Are we spoiled?
It doesn’t seem right that a city the size of Little Rock has so many places to have an excellent meal. In fact, great food is becoming so commonplace that we’re starting to take it for granted.
And so is everyone else in town, judging from the light crowd on a recent Saturday night at Erba, the new American cuisine restaurant that opened in the former Rock City Grill space on Chenal Parkway. Sure, the place had only been open for two weeks, and they weren’t advertising yet, but there used to be a time when word would spread quickly about a terrific new restaurant. Now it’s no big deal.
Erba doesn’t benefit from its location or its exterior appearance. It is in a shopping center along with Bed, Bath and Beyond, and its property seems better suited to a TJ Maxx than an upscale restaurant.
But you have to give credit to the interior designer, who managed to give Erba a sophisticated, trendy look. The high ceilings are offset with fabric hangings and modern track lighting that is suspended close to the tables. A muted color scheme on the walls combines with white tablecloths and wood tables and chairs to create an atmosphere that complements the menu, which is simple but creative.
In fact, we were at first amused by how the entrees were listed on the menu. None of the dishes has a special name. You are given a choice among “Chicken,” “Salmon,” “Pork,” etc. Of course, there are more detailed descriptions underneath each heading, but the minimalist titles reminded us of airplane food (“Fish or chicken?”).
Which is too bad, because Erba’s cuisine doesn’t taste like airplane food. We started with an appetizer of crawfish cakes ($6.95), which included two large, perfectly cooked patties of succulent crawfish, topped with a horseradish sauce. They were tender and juicy, barely crispy on the outside, and they were accompanied by some unadorned greens. Unfortunately the sauce was not spicy, but that didn’t hurt the overall effect.
As it turned out, the crawfish cake was the perfect lead-in to our entree: farm-raised trout stuffed with snow crab meat ($19.95). We were actually shocked at how flavorful the trout was, not to mention the luscious, generously applied stuffing. The dish reminded us of something we might have at Galatoire’s in New Orleans, which is famous for its luxuriant seafood offerings. It was almost impossible to finish the whole thing, as if it were an insanely rich dessert.
We paired both courses with a refreshing pinot grigio, which was great for us, even if our companion might have preferred a red wine with his prime rib ($26.95). But he didn’t complain, since the meat was generously proportioned and nicely cooked, with a pink center. Both entrees were served with side vegetables, which that night consisted of roasted new potatoes and grilled squash. The meal also included a choice of two starter salads: a Caesar or spring. (A Cajun vinaigrette, which we selected for the spring salad, accentuated the New Orleans flavor of the meal. Thick and spicy — made with eggs and paprika — it’s yet another example of Erba’s unique touches.)
There was no chance we were going to squeeze in dessert, but the array of chocolate cakes looked delectable. We also haven’t made it to Erba for lunch, but the sandwiches, salads, and plate lunches sound as appetizing as the dinner offerings.
The service at all times was professional and courteous, and the chef even dropped by our table to see how we liked the food. Everything about Erba struck us as top-notch, and it certainly deserves to be counted among Little Rock’s better restaurants. Of course, that list is getting so long, we wonder what it will take to make a place really stand out.
Man, are we jaded.
12315 Chenal Parkway
Modern American cuisine. The food and the atmosphere are best described as simple but sophisticated. Thoughtful and well-organized wine list.
Lunch and dinner served 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Moderate to expensive. The restaurant also includes a comfortable bar area, conducive to a drink before dinner. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.