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Thursday, May 22, 2014

The state of Central Arkansas dining, as told by its chefs and bartenders

Posted By on Thu, May 22, 2014 at 6:51 AM

click to enlarge Justin Patterson (The Southern Gourmasian)
  • Justin Patterson (The Southern Gourmasian)
Most food enthusiasts in Arkansas can feel it — there's a lot of good going on in the Central Arkansas dining scene. There's a lot to be celebrated, many improvements being made. People are genuinely excited about what they are eating. Several Arkansas establishments are gaining national attention. Some might consider this a "turning point" for Arkansas food, a renaissance, of sorts. Are we eating at the edge of greatness? In 10 years, is Little Rock positioned to become the food world's next Austin, Portland or Nashville?

No one is more fit to answer these questions than the men and women making it all happen — the chefs, bartenders and restaurateurs pushing Central Arkansas food forward. I questioned some of Central Arkansas's brightest and most forward-thinking restaurant folks to get their take on where we are today and where we might be headed. Here's what they had to say:

How has the central Arkansas dining scene evolved over the last several years?

Scott McGehee (Big Orange/Local Lime/ZaZa): I was the chef at the Blue Mesa Grill in 1991, so I've seen an amazing transformation over the last 23 years! In 1999 when I returned from California and opened Boulevard Bread Co. the Farmers Market Hall was just being built, and the four to five farmers that started the original market in 1974 were under a random parking deck in deserted downtown! That was a magical time as "Food Network" awareness started to sweep the country. Chefs started responding to, and in some cases lead the demand for local organic produce. That fueled an explosion of small organic farmers, and the two have been racing forward dramatically ever since! (Tons of credit to my chef, Alice Waters).

click to enlarge (L to R) Travis McConnell, Alexis Jones, Matt Bell
  • (L to R) Travis McConnell, Alexis Jones, Matt Bell
Lee Edwards (Beverage Director, Yellow Rocket Concepts): The dining scene has gained a lot of energy in last few years. The Capital Hotel has, in essence, been an incubator for culinary talent. Even though Little Rock lost the overwhelming talents of Cassidee Dabney to Blackberry Farm and David Thomas to SLS-Bazaar South Beach, and (still in Arkansas, but not an easy drive for dinner) Matt McClure to the Hive at 21C, there have still been several key spinoffs from the hotel.

Natchez's Alexis Jones and South on Main's Matt Bell are bringing the southern culinary flair that Ashley's at the Capital Hotel seems to have eschewed of late. It’s not diet food, it's REAL food. Jeffrey Owen is putting out the best food that perhaps has ever been made at Ciao Baci.

But, most importantly, the city dining scene has a lot of energy right now, real verve. That energy will keep these new spots jumping, but hopefully continue this local renaissance.

click to enlarge David Burnette (South on Main) - PHOTO: AMY KELLEY BELL
  • photo: Amy Kelley Bell
  • David Burnette (South on Main)
Ben Brainard (Local Lime): I love where the Arkansas food scene is heading. Local, responsible, delicious restaurants are opening every day. Restaurants like South on Main, Natchez, and Gus's are starting to turn heads away from the mega-chain restaurants. This trend will continue and make Little Rock a culinary stopping point in the near future.

Justin Patterson (The Southern Gourmasian): When we moved here four years ago from Nashville, we tried every restaurant that people told us to and were continually disappointed. We felt a little buyer’s remorse and missed the dining scene in Nashville. But now it seems we can barely keep up with the great things going on and new places opening.

Travis McConnell (Butcher & Public): The focus on local is coming up more often with restaurant openings. It’s still got quite a ways to go but it’s getting more attention. Little Rock has such a great energy right now, and I feel it is really about to reach a turning point. There are more restaurants opening all the time. It really is evolving into something special. I like to see the growing underbelly of farmers and farm-focused events around town.

click to enlarge Matt Clark (Waffle Wagon)
  • Matt Clark (Waffle Wagon)
Sally Mengel (Loblolly Creamery): Independent, clean, local food that tastes freaking awesome! More modern, urban cuisine. Food that is made by your friends or by an awesome human that cares about where the food came from and how they prepared it. Fresh, local, and has a personal story. Everything made from scratch, hand-crafted, small-batch, wake up at 3 a.m. and start making a batter for the most luscious pastry known to man ... kouign amann (at Mylo Coffee Co.). Exciting community pop-up food events like Butcher & Public, Farm-to-Table Dinners, SolFood Catering movie & dinner nights, etc.

