The food at The Avenue, the new restaurant on the ground floor of the super-chic, 62-room, boutique Waters Hotel in Hot Springs, is really good. And it's really, really expensive — as in how-did-you-possibly-think-this-was-a-fair-price expensive. There must be a formula for restaurant menu math based on ingredient cost, labor, rent, etc., but Chef Casey Copeland (most recently of So Restaurant-Bar in Hillcrest) and the owners of the restaurant need to revisit their ciphering.
As is our custom, we will list the price next to each item we tried, and we won't spend any more time blasting The Avenue for the numbers you'll see inside the parentheses. But the prices are just crazy as in "$19 for four scallops" crazy.
The Avenue is very cool space. We plopped on two of the six comfy, blue-fabric bar stools to watch the second half of the Kentucky-North Carolina game. There are a few bar tables in that part of the space, and the main dining room features a full-length banquette and a few other free-standing tables, for total seating of about 50. The walls feature 1940s and '50s black-and-white pictures of people strolling along "the Avenue." And the floors are a gray hardwood. With all its hard surfaces, we imagine the place gets loud when it's crowded, but it wasn't early Sunday evening.
We started with two of the "Snapps," or appetizers. The Almond Gremolata ($8) is a smallish pile of finely diced almonds mixed with parsley and an accompanying smear of sweetened, whipped mascarpone, served with toast slices. Very, very tasty — particularly in combination.
We also really enjoyed the Quacker Jacks ($10), a modified, much-improved version of Cracker Jack, with house-cured bacon and duck fat adding serious decadence to the usual caramel-and-peanut infused popcorn. Two of us could have used two orders, but we resisted.
The Avenue takes an interesting approach to entrees — only six small plates ($15 to $21) and four "shareables": a sausage plate ($26); a half chicken ($35; it is free range and all); paella ($65); and an 18-ounce dry-aged (for 30 days) bone-in ribeye ($78).
Since there were just two of us, we stuck with the small plates. The Lamb Agnolotti Dal Plin ($17) essentially wastes the lamb. There's just a tiny bit of it on the nine pieces of pasta that resemble ravioli bottoms. The sauce reminded us of hoisin, but it's described as "truffle brown butter" on the menu. It overwhelmed the lamb dots, which could have been pork or beef or even maybe chicken; we would never have known the difference.
The shredded duck on the duck confit tacos ($15 for three small ones) also was a bit overwhelmed by the sauce, carrot and purple cabbage, but still the tacos were tasty.
The menu we were presented at The Avenue is new and not the one that was posted online. The old menu showed a single seared scallop for $14, and the new one offers four nice-size scallops for $19. They were tender, perfectly seared and artfully served with some crisp lavash-style cracker pieces and garnish.
Only four desserts are offered, and the only table of diners in the bar had nabbed the last piece of Grandma's Chocolate Pie ($9). Chef Copeland informed us he had already begun making chocolate bundt cakes, and he was kind enough to serve us two small ones ($6 — best deal of the night) even though they weren't yet on the menu. They were moist, very chocolate-forward and paired nicely with the pool of vanilla cream.
We also opted for the Croquembouche ($12), 10 tallish, cylindrical pastries filled with either chocolate, pineapple or vanilla cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. They were a bit doughy — but we had no trouble scarfing them all down.
As much as we enjoyed the food and the overall dining experience and atmosphere at The Avenue, with those prices we doubt we'll be back.
At the Waters Hotel
340 Central Ave.
The Avenue has an impressive wine list, with lots of higher-end selections available, even by the glass — and while the food prices shocked us, the wine prices are reasonable. A $9 glass of Frank Family Chardonnay, generously poured, was quite a deal. The cocktail list is also impressive, with many complex combinations, often featuring herbs and/or flowers as garnish. Each is $10, also a decent price.
4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.