- RO-TEL/FONDUE HYBRID: The melted Brie Artichoke and Sundried Tomatoes ($6.50) dip was served with ciabatta.
While recent years have seen a growing number of new breweries crop up around the state, the "brewpub" concept has lagged behind — which is no surprise given the amount of work it takes to run a brewery or restaurant alone, much less combined into one business. Vino's Brewpub was the only game in town for many years, and while it has been joined by regional chains Boscos and BJ's, Central Arkansas has trended more toward small scale "nanobreweries" like Stone's Throw and Flyway. So when Russ Melton's Diamond Bear Brewing, the godfather of Arkansas craft beer, announced it would be opening a restaurant inside the brewery's new North Little Rock digs, the excitement was palpable.
The new venture is called the Arkansas Ale House, and anyone who ever drank a pint at Diamond Bear's tiny Cross Street taproom will be amazed by the wide open spaces, attractive bar, and great view of the brewing equipment that greets diners as they enter the pub. Wood tables branded with the Diamond Bear logo provide seating away from the bar, and while the place was hopping on our recent visit, we didn't feel crowded.
A server was at our table in no time flat. He had some bad news for us: They were fresh out of Diamond Bear brews, save for the Paradise Porter. It turns out that the new brewpub has been even more popular than expected, with the thirsty masses drinking up in three weeks what management thought would last three months (newly brewed Southern Blonde, now available in a can, is expected to be ready by Friday, with Pale Ale to follow shortly thereafter).
Lucky for us, the expanded bar area allows for more than just Diamond Bear brews on tap, so we contented ourselves with an Abita Andygator ($4.50) and a Saddlebock Dirty Blonde ($4.50). Both beers were served in appropriate glassware: a pint glass for the Kolsch-style Blonde and a tulip glass for the helles bock-style Andygator. Our drinks in hand, we turned our attention to the menu.
First up was the Brie Artichoke and Sundried Tomatoes dip ($6.50), a rich, creamy bowl of piping hot melted cheese served with tasty ciabatta for dipping. Sharp, creamy brie was tempered nicely by the deep, rich flavor of the tomatoes. This dish was a sort of hybrid between classic Arkansas Ro-tel cheese dip and high-end fondue — and while that may seem strange, it worked like a charm.
Right after we tucked into the brie, our second appetizer came: two bratwurst sausages ($6.75) sliced into bite-sized chunks and served with mustard. The grilled brats were just the way we like them, with a lot of spice to the meat and a snappy natural casing. We had read that manager Matt Beachboard was looking to bring some European beer hall flavor to the menu, and we'd say that he has succeeded with both appetizers we tried.
Something that isn't European but certainly fits for a bar menu is wings, so a plate of the Thai Chili Style ($6.75) seemed in order. These wings mixed hot, sweet and savory flavors together nicely, with a garlic chili sauce in just the right amount to leave the wings crispy. Diners who are used to sloppy plates of neon orange Buffalo wings should order a plate of these to learn how chicken wings should taste.
By this time we were getting rather full, but we found room for our last item, a Reuben ($8.50). This was probably the weakest thing we ate all night, though it wasn't bad by any means. The toasted rye bread, tangy sauerkraut and sweet dressing were all on point, but the corned beef was a little tougher than we like it. It was a perfectly passable sandwich, but given the number of great Reubens available in Arkansas, we're afraid that the Ale House is going to have to up its game to compete.
The Arkansas Ale House is still obviously a work in progress. The walls lack much in the way of decoration, and the serving staff still seems to be learning the ropes. The food is at a great price point, with portions befitting a bar menu. Diamond Bear is hard at work getting some brews finished, so the current shortage of its brews is temporary, and in the meantime folks can enjoy beers from other great breweries from Arkansas and beyond. Given the pub's proximity to Dickey Stephens Park, we foresee that it will become a go-to watering hole for visitors to North Little Rock, and an impressive one at that.
Diamond Bear Brewery/Arkansas Ale House
600 N. Broadway St.
Diamond Bear remains one of the only places in Central Arkansas that has packaged beer sales on Sundays, so grab a six pack or two after you finish your meal.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Beer only, all major CC accepted.