The historic Park Hill neighborhood of North Little Rock welcomed the upscale Ira’s Park Hill Grill, which serves a melting-pot menu of lunch, brunch, dinner … and cocktails, since the community voted to lift the neighborhood liquor ban in 2013.
Photography by Janet Warlick
[dropcap]Restaurateur[/dropcap] Ira Mittelman is blazing a foodie trail and hopes others will join him in North Little Rock’s Park Hill neighborhood.
“We added the first liquor bar in Park Hill in 60 years, and the restaurant has had great community support. We like to think of Park Hill as a little Heights [a prime Little Rock neighborhood], but we need [more restaurants like this] here to survive,” Mittelman said.
The New Jersey native has been in the restaurant business for 25 years and owned establishments in California and Florida before arriving in Arkansas in 2005. “My mom was an outstanding cook and baker. My dad was a gardener,” he said. “When I lived in California, I really got into wine, and I figured I needed to learn to cook if I’m going to drink this much wine. Cooking just came naturally. Luckily, I have a great ability to put flavors together.”
In January he took over the old E’s Bistro location in a Park Hill shopping center and began a three-month renovation to transform the café into his own space. The restaurant has a cozy, masculine interior that imitates the bold character of its owner. “We came in and added the marble top bar and just kind of ‘manned’ it up a little,” Mittelman said, laughing.
He wanted the atmosphere to be relaxing and cozy, so he hired a sound engineer from the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra to come in and make adjustments to aid with noise control. Ira’s is definitely a place to have a quiet, intimate dinner with friends. Warm lighting and soft, soulful music add just the right lively vibe for dinner or happy hour, the latter of which is held from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The menu at Ira’s changes seasonally to keep things interesting, and Mittelman uses as much local produce as possible to create fresh foods. He even has an herb garden on-site, where everything is picked fresh as soon as patrons place their orders. He described the cuisine as a real American menu.
“Our menu combines all the flavors of the world, and that’s what America is — a melting pot of flavors. You’ll find influences of Caribbean, Italian, French … a little bit of everything. I’m just lucky to have all these great local ingredients in Arkansas,” he said.
We sampled a few excellent dishes from Mittelman’s melting-pot menu on our visit to Ira’s. From the appetizer offerings, we enjoyed the mushroom spring roll, which was a crispy, fried traditional egg roll filled with sautéed shitake mushrooms, carrots and vegetables. It was served with pickled ginger and a Chinese soup spoon, full of soy-based sake dipping sauce. This is one of the most popular appetizers. It is made from two large eggrolls sliced diagonally, and resting on a bed of lettuce topped with thinly sliced green apples, red onions and carrots — a great sweet and savory combination with a heavy Asian influence.
Our main course was Mittelman’s personal favorite, the lamb shank. This hearty shank was slowly simmered with garlic, tomatoes and vegetables, and it was so tender it nearly fell off the bone. The savory shank was served on a bed of perfectly chunky mashed potatoes and topped with grilled asparagus and flaky Parmesan. This dish is a crowd favorite; however, Mittelman plans to swap it out, adding to the menu some lighter, fresh fish dishes, including pecan-encrusted catfish and spicy shrimp diablo for the summer. Look for the lamb shank to reappear in the fall.
For dessert we sampled the blueberry cobbler made with fresh, local berries. It was a delightfully dense cobbler with a dollop of sweet cream and a light, crumbly topping for added crunch. Other dessert options include fresh-squeezed key lime pie, Grand Marnier-infused crème brulee, German chocolate cake and peanut butter pie.
The cocktail menu is also extensive, and many drinks are made with fresh ingredients. Ira’s also has a carefully curated wine list and beer selection. We tried the watermelon mojito that exuded sweet, summertime flavors. It was a crisp, cool drink made with pureed watermelon, rum, a sprig of mint from the restaurant’s garden and a delicious sugar rim.
We give Ira’s Park Hill Grill two enthusiastic thumbs up and, being a Park Hill resident, I can’t wait to make the short drive back to sample the Sunday brunch.