Porter's Jazz Cafe was a work in progress longer than expected — its announced August opening date slipping into early September. And still, about a month into its history, it remains a work in progress. As of recently, what waiters bring to the table is still termed the "soft opening" menu, one pared down from what is touted at www.portersjazzcafe.com.
It's likely Porter's will remain a bit fluid for a while as owners assess its clientele's preferences and habits. For example, hours are posted as 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday (and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday), but will Porter's really stay open that late if not many people are there on a weeknight? And will folks who pop in for a meal always have to pay a cover charge if they're not planning to settle in for a night of music?
Time will tell how quickly, and in what ways, Porter's will settle in. But the good news is that our first two meals there — a Friday night dinner and a mid-afternoon Sunday brunch — included several bright spots. It's clear there's a commitment to quality in the kitchen and that attention to detail is important.
Servers were uniformly friendly and attentive, though getting drinks delivered from the bar was an oddly slow process both times. In keeping with the what-you-see- isn't-always-exactly-what-you-get theme, the "wedge salad" we ordered that first dinner was nothing of the sort. It featured tossed romaine vs. the namesake iceberg "wedge," though it was still good, with chunks of tomato and bacon with large shavings of Parmesan served with a zingy balsamic vinaigrette.
The chicken and waffles were touted as featuring two chicken thighs, but in fact came with a single, well-fried chicken breast, which we prefer over thighs anyway. The peach chutney reduction sauce soaked nicely into the slightly crisp waffle, and the combination was declared good by its consumer.
We've liked the concept of shrimp and grits since it caught on here a few years ago, but the couple of times we've gotten the dish around town we've been disappointed, getting bland and a bit gummy servings. Not so with the Porter's version, which featured eight plump shrimp teamed with nice-sized Andouille sausage hunks, diced tomato and sweet onions over soft, creamy grits. It was savory but not really spicy.
The online menu listed only a few brunch items, so when we strolled in about 2:30 p.m. one recent Sunday we expected to go for the regular lunch menu. But then we learned there was a buffet, and while we worried what shape it might be in at that time of day, it seemed a restaurant reviewer's obligation to give it a whirl.
The buffet is set up downstairs, the jazz cafe portion of the two-floor establishment, with a tucked away seating area that allows private conversation, a VIP area to watch the music with your friends and a decent-sized dining room with clear view of the stage. A mural depicting three of the Porters for whom the place was named — local legends Art Sr. and Art Jr. and universally renowned songwriter Cole — provides a visual focal point behind the downstairs bar.
The kitchen staff was there to explain and serve the buffet, which began with a large assortment of muffins, cupcakes and pastries that clearly weren't made in-house. The homemade blueberry-lemon scones with powdered sugar, a combination of sweet and slightly tart, were an exception. Other selections on that table were a variety of fruit and a basic salad bar.
The breakfast portion of the buffet featured a made-to-order waffle bar. There were several toppings to choose from as well as scrambled eggs, bacon, link sausage and very tender ham chunks in a sweet root beer demi-glace. The lunch portion featured chicken pieces in a cream sauce, decent, not-too-spicy chicken wings, creamy-more-than-cheesy macaroni and cheese featuring corkscrew pasta, Southern-style green beans, sinfully rich garlic mashed potatoes and prime rib that suffered a bit from being held warm. At $13.99, it was a good deal.
Our dining companion opted to work off the menu, and she declared her bacon cheeseburger ($9.49) the very best she's had in Little Rock, maybe ever. We since have heard another Porter's burger-lover make the same rather bold declaration. A juicy half-pound burger, slightly crisped, is served on a buttery, griddled bun, topped with crispy bacon, a nice slice of cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion and homemade dill chips that have a nice touch of vinegar and sweetness. The homemade potato chips are smaller in diameter, lighter and crisper than most we've had — not at all "kettle" chippish. They're addictive.
A jazz guitarist and keyboardist entertained during brunch, highlighted by an impromptu appearance by a fellow diner who ripped through a version of Sade's "Smooth Operator," reading the lyrics from another diner's iPhone. Bravo!Click here for hours and more information.