Josiah Moody (Vino’s Brewpub): I think it's safe to say Yellow Rocket has made the largest impact on Little Rock's dining scene as a whole and fills a needed void for well-executed, approachable dishes that stay within the working class's budget. Our town likes approachable food. I think the success of the food truck scene is testament to that.

As for the beer scene, which is probably more in my purview, I think we are seeing the local beer scene burst from it's infancy. We will see many more breweries likely attempt to open in the next five years, and I think there is room for as many more ... so long as they produce good beer.

Zara Abbasi Wilkerson (pastry chef, Natchez): I believe Little Rock is on the cusp of greatness, but this cusp suits it really well. The culinary scene hasn't exploded quite like Austin yet but it's certainly not where it used to be. This cusp is important because there are a lot of great ideas brewing. The community is still relatively small, so a person can feel comfortable enough to really be engaged in the food scene. There's been a great increase in food truck to brick and mortar businesses, as well as great ingenuity in other culinary realms such as Chef Shuttle bringing almost any meal to your door and Good Food by Ferneau creating a new and accessible food experience here.

click to enlarge Ben Brainard (Local Lime) - PHOTO: GREG SPRADLIN
  • photo: Greg Spradlin
  • Ben Brainard (Local Lime)
Stephanos & Monica Mylonas (Mylo Coffee Co.): It's been really encouraging to see pop-up and farm-to-table style events occurring more frequently. It speaks to people's genuine excitement about connecting with their food and, more importantly, connecting with others over food and regaining a sense a community. That said, it's equally exciting to see new and different concepts come in and stir the pot!

Jeff Owen (Ciao Baci): I think our “scene” if you will, has boomed the past 10 years. I grew up in Little Rock and can count on two hands the number of options you had beyond catfish, barbecue, Tex-Mex and Red Lobster in those days. I think that the Food Network, Top Chef, Yelp, and other similar formats have created a market that to some extent is more demanding, or at least educated in their expectations. This sets a bar to reach. Here, we have a unique blend of reality and expectation. We have such amazing producers and providers and we can relate to our food and surroundings. Customers get excited knowing what they are eating, not looking for the fireworks and gimmicks ... not that we don't like to throw them in there.

Matt Bell (South on Main): I love that local farms are being utilized. The access to local is growing rapidly. I think if we, as chefs, strive to bring local food to plates, more diners will work to gain access to that same food. This cycle will just help support and grow our local food/farms. 

click to enlarge Sally Mengel (Loblolly Creamery)
  • Sally Mengel (Loblolly Creamery)
Ken Dempsey (E’s Bistro): For years the big chain restaurants ruled the scene in Little Rock, and while the older chain restaurants will always be here, it’s awesome to see a better balance of power that’s emerged over the past couple of years here. People are getting out of their food box more and trying dishes that are local, inventive, fresh and not prepackaged or developed in a kitchen at a corporate headquarters. This says much about our evolution as a state. We’re catching up to cities that have been on this path for far longer than we have.

Matt Clark (Waffle Wagon): I think our scene has really come into its own over the last five or six years ... in part to having such a glut of great cooks and also access to damn near anything. Also I think the eating community at large has changed quite a bit.

Alexis Jones (Natchez): The dining scene in Central Arkansas has grown. A lot of new businesses have opened around the state with a focus on seasonal and local ingredients ... an important and exciting change.

David Burnette (Bartender, South on Main): When I moved here in 2008, craft cocktails were virtually nonexistent. Ferneau had some good drinks, but people were still afraid to order outside of their comfort zone. I feel like the Capital Bar & Grill led the way in really pushing the envelope — bringing in new ingredients, and being selective in what spirits were poured in their cocktails. People here responded positively over time, and that attitude has been contagious. 

Much like the Little Rock food scene has evolved as talent from the Capital Hotel spread around town, the beverage options around town have improved as well. That's not to say, however, that other individuals aren't making great food and serving great drinks, it's just an interesting phenomenon.

