No. 6: Café Neph(r)esh
810 Fourth Avenue
4.0 percent of Conway restaurants reviewed
She Said: Since we started our restaurant-review project, several people have told us to review this new place in Conway, which opened April 1. I thought it was just a lunch place, but it’s open from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with lunch-only hours on Monday and Tuesday, when it is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Recently, after a morning trip to Little Rock for Jazzercise and a pedicure, I called Jay and he met me here to try out lunch. Getting here is a little bit of an adventure; it’s quite visible from the on-ramp to I-40 eastbound off Oak as it is attached to Tipton Hurst, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to access. I missed the turn my first try and had to go around the block. The driveway/parking lot is one-way (Yes, it is, red truck driver, even if you want to turn around and go out the way you came in!), and parking can get a little tricky, or roll out onto the street if it’s crowded. Ruud, I’ll let you address the name…
According to a sign in the restaurant, Nephesh in Hebrew means: “soul, life, passion and appetite”—the “appetite” in general being appropriate for a restaurant. The post-modern parenthetical insertion of the (r) creates Neph(r)esh—a coinage incorporating the idea of “fresh”ness, and ultimately connoting, according to the sign, “passionate about fresh food, refreshed souls, restored lives.” If this seems a bit of a heavy load to put on the shoulders of a new commercial eatery, at least we can say that the owners’ hearts seem to be in the right place, as they note on the menus that their “mission” is “To make delicious food, using high quality ingredients, sourced locally whenever available,” and that they “will donate a portion of every purchase to Project Zero [an Arkansas charity dedicated to finding homes for “every child waiting to be adopted in Arkansas”] and Loving Mosaics [a manufacturer concerned with creating a safe and healthy working environment for the most vulnerable women in Thailand]. Certainly the reliance on local sources and the charitable intent are laudable goals for any new business venture.
She Said: I was really looking forward to dining here, as, aside from more healthy, local options, I remembered how pretty and comfy Oak Street Bistro was when it opened in this location, but Neph(r)esh is not luxe. The floors are polished concrete and it’s pretty bare, with a lot of hard surfaces that bounce the sound around from the kitchen machinery and anyone loud who happens to sit near you. It’s pretty open, and not too comfortable, I thought. The patio is spacious and pretty, but on the day we had lunch, there was no seating out there.
He Said: Yes—the bare interior and barely functional chairs and tables give the place a very institutional atmosphere. That coupled with the fact that this location is the black hole of Conway—the place where businesses go to die, since you can’t get there without knowing the secret passageway between the Valero and the freeway on-ramp does not provide the place with a terribly advantageous atmosphere.
She Said: They have the usual Coke suspects, soda-wise, as well as milk, orange juice, sweet and unsweet tea as well as a special house coffee and bottled water. I had a pretty tasty unsweet tea, which I refilled before I left.
He Said: Yes, they have Coke products. Once again I opted for the Root Beer. These are fountain drinks, not bottles or cans.
She Said: I went intending to order the veggie wrap (spring mix of greens, tomato, carrots, bell pepper, black beans and choice of dressing on a spinach or tomato-basil wrap), because a friend had praised it, but when I arrived and saw quiche on the menu, I couldn’t resist it. Let’s be clear: I am a lover of the egg. Eggs and I go way back. And I am devoted to quiche. I make quiche. I order quiche. I eat quiche. Even when it has meat in it, which this did, as the menu lists its ingredients as eggs, spinach, cheese, tomatoes and bacon. I chose the crustless quiche for less fat and gluten. This comes with side salad or soup, which was a choice between tomato bisque or loaded potato. I decided to try the Cayle’s Kale Caesar, which mixes kale with the traditional romaine, Caesar dressing, parmesan and croutons. They also add bacon, which I wasn’t that excited about, as Caesar salad is a good go-to for me in avoiding meat in restaurants.
