At the beginning of 2017, chef Ira Mittelman announced he was closing Ira’s Park Hill Grill for a move to downtown Little Rock to participate in the revitalization of Main Street. At that time, he told me he was hoping to open by spring, though delays could push him into the summer. The summer of 2017, that is.
Fast-forward past 18 months of red tape, construction issues and permitting delays, and at long last Ira’s Restaurant is open on Main Street. That kind of delay and sunken cost could (and probably should) manifest itself in some way to the diner. There should be some unfinished feature in the dining room, or badly prepared food, or undertrained service staff. But after enjoying dinner there this weekend, I can confidently say that Ira’s Restaurant is ready for prime time. In fact, I think Ira’s instantly joins the conversation as one of the most attractive downtown dinner destinations Little Rock has to offer.
I meant “attractive” literally as well as figuratively, because Ira’s Restaurant is visually stunning. The restaurant uses restrained colors and textures on the walls and floor to draw your attention to some of the beautiful features. Oversized Italian-style restaurant artwork adorns the north wall of the restaurant, while a stylized painting of Mittelman is the only artwork on the back wall. The table and chairs are rich and warm, at once inviting and luxurious. And then there’s the bar. The Rose Building’s original brick and wood joists form the backbar, while soft tungsten lights float dramatically above the diners. The effect is timeless; Ira’s bar area looks like it’s been there since the days of speakeasies.
And that bar is put to exemplary use. The two cocktails I got to try were wonderfully devised and executed. It will be no surprise if the Bacon Old Fashioned becomes one of the most popular drinks in Little Rock. It’s a classic old fashioned mellowed with a touch of maple syrup and washed in bacon fat. Under less capable hands, it could come across as gimmicky, but this cocktail never lets you forget its roots. But my favorite drink, and one of the best cocktails I’ve had in a long time, is the Arkansour. Cappelletti Aperitivo, gin and vermouth get shaken together with egg white for a silky, foamy presentation. The tart flavors burst onto your palette, while the gin hangs out in the background to keep the other flavors framed. Bar manager Michael Hollis and general manager George Thompson collaborated on this menu, and it only takes a glance at the ingredients to realize that there is plenty of expertise at work.
And the food coming out of the kitchen matches the quality of the bar. Many of the plates came over from the Park Hill restaurant, like the Brussels Sprouts, Poblano Cheesecake and Mushroom Spring Rolls. Ira’s also takes advantage of seasonal Arkansas produce, and the Summer Tomato appetizer with pesto and Parmesan cheese is an enjoyable take on the classic plate. Also delightful was a Grilled Peach Salad, with honey-grilled peaches, spinach, blue cheese and candied pecans. Our dinner entrees of Shrimp and Grits and an Arkansas-raised Pork Chop were both capably done and featured some creative twists that elevated them above their humble roots.
Ira’s Restaurant should not be missed. The ambiance is first-class, the bar is stellar, the kitchen is confident, and the service is warm and charming. It’s been a long road for Mittelman and his team bringing Ira’s from North Little Rock to Main Street, but it has all come together better than anyone could have expected. I predict Ira’s will be a well-received success and another bright spot in the downtown renaissance.
Ira’s is currently open for dinner only. It should begin lunch service in a couple of weeks.