What does central Arkansas need to make it a more interesting place to eat or drink? What are some things you’d like to see change?

Ben Brainard: I believe Arkansas needs to continue to challenge restaurant owners and operators to use proper ingredients. Hold your favorite restaurants accountable for what they are putting in their recipes. Ask questions. I love it when a table asks me to come out and discuss a recipe. I love it when people want to know WHAT EXACTLY they are eating.

Matt Bell: The obvious answer would be more exotic food choices. I really love Ethiopian cuisine. The honest answer is to be more adventurous as diners. There is always opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and try what the metro has to offer. 

David Burnette: This biggest issue I foresee with Little Rock growing as a town known for great cocktails is our horrendously large liquor tax. It is hard for small, craft-oriented cocktail bars to function while paying over 33 percent tax on spirits while keeping cocktail prices in a range that people are willing to pay.

The other thing Little Rock needs is more unity amongst the bartenders that make this town fun at night. We are currently working hard to earn a charter from the United States Bartenders Guild. This will offer a lot of opportunities for bartenders that are not currently available.

click to enlarge Matt Bell (South on Main)
  • Matt Bell (South on Main)
Travis McConnell: I feel really strongly about supporting Arkansas products. This mentality really helps bring the communities together. If you combine this philosophy of local and seasonal with a cool and fun atmosphere you've got a winner. Upscale casual, on design, is the way to go. Great quality food, beers, wine and overall experience and you can't go wrong. I would love to see more smaller/focused menus. Some of the menus we end up with are novels. I can't imagine having to keep up with quality control on all of those items and stay inspired to maintain that level.

That being said, I really feel that Little Rock is on a great path to having, and expanding on, a great culinary culture. I would love to see more collaboration and less competition. It's already a struggle enough to be in the food world as a business but to compete in this reality show obsessed mindset won't help, and it gives no real sustainable substance. Working with other dedicated chefs and farmers means us staying true to our heritage and gives us a slow food culture that will be here to stay.

Matt Clark: As far as change goes, I think more of what's been happening, unique concepts, run by people that care. Supporting the farming community. The restaurants (and trucks) are building their reps often times on the work of these guys.

Sally Mengel: Late night awesome food (I miss the unexpected cooking of Jonathan Wilkins in that tiny kitchen of White Water Tavern). After work, you had no idea what to expect out of that kitchen. Some head cheese maybe or just a home-style meatloaf sandwich. Where can a girl get some good herbal tea? Help support small dairies so we can more milk options in groceries and farmer's markets.

Justin Patterson: A lot of hard work on our part to help change diners minds on what eating out should be about. I would love to see a shift to a more independent dining scene. Little Rock is very much a small town in the way it embraces franchises. It seems that half the town is chomping at the bit for the opening of (insert name of next big boring chain), but a large portion of diners ignore amazing food right down the street. Small restaurants like us are very fortunate to have a group of dedicated foodies and writers bringing what we’re doing to the forefront of the food scene and I think that will be a big part of evolving the scene.

click to enlarge Scott McGehee (Big Orange, Local Lime, ZaZa)
  • Scott McGehee (Big Orange, Local Lime, ZaZa)
Scott McGehee: We need a local restaurant collective/organization promoting restaurants that are local and use a significant amount of local products. We need to take that significance and why its important to the masses.

Josiah Moody: I think it’s important, as brewers, to constantly introduce craft beer to consumers, but even more importantly, to make good beer. Nothing will douse the craft beer phenomenon more quickly than introducing newcomers to bad product. In that vein, I think our nascent trade will see some shakeups down the road, some big winners and some big losers. I think there are some fantastic breweries around the state, and some really boring/really bad ones.

That said, I would like to see more collaboration within the industry here. We all have a stake in creating a culture of good, local beer and would do well to do more collaborations, more local brewery-only events and tastings. I would very much like to see this town become an Austin or Asheville in the craft scene and I think we have the population to get there. We just have to do a better job of promoting it.

Alexis Jones: As far as the drinking scene goes, I would like to see more people using fresh, local ingredients and an end to the flavored liquor hype. I'm looking forward to the “bartenders chapter” that is being headed by David Burnette — it will add a lot to the local drinking scene.