When the waitress brought the plate, I could not believe it: The crustless quiche was so thin and small, I almost laughed. It was, I’m sure, not even a quarter of an inch thick. I have never in my life seen a piece of quiche so small in a restaurant, or, for that matter, anywhere else. At Trio’s and Bossa Nova in Little Rock, the quiche serving looks like one fifth or sixth of a pie. This was more like a really wilted frittata. I think there was one piece of all the ingredients mentioned in the description in the serving, one wafer-thin piece. It tasted fine, so I ate it up, and then ate the kale salad. This is not Neph(r)esh’s fault, but I’m not a big kale fan, unless it’s really softened and served wilted in things, like a smoothie or a warm quinoa salad. So, I got a little tired of it before I finished it. I was desperate, so I took a bite of Ruud’s turkey sandwich, and got such a big dollop of mustard, I couldn’t taste anything else.
I was still really hungry, so I ate half of the dessert we decided to split, Alaya’s chocolate cake. This was pretty yummy, “undry” (remember, we don’t like the “M word” around here) and chocolaty. It tasted like “church-lady cake” from my childhood, a single layer with a thick spread of frosting on top. When they say they use high-quality local ingredients here, this cake makes me believe them, since it tastes like the from-scratch desserts I was lucky enough to eat growing up in small-town South Dakota.
He Said: I will bear witness that yes, you had quiche that was the size of a Dorito. I think the best that can be said about the food here is that it is hit-or-miss. Going for the low-fat options as usual, I ordered a roasted turkey sandwich. It came with a slice of cheese (I opted for Swiss as less fatty than cheddar), lettuce, tomato, mayo, and mustard, and I chose to have it on rye bread (there are several other bread options). I asked them to leave off the high-fat mayo. Perhaps this is why the mustard tasted so strong. Ultimately the sandwich was unremarkable, though the mustard did give it a little kick.
I ordered a cup of the tomato bisque on the side, not expecting much, but as it turned out the soup was the highlight of my meal. It wasn’t simply a pureed tomato soup, but included a few garnishes as well as pieces of tomato and onion in the creamy soup, and it tasted very nice. I might have been happier to have had a bowl of soup and made that the meal.
And yes, I agree that the chocolate cake was excellent. Very rich and a delicious brownie-like icing. Probably not the best fat-free option in the place.
She Said: When you walk in, menus are in a rack for you to peruse before you go up to the counter, where you order. We kept one, as they are just printed on paper and seem to be to take and share. At the counter, the friendly, helpful staffer answered our questions and gave us our cups and number, so they could bring us the food. When she didn’t know about some ingredients, she went and asked someone else, who came out with the recipe and shared every ingredient. This showed me that they “get-it” when someone asks about ingredients—there are so many reasons someone may need to know about what is in the food he is ordering. The waitress was very patient with The World’s Slowest Orderer, wasn’t she, Ruud?
He Said: I’m not sure what you’re referring to, Jones. But she was quite friendly. And while this is not a sit-down-and-give-your-order-to-a-waiter kind of place, the chef and another worker came by our table as we ate and asked if we needed anything else. So for an order-at-the-counter place, the service was pretty good.
She Said: Yeah, I felt a little conflicted about not telling them about my disappointment with the portion size. If they had served me the wrong food, or something was wrong with the food they had given me, I would have told them, but I’ve never complained about portion size in a restaurant before (never had to).
What We Got and What We Paid: A wafer-thin slice of quiche and kale Caesar salad, a roasted turkey sandwich, a cup of soup, a fountain drink, an unsweet tea and a dessert to share for $24.63.
She Said: I’m not in a hurry to return. They were super friendly and I appreciate the social good they are trying to do by donating some of their profits to worthy causes, but the food was not filling or satisfying… except for the cake. I might come back for coffee and dessert sometime, if I could sit outside on a nice day.
He Said: I’m not going to rush back. There are certainly places for lunch that I like a lot better.
So…He Said and She Said: Move this hit-or-miss eatery down your list, unless you’re Jay Ruud and order what he got, maybe skipping the sandwich—but don’t skip the cake.