If a few glitches are tended to, Argenta Seafood could be a gem.
Argenta Seafood finally opened last month after a long delay. We had been intrigued by all the talk of a high-end seafood restaurant in North Little Rock, so we eagerly made a reservation on opening weekend. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no. Where its titular cuisine is concerned, Argenta Seafood is strong. We were less impressed with the rest of the meal.
The facade of the restaurant, -in an old commercial building, is striking — neon lights, a large clock and chrome exterior give it the look of a '50s diner. Inside, the owners have given the whole space a new-age feel — a documentary aquatic film plays on the wall over the hostess station, and pictures of marine life are hung all around. There's a separate small bar at the front of the building. The wide-open dining room is partitioned only by large white curtains. The lighting tends toward the neon yellow, although some sections of the restaurant are darker than others.
It's a quirky setup, and it doesn't work as a place to eat a quiet meal. Say what you will about the aesthetic — it's not exactly my bag — but the cavernous space amplifies sound to an intolerable level. Conversation required much yelling, head-leaning and repetition. There were also some minor miscommunications in the service (which was a little slow on this busy evening), a partial product of the din no doubt. We didn't check out the private room, but it would be worth looking into if you don't want to leave the meal with a raw throat.
Perhaps you don't mind noise and want to focus on grub. You likely won't be disappointed in the seafood. The appetizers are fairly standard fare. The fried calamari is pleasantly light and buttery; the conch fritters, also fried, are rich and heavily breaded. Raw shellfish should satisfy those who want to stay away from the grease. Salads and soups are also available; we tried the New England clam chowder, very creamy and nicely done. A small bar menu expands the options to include fish tacos, seviche, gravlax and shrimp cocktail, among others. All of these warm-up dishes are under $10; for those feeling extravagant, there's an ounce of Razorback caviar — from paddlefish harvested from the Mississippi River — that comes with boiled eggs, capers, red onions and crackers for $22.
The entrees, most priced at $25 or less, were the highlight of the meal. There are a few choices beyond fish — prime rib, roasted chicken — but we decided to stick to what Argenta Seafood gives top billing. One of our companions was not entirely impressed with his swordfish — he claimed his father's variation on the dish is better — but he also admitted that he wasn't much of a seafood man. To these taste buds it was fine, albeit a bit fishier that the other dishes we tried. Those were the mahi-mahi, the sole and the ahi tuna. Each was uniquely done. The mahi-mahi was summery, with a pineapple garnish. The tuna steak, which was exceptionally large, had a bit more gravitas — it was prepared with a crunchy black-pepper crust that proved a nice contrast to the soft interior. This was probably the best entree we tried, although the oven-baked sole, stuffed with crab meat, was also excellent.
We can't say the same for the truly disappointing side dishes — a pile of bacon-seasoned green beans and a bed of somewhat bland wild rice — which were served with every entree. It's not that these dishes were bad — the beans were quite tasty, as a matter of fact — it's that they were boring. A little variety would have improved the meal immensely. To the kitchen's credit, they have since altered the menu — the swordfish now comes with roasted carrots, for example, and the mahi-mahi with sticky rice.
On the upside, the wine list is diverse and has plenty to offer anyone wanting to get out of a merlot/chardonnay rut. Many of the wines are offered by the glass; most bottles range from $30 to $50. A more exclusive “Proprietors List” offers bottles priced from $70 to $125. (The whole list, as well as the menu, is posted at www.arseafood.com.)
Desserts, not prepared on site, were good if not outstanding. The chocolate mousse and carrot cake both offered about what we expected; a cappuccino truffle was a nice departure from the beaten path. But dessert also offered one of the worst parts of the entire meal — the coffee. It was as weak as a David Eckstein groundball and had the taste of Shell station brew.
This is not nitpicking. If a restaurant cannot tend to small details like a decent cup of coffee, then there is a problem. Small things can be quickly fixed, however, and if the switch to more creative side dishes is an indication, Argenta Seafood will see to it that they are. More, the restaurant's fundamental entrees are strong. If you don't mind a little noise, they make a visit well worth it.