Lee Edwards:
I think the things that can improve, for the most part, are changing. Some things, like crop selection, take time. It’s hard to fathom that when Scott McGehee opened Boulevard Bread in 1999, he had a hard time finding heirloom tomatoes. These things happen over time. The relationships between restaurateurs and chefs with farmers and food companies has vastly improved, thanks to work by McGehee, Lee Richardson, Peter Brave, Jody Hardin and Rusty Mathis to name just a few headliners.

Of course, the state of Arkansas also plays a detrimental role. If the taxes on liquor and food were lower, people would eat at restaurants more often. If lawmakers could find a way to achieve their needed revenues without the high taxes we pay now, a LOT more meals would be had in restaurants. More meals in restaurants means more successful restaurants, and that would lead to better dining experiences.

click to enlarge Stephanos and Monica Mylonas (Mylo Coffee Co.)
  • Stephanos and Monica Mylonas (Mylo Coffee Co.)
Zara Abbasi Wilkerson: I love events and wish there were more culinary focused collaborations and events. Recently there have been a few events put together by restaurants themselves such as Local Lime’s tequila dinner, as well as events established by local food writers like Kevin Shalin (The Mighty Rib). These are brilliant. They are a great way to not only meet new people but also to try out spots and selections that they might not have otherwise. 

I would also love to see more collaborations. This town is filled with creative geniuses. Can you imagine what would happen if they got to work with others like them?

Stephanos & Monica Mylonas: More regional cuisines! Whether it comes in the form of a Korean family-owned BBQ joint, a snazzy fusion concept, or even the occasional appearance of a paella special the chef learned to cook while studying abroad 15 years ago. Speaking of which, specials boards!  We love a rotating menu.

Jeff Owen: I think something interesting is happening now as we speak. Lots of creative and passionate people flooding the market, new restaurants all the time are popping up. As we all grow as professionals,  the next level is refinement, service standards. Being able to say “no” to fulfill your vision. Saying, “I can’t give you a side of ranch,” could mean a shitty Yelp review waiting for you the next day. At the same time, a bucket of beer and couple dozen oysters at Flying Fish is all I need to stay happy ... so maybe my expectations aren't set too high. I also like ranch.

click to enlarge The bar at Big Orange, home of Lee Edwards
  • The bar at Big Orange, home of Lee Edwards
Ken Dempsey: My favorite place to eat is not in Arkansas, it’s The Salt Lick outside of Austin, Texas. But here’s the deal, they don’t have the best barbecue in Texas. There is a long list of better barbecue than the Salt Lick, but what they have is an experience that’s tough to beat. It takes about 30 minutes to get there from Austin but the vast parking lot is always full. You’re welcomed with tons of outdoor seating, picnic tables, live music, fresh lemonade and people from all over the world. Franklin Barbecue has long lines early in the morning, and they sell out every single day. My wife and I recently went to Franklin Barbecue … got there at 8:30a.m. and sat down to eat at 1:00p.m. It was worth every minute of waiting.

We are right in the middle of the Mecca of world class barbecue, but we are missing the boat on this one. Instead of serving meat straight off the pit, we have too many places that use yesterday’s meat. Where are our lines? Just imagine if we had a few places like the many awesome barbecue joints in Texas; serving up brisket and beef ribs combined with Arkansas-style pulled pork and baby backs. I would love to have a food truck a little outside the city limits with a some picnic tables and serve barbecue … wake up early in the morning, serve it until we run out, legitimate freshly made barbecue.

What about Arkansas gets you excited about working here?

Travis McConnell: Moving back to Arkansas in 2012 was an eye-opener. With my focus being in meat, I am blown away by what is being done here. Working with Falling Sky, Farm Girl and Freckle Face gave me great hope. They are making my job easier because of their own passions for bringing great quality meats to the Arkansas community. Arkansas really is a gem waiting to be discovered. And I know that it will be acknowledged one day as the rich state that it is. From the chefs, butchers, restaurateurs, farmers in both produce and livestock, there is this exciting energy about the direction we are all going. It gives a feeling like we can all make a difference here.

Lee Edwards: Arkansas has great produce. Our farmers do a wonderful job, and I see their roles expanding. This is great for bartending. Fresh produce makes the best possible garnishes, syrups, infused spirits, etc. Some of my favorite drinks I have made were the result of great local produce, like the Pueblo Honey or the Sundance Kid from Local Lime.

