Friday, January 25, 2013

What's cooking at White Water Tavern

Posted By on Fri, Jan 25, 2013 at 10:15 AM

The Huggy Bear
  • The Huggy Bear
Between two human beings—hopelessly romantic, emotionally-driven creatures—I do not believe in "love at first sight." On the other hand, when it comes to restaurants, its existence is an undeniable which has been manifest in my eating adventures several times. The most recent lovespell has been cast on me by White Water Tavern. This establishment has been a Little Rock landmark for many years but more recently began feeling the culinary caress of kitchenmaster, Jonathan Wilkins. After much prodding by fellow Eat Arkansas contributor, Michael Roberts, I recently joined him and fellow food geeks/bloggers, Kevin Shalin and Joel DiPippa, for lunch at the tavern.

Walking inside to dark, rickety tavern, I was struck by the inherent beauty of the place. Not the sparkling, pressed white linen, hoity-toity beauty you might expect from other more elegant dining rooms. It's a gritty, weathered, imperfect sort of beauty, one that can never be perfectly recreated my artificial, ironic interior design. It’s a beauty that comes only from years of beer stains, scuff marks of dirty Converse All-Stars, and sweaty concertgoers. It's a place that is so thick with character, you can almost cut it with a rusty butter knife.

The Patty Melt
  • The Patty Melt
The food, as promised, was simply splendid. At White Water, the menu, like the building itself, is not filled with glamorous, unfamiliar options. But upon closer analysis, one can easily see that the care and attention put into the food here elevates it to a level high above average bar fare. The burger, while an obvious inclusion on any tavern menu, is easily in the running for best in Little Rock. Local raw milk yellow cheddar and housebaked challah bun make appearances here, but it's the 24 hour marinated beef that sets the burger apart from the flavors of average burgers elsewhere. You should do yourself a favor and sample the burger at some point in your life, but do not allow yourself to get stuck there...there are other items on this menu that warrant your attention.

An adequate analysis of Wilkins' non-burger sandwiches requires a word about his housemade bread. Upon entering, you'll quickly notice the lightly floured, freshly baked loaves of beer bread resting on the tavern countertop. You'll probably also notice (perhaps with a great deal of anxiety) how quickly they tend to vanish as the orders begin to flood into the kitchen and food flies out to tables. This bread, the foundation for White Water's myriad of sandwiches, is simply ethereal. Thick cut, lightly grilled on the flat-top, with a dense, satisfying chew...easily one of the most inspiring uses of flour, water, and yeast I have ever eaten.

The Double  Wide
  • The Double Wide

Our group sampled a number of items from the lunch menu, all of which deserve a novel's worth of praise. The "Huggy Bear" sandwich was probably my most cherished bite of the day, wherein the thick-cut bread gets slathered with rich peanut butter and honey, and filled with crispy bacon (by request) and banana slices. As the smooth, creamy peanut butter gently cascades across the edges of the bread, dripping through curls of perfectly done, thick-cut's suddenly clear why Elvis so sincerely adored this combination. As Mr. Shalin so fittingly remarked, the only problem with this sandwich is that the bacon should be mandatory rather than an optional addition. The monstrous "Double Wide," was no less impressive. A double layer of thick-cut bologna (there is a lot of "thick" going on at White Water), grilled on the flat-top, sandwiching a fried egg, topped with yellow cheddar, and mayo seasoned with's a sandwich bound to make bologna hip again. Lastly, the messiest and probably the most indulgent item was the patty melt, which saw the marinated burger patty between two slices of bread, overflowing with melted cheese, housemade thousand island dressing, and grilled onions. This was not my personal order, and while the sample I was given was ever so delightful, it did not appease my yearning for more, and it was torture watching it be devoured by the mouth of another.

There are a number of exciting developments coming to the White Water kitchen. They only recently started doing lunch, and currently, you can grab your mid-day meal only on Fridays from 11 am - 2 pm, otherwise, it’s dinner only. Wilkins plans on expanding lunch hours in the near future, but hasn't nailed down a set schedule at this point. They'll be starting brunch on the last Sunday of every month; the first brunch will be this weekend, Jan 27th from 12 pm - 3 pm. Wilkins plans on running brunch "buffet style" with a few a la carte specials such as catfish croquette eggs benedict and housemade tater tots. Wilkins also reports they'll be trying their hand at donuts, which makes this donutaholic squeal like a schoolgirl out of pure elation.

The Cheddar Cheeseburger
  • The Cheddar Cheeseburger
In addition to expanded hours, they will be doing some collaborative work with the esteemed Loblolly Creamery. Beginning February 6th, Loblolly will be serving panini-style White Water sandwiches on a daily basis. I thought there was no way to make a visit to Loblolly any better, but Wilkins has managed to prove me wrong. Every Wednesday evening at White Water is considered "Burger Night," where Wilkins works his voodoo magic on burgers, creating a variety of burger specials for the sampling. Beginning February 6th, Loblolly will be visiting the tavern (once a month or so) to serve up "boozy milkshakes." It's clear that if you want to serve the best milkshakes, you use the best ice cream, and in this I don't think Wilkins could have possibly made a wiser decision.

Did you get all that? Lunch. Brunch. Donuts. Loblolly. Booze. There's a lot going on at White Water Tavern. Keep up with specials and other exciting developments by following their Facebook or Twitter pages. If you still haven't managed to visit them in order to pay homage to some of the most sophisticated, well executed bar food to have ever graced these lips, you need to rectify this sin immediately. You'll be hard pressed to find a more exceptional dining experience in Little Rock...and more likely than not, you'll fall in love as hard as I have.

(White Water Tavern is located at 2500 W. 7th St, Little Rock)

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