One supposes the reason Conway has such good restaurants — we've been impressed by all we've been to — is the business they get from the parents of college students, who make up 99.9 percent of the population here. That's a slight exaggeration in number, of course, but whatever the reason, we're glad for it.
So we expected the venerable Oak Street Bistro to be good, and it was more than good. It was excellent. It was a little liberal with the butterfat — our group was unable to finish more than half of our entrees — but there was some skilled cooking and flavoring going on here.
The menu is such that the restaurant might more aptly be called Live Oak bistro. The menu is awash in coastal dishes — like the shrimp and grits we ordered, and jambalaya pasta and blackened Creole pork chops — and the fancy/quaint styling of the place (a neon sign out front blinks OPEN; the chairs are upholstered; the walls are a warm yellow) would be right at home in some sandy piney woods somewhere. It is on Interstate 40, unfortunately, but the traffic disappears into nothingness thanks to the music of Indigo Girls and such playing not too loudly in the background.
We took some hungry college students, as it happens, and they did NOT order hamburgers, though they are on the menu and look pretty good. Instead, they found their way to catfish with polenta fritters, an artichoke-mushroom-feta-spinach quiche and a hot crab sandwich; the grownups (we include ourselves in this category) had the aforementioned shrimp and a grilled New York strip with a blackened spice "topper," as the menu describes it. (Only one glass of wine was imbibed — a lovely Aqua Pumpkin chardonnay, chosen for the name from a lengthy list of wines, as befitting a bistro.)
Delectable grilled shrimp, of perfect texture (as the menu promises), encircled a mound of grits cooked in what was described as a blackened cream sauce. Talk about rich: A piece of bacon poked up from the grits volcano; we didn't touch it for fear our heart would erupt, but boy was this dish tasty. A dusting of parmesan completed the serving.
The New York strip was a tender and flavorful hunk of meat, a just-right red in the middle, deliciously "topped" with the rub. A swirl of duchess potatoes on the side was so picture-perfect (delicious, too) that the vegetables didn't even register. Other "toppers" we could have chosen: a Cajun jambalaya cream, bleu cheese, Portobello mushroom and Burgundy wine, or a red wine and butter.
The catfish came atop an apple slaw that was both tasty and pleasantly un-soggy, leaving the fried fish crispy. There was some disagreement at table on the polenta fritters: the student thought they were "unnecessary," and since she was raised on New Orleans food, one must listen to her, but this diner loved them. They were creamy on the inside and crisp on the outside with a bit of heat — a little bit of chopped jalapeno tucked in, perhaps. Our NOLA diner had good things to say about the sauce the fish was served with, so that speaks well of it.
About the hot crab sandwich: Lots of crab and melted provolone cheese mounded ice-cream-scoop style atop an English muffin, slightly browned — what could be richer? What could be more delicious? (What could kill you faster? But you can't think like that at Oak Street.) Two of these sinful lumps come on the plate, but it would take a giant to down them both; one went back to the dormitory for later noshing. The generous and slightly chartreuse slice of quiche was very good, our taster declared, but it was lonely there on the plate. She suggested a garnish of tomatoes, perhaps? We thought fruit would have been nice, and the waitress said something about a fruit-topped green salad, but we didn't quite catch it. It did come with a green salad, but it was served before.
The desserts are equally rich — our waitress enumerated several, including two cheesecakes (one chocolate, one raspberry), a chocolate pecan pie, carrot cake and so forth. We went with the carrot cake and though it was delicious it was also very very very salty — so salty that it could not have been intentional. The sweet sweet sweet icing and moist cake balanced it enough that we easily scarfed it down, but we doubt Oak Street normally salts its cakes so. (If there was another odd note it was the heft and dimension of the leather-covered menu — it was almost impossible for the three of us on our side of the six-top to all open at one time.)
There's a lovely large painting on the wall (in the style of a children's book illustrator whose name escapes us at the moment) of a lady chef pouring wine with one hand and holding the sun with another. It captures the cozy, happy mood of the place — good food makes people smile. Oak Street Bistro will do that.
Oak Street Bistro
800 4th Ave. (Oak Street exit)
The menu says Oak Street uses premium aged and hand-selected beef and we believe it. A good lunch choice might be the OSB Burger, served with tomato sweet jam, garlic aoli, pickled onions and provolone cheese, on a pretzel bun. Oak Street caters, too.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar, credit cards accepted.