Saturday, January 22, 2011

Riverfront Steakhouse

2 Riverfront Plaza (in the Wyndham Motel)

North Little Rock, AR


I wonder what it says about me that I go to a well-regarded local steakhouse for the first time and like the shrimp bisque better than the steaks. Probably nothing, actually.

My companion said she was hungry for a steak, and we wound up at the Riverfront Steakhouse on the night of a big country music concert at the Verizon Arena. Because of its proximity to the Verizon, lots of Arkansans from out of town evidently like to stay there when they go to a concert. The country music folks, it seems, like to get all liquored-up at the bar and then ride a bus or van over to Verizon. As a local driver, I felt safer immediately.

Sitting at the bar waiting on our table, I observed that the drink-of-choice among the country ladies was the Long Island Ice Tea (at the Riverfront bar: four clear liquors -- vodka, rum, gin and tequila -- followed by Triple Sec, a sweet and sour mix and a dash of Coca-Cola). It seemed to have an immediate and powerful effect on all of them. They quickly became giddy-er, loud-er (if possible), and … country-er. For us, it was the equivalent of dinner and a show.

After our meal, I went back and asked the bartender about the ingredients in a Long Island Ice Tea. When I said, “That sounds like it would taste terrible!” He nodded, and said, “It does. But it’s the best value for your money if you want to get drunk. “ OK. And, then he added, “But the hangovers are really nasty.” Ahh, the rich pageantry of life.

Dinner at the Riverfront Steakhouse focuses, naturally, on steaks. In this case, Prime beef that they bring in from Chicago a couple of times a week. It is supposedly aged and never frozen. Those are all good things. They also say that they cut the steaks to order, salt and pepper them, put them in a special oven to create a crust, then butter them, and then put them back in an oven until they reach the appropriate “doneness.” That all sounds really good.

With a steak, you also get a soup or a trip to the “salad bar.” As I mentioned earlier, my companion made a very wise choice and ordered the shrimp bisque. When I tasted it, I immediately cancelled my trip to the “salad bar,” and asked for the bisque. Evidently, the gods weren’t smiling on me that evening, because our waiter, Eric, came shuffling back and -- doing his best Walter Brennan imitation -- apologetically explained that she had got the very last bisque. Wha?? OK, I’m not worthy of the bisque, I guess. But it was creamy, shrimpy, delightfully seasoned and beautifully colored. Very flavorful. Really one of the best bisques I’ve had in years, and maybe that was because it had been down there at the bottom of the container in the kitchen and kept accreting flavor. I don’t know, but it was GOOD.

When I was at the “salad bar,” our steaks arrived. I don’t consider myself pretentious, but a place that aspires to be a sort of high-class steakhouse, in my mind, shouldn’t have a “salad bar.” It should prepare great salads in the kitchen and deliver them to your table. I guess I’ve never recovered from the episode of Saturday Night Live years ago, when Dan Ackroyd took some friends to the “Trough and Brew” restaurant. Salad bars, to me, are simply troughs that invite folks (usually “big-boned” as we say in the South), to test how much their plates can really hold.

OK, the steaks. I ordered a T-Bone ($36.95, I think) medium-rare, and a “40-count” potato (Eric explained that there are typically 100 potatoes in a bushel, but the ones the Riverfront orders are football-sized tubers that fill up a bushel with only forty). Eric was obviously pleased with these potatoes, because he went on to say that “The big ones will feed a family of four!” Impressive, but I just wanted a side dish, not a UNICEF mission. When it arrived, it was, yes, large, but not huge. And, it tasted very good. Along with it, I got a separate plate with a year’s supply of butter, sour cream and cheddar cheese. Amazing.

Back to the steak. Juicy, reasonably tender, a bit over-cooked, tasty, and … thinner than I had expected. The pepper coating was sort of overpowering, to me. It masked the natural full flavor of a Prime beef steak a tad, and I thought that was unfortunate. My companion had a bone-in Ribeye (I think for $32.95 – and, why do people insist on the “.95” thing? But, that’s another rant altogether). Both were, potentially, quite good steaks, but the seasonings – again, to me – got in the way. Portions were large, and we both took home at least half a steak to eat later. I would have, actually, preferred a thicker, smaller steak, and I’m going to go back and try their largest tenderloin and see how that compares to my T-Bone.

Service was … leisurely. And, sometimes, that’s OK. But, it could have been better when we were there. If you’re paying that much for a steak, I also expect good, attentive, unobtrusive, knowledgeable service. Maybe I ask for too much.

We’ll go back, and I’ll get the shrimp bisque. The place is popular, and they take reservations. On weekends – especially those with country music concerts going on at the Verizon Arena -- those would probably be a good idea. The martinis are good in the bar (though they charge $1 extra for a “dirty” martini, which I find larcenous). And, unless you’re going to the concert, I’d stay away from the Long Island Ice Teas.


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