The Grand Cafe in the reborn Little Rock Hilton is a hotel restaurant.
Yes the hotel ownership includes ties to the famous Peabody Hotels.
Yes the Hilton has undergone an expensive and handsome restoration.
Yes the former restaurant is sleek, with marble flooring, handsome furniture and a blast of light from the wall of windows overlooking the hotel pool and courtyard.
Yes, a well-known chef, Bryan Sink, was reported to be in charge of restaurant operations when it opened (turns out, Sink left soon after for a job in Heber Springs). Sink undoubtedly left a mark on the menu. You might get blackberry coulis with your chocolate cake, fried leeks on your fish sandwich and fried caper dressing on your tuna salad croissant.
Yes, there's a long and fancy wine list, mostly American, with the likes of an $85 jug of Cakebread chardonnay and a $95 Stags Leap cabernet.
The young servers are sweet as can be, though short on experience.
But, in our two outings, there were other things less praiseworthy - inexplicably slow service at quiet times, poor cooking and a general lack of zing that said, well, hotel restaurant.
Some of the shortcomings we could understand. A hotel kitchen must serve three squares from early in the morning until well into the evening, often for business people in a hurry and the headline chef can't be there every minute. It can't set prices too high and still hope for government and drummer trade, but you can't reasonably expect cheap eats in such a spiffy setting either. Still, there's no explaining the bad cooking.
We didn't ask for much. A burger at lunch was big as advertised, but cooked until dry, served lukewarm on a cold bun. The fries, with the burger and a companion's sandwich, were inexcusably limp, undercooked and greasy. The fish sandwich - mahi mahi with leeks and fontina - was supposed to come on toasted ciabatta. The thick slabs of dense white bread, with only the barest toasting, didn't look like any ciabatta we ever knew. The fish was tough and, well, fishy tasting. Unappetizing.
Desserts didn't rescue the lunch. Though we waited 10 minutes or so after ordering them, the deep-dish apple pie still was served cold and gummy. Cappucino cheesecake seemed to be drizzled with Hershey's syrup and the weird-tasting coffee cheesecake layer had too much coffee and too little richness.
We blame the long delays not on the wait staff, by the way. They were apologetic. The kitchen just couldn't get the job done.
We returned with trepidation for dinner. With good reason. Again, the pleasant servers couldn't rescue bad food. The crabcakes wrapped around shrimp as an appetizer were huge, but long on cornmeal and, as it happens, blessedly short on crab. Why the blessing? The bits of crab weren't from the Gulf or an Atlantic bay. They had the plastic texture of the fake stuff. The big shrimp in the center was tender, at least, though the whole dish was bland. The two cakes came in a pool of a pinkish sauce that resembled ketchup lightened with sour cream and tasted not a bit of the promised wasabi. Then things really went downhill, from a prefab-crouton-topped salad with all the life of a plastic gardenia to our main dishes, a tenderloin and, stupid me, mahi mahi again.
This mahi mahi was overcooked and cold by the time it reached us and the sun-dried strawberry and mango sauce was unpleasantly sharp and chemical-tasting. The fish sat on a bed of what the menu said was jasmine rice, but it was gritty and looked more like dirty cous cous. The tenderloin was medium rare, as requested, but also not very hot or very seasoned. And it seemed to have been cooked slowly to the done point rather than flash fried, given the absence of sear marks on the outside. The meat was tender enough, though it had the thin, elongated shape of a slice of ribeye, rather than the thick and round profile of a classic tenderloin. It came with a gooey and astringent merlot sauce. Then there was this oddity: The side dishes - a jumble of sliced vegetables and "twice-baked horseradish new potatoes" - were served on a separate dinner plate. It was awkward handling a main course served on two huge plates, one in front of the other. The new potatoes, soupy mashed potatoes poured into potato skins, never got the second baking. Indeed, we're not sure they ever got the first.
It was a dispiriting meal, unrelieved by an $8 glass of zinfandel that tasted as if the bottle had been kept close to a water heater. But we hazarded a try for a sweet finish by ordering a "fruitini," seasonal berries in a martini glass with a dollop of cream. The waitress misheard the order and brought a serving of fruit tart. She apologized and went back to the kitchen, only to return empty-handed. There were no fresh berries in the house.
I should mention that the tenderloin cost a hefty $28. Salad is $2.50 extra. You do get some free bread with the meal.
We so wanted the meal to taste as good as the menu sounds. Malted waffles and garlic potato cakes and breakfast stromboli for the morning meal, for instance. (A full breakfast will set you back $8 or $9.)
Bryan's spicy meat loaf, still on the menu even if Sink isn't around, might be a reasonable bet for lunch because Sink has been known to serve up a tasty slab of this comforting dish. Grilled vegetables in a ginger, carrot and peanut sauce is a nice surprise dish for vegetarians. Club, french dip and chicken sandwiches are among the hands-on choices and there's a nice-sounding group of meal-sized salads.
Other dinner choices range from moderately daring (sea bass grilled on corn husks with roasted corn pico de gallo, $17.95) to dependable-sounding pork chops and salmon. Baked potatoes cost an extra buck.
Desserts include some twists, too. The choices include poached pears with mascarpone quenelle (unavailable when we were in the house) and vanilla cream brulee.
Hilton Grand Cafe
925 S. University Ave.
The spiffy looking restaurant at the redone Little Rock Hilton Metro Center aspires to be more than a convenience to hotel guests. If only the kitchen could deliver on the menu, which lists many interesting dishes and ingredients. There's a comfy looking lobby bar, with wicker chairs and sturdy leather sofas, for a pre-dinner drink. Have several.
6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Prices are moderate to expensive. Credit cards are accepted. There's a full bar.