites from the fish selections. “Exotic” seafood offerings include Dungeness crab legs and scallops.
All kinds of steak cuts are available, plus baby-back ribs and pork chops.
The filets were all deemed wonderfully tender, cooked to perfection. One interesting twist was the rib-eye Ponchartrain, with soft shell crab and bearnaise sauce. However, as good as that was, the baked potato with it was cold.
Everything appeared to be made from scratch, from the salad dressings (the salads themselves were unimaginative) to all the desserts. The bananas Foster was fine, though not up to Brennan’s level, but the white chocolate creme brulee was creamy and superb.
While we wait for Michelangelo’s, Mike’s Place will suit us just fine. It’s a private club, and one member in your party has to be a member, but that costs just $5 for the year.
808 Front St.
If your group doesn’t get the shrimp and cheese fritters, you’re simply missing out. Many of the dinner delights are available in smaller portions for lunch.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar (private club).