The cocktail world is entering (in my estimation at least) a golden era. I am proud to be one of the flag-bearers that introduces Arkansans into this glorious new era. It’s been a wonderful ride as a barman so far, and it's only getting better.

click to enlarge Jeff Owen (Ciao Baci)
  • Jeff Owen (Ciao Baci)
Sally Mengel: Possums. A customer asked if we could make him a ghost pepper ice cream and hell yeah we did. My farmer friends that will grow luscious strawberries, green fresh mint, tart muscadine grapes, creamy persimmons, fragrant lavender flowers, organic roses, moon and star melons, fresh turmeric, even the Purple Okinawan sweet potato. Wildflower Arkansas Honey. The adventurous eaters like our Spicy Thai fans, the Aztec Chocolate club, and the Honey Comb Cumin lovers. The chance to convert a vanilla ice cream eater to another flavor.

Scott McGehee: Arkansas is my home. I've lived all over the world and had amazing experiences, but I still relish an opportunity to talk about the Razorbacks upcoming season, or to reminisce about camping in the Ozarks. I love the people, the ingredients, and the culture, and I love being a small part of it.

Ben Brainard: I'm a proud Arkansas boy. Cooking food that I'm proud of, using Arkansas ingredients, and serving Arkansans is what keeps a smile on my face every day at work. I love the new-found interest in really good food that many people have found.  It challenges me and my partners to continue to get better. 

Matt Bell: The thing that gets me most excited about cooking in Arkansas is peas. I know that sounds weird, but damn I love field peas. Purple Hull, Crowder, Lady, Black Eye, Butterbean, Cow ... they all have such amazing distinct character, I really can't use enough on them.

David Burnette: Arkansans don't yet take the cocktail craft for granted. I like that people here still get excited about trying new things and enjoy exploring old recipes as well. Our customer base has been very supportive of our efforts, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Stephanos & Monica Mylonas: We love the geography of this state. We love that we can drive 20 minutes in any direction and feel that we've gotten "away from it all," if only for a moment. We love that we can enjoy mountains and lakes and rivers and fields in a day, on a whim.  And we love that this geographical variety yields an equally rich array of agricultural products, as well as room for experimentation for our talented growers. It's exciting to be positioned as we are at the intersection of producers and consumers, a relationship which seems to be flowering before our very eyes.

click to enlarge Alexis Jones (Natchez)
  • Alexis Jones (Natchez)
Jeff Owen: Honestly, I’m blown away every summer and fall by the amount of amazing produce. It makes my job light years easier  when you have perfect tomatoes show up on your doorstep. Everyone that has a garden at home is dying to give you something they have an abundance of ... peppers, basil, cucumbers, or something they made ... chutneys, salsa, chowchow, pickles.

Ken Dempsey: We’re relative infants in the food scene here. We’re at the ground floor of something that is rapidly becoming great, and it’s only going to get better. Arkansas is starting to get national recognition as an emerging food scene. How cool is that? People are eating out more and beginning to see the value of eating local, and we are here to watch it grow. I get to be a part of it, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Food brings people together. A great meal with family and friends is universally appealing; it soothes a tough day and reminds us of better times. Food gives us the excuse to see old friends and family and to break open that bottle of wine we’ve been saving. I plan my menu and cook with that in mind and hope that it shows when people eat something I’ve made.

Zara Abbasi Wilkerson: It's home. It's comfortable but emerging. It's relaxed but intriguing. And, it's going to love you if you love it. It's really that simple to me. I love cooking for friends and family and the entire demographic here seems to be either an old or new friend or family.

Matt Clark: For me, the answer is the people. It's selfish, but the response of someone getting a dish, even if it is a waffle, that you took time to think out, then seeing someone get it. Really get it. It rules.

Justin Patterson: The long growing season and availability of local everything. We serve most Saturdays at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market and it’s just amazing. We’re a food truck, and we’re getting local pork, squash blossoms, strawberries and more just this month alone. Sunday nights I usually pull my farmer’s market takings out of the fridge from that Saturday then go out to my garden to grab what I need to finish the meal.  Nothing is more fulfilling than growing what you eat!

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