When trying out a new restaurant, I try to let the experience dictate what I order for the first time. If I see food runners dropping off a succession of fried oyster appetizers I might change my mind about the crab cakes. I try to talk to the servers about what they like and ask them what’s trending. Sometimes the decision is made easy for me, like on my second trip to Park Grill, the new restaurant in the revamped Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts (501 E. Ninth St.).
While I was standing at the host stand trying to come to terms with the fact that I’d shown up for my reservation a week early, the security guard who greeted me at the front entrance of the museum opened the glass door and said, “The tomato pie is really good.” It was decided.
Park Grill opened in May, a couple weeks after the museum’s grand opening. The restaurant’s executive chef, Patrick Herron, is a Culinary Institute of America alum and former chef at the Arkansas governor’s mansion during former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration and part of Mike Beebe’s.
Since my table wouldn’t be ready for another week the hostess offered me a seat at the bar. The restaurant’s vibe feels upscale. The museum itself is stunning and the beautiful slatted wooden roofing extends to the restaurant, which sits directly adjacent to the main entrance. The table set ups include green glassware and what Google identifies as green trick dianthus carnations. The green chairs look vintage and new at the same time. About half the tables feature half-circle booth seating. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of the museum’s outdoor sculptures and its landscaped event lawn. It also features a nice outdoor dining area that wasn’t open on either of my visits.
Despite the upscale vibe, the menu is moderately priced. The Carolina tomato pie is listed on the salad menu for $14. The description: mixed green salad, sherry vinaigrette.
I feared that I should know more about Carolina tomato pie, or tomato pie in general. My editor Austin Bailey is from North Carolina so I sent her a text asking what a Carolina tomato pie is. She explained that it’s kind of like quiche with tomatoes and cheese. She said locals omit the name Carolina and just call it a tomato pie.
It looked like Bailey described it. As far as I could tell it consisted of a pie crust, a tomato mixture and cheese. When I took a bite though, I tasted an explosion of flavor. It was served warm (I’ve since read tomato pie is served warm, hot or cold) and whatever the mixture was, I thought it made for a perfect bite. I’ve made tomato-based pizzas omitting sauce with fresh tomatoes, quality mozzarella and house-made thin crust dough, and they were disappointing by comparison. The bartender walked by and could see that I was experiencing flavor confusion.
I asked him about it. He said it was basically a house-made pie crust with fresh tomatoes and white and yellow cheddar. There had to be more to it, I thought. I emailed former Arkansas Times senior editor Max Brantley, who sent me a link to a recent story from Southern Living that says the dish is a classic that has been around since the 1970s. It offers a recipe that uses Duke’s mayonnaise to bind the pastry together. It started to make more sense to me because Duke’s mayo takes tomato sandwiches to another level. I was so enthralled with the tomato pie that I forgot all about the salad, which was a mistake because the sherry vinaigrette provided a great accent to the savory pie.
The bartender said when the staff got together before the restaurant opened to taste everything, he asked if he could finish off the slice that was left behind, a strategic power move if I’ve ever heard one.
While seated in the waiting area during my first visit, a woman dropped her paper menu at a table about 10 feet away from me and it hit the floor and proceeded to slide at a high rate of speed all the way to my feet. It might not have defied the laws of physics, but if she tried to perform the same maneuver again I’m confident that it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. No one seemed to even acknowledge that it even happened, which was almost more impressive than her passing off the menu to me so effortlessly.
Soup and sandwich
My waiter recommended the spring asparagus soup ($8) served with a swirl of creme fraiche and a parmesan crisp. It was well-balanced and light and had an umami flavor that got better with each bite. It also matched the restaurant’s viridescent color scheme.
After doing a survey of the Central Arkansas fried chicken sandwich scene last year (and the subsequent no-more-fried-chicken diet that followed), I’m happy to report that Park Grill’s crispy chicken schnitzel sandwich ($14) brings a unique spin to the table.
The chicken itself is indeed very crispy, but it’s also built differently than any of the sandwiches we sampled in our research last year. Rather than lettuce, tomato, pickle and special sauce, it’s topped with a Swiss cheese, spicy slaw and smoked tomato jam, all great additions to the crispy chicken and brioche bun. Served with sweet potato fries, it was enough for two people to split. I tried to leave it alone but couldn’t.