What's known among foodies as "nose to tail" cooking (using as much of every animal as possible) is something that our great-grandparents would have just called "cooking." We live in a day and age of luxury, with our meat wrapped anonymously in cellophane and arranged just so on supermarket shelves. This is convenient to the shopper, but it separates us from the reality of what it takes to raise, harvest, and process animals for use in the kitchen.
For some restaurants, those anonymous boxes of industrial-processed meat are good enough, and they're content to unload the Sysco or Ben E. Keith truck, thaw out the contents, and serve them up to you at vastly inflated prices. But we have a growing group of chefs in Little Rock who are part of a new movement in food: understanding what it means to harvest an animal, and utilizing the best local growers whenever possible so that the food coming out of those kitchens is part of the land around us. This locavore, slow-food trend has become Little Rock's signature cuisine, with restaurants like Natchez, South on Main, the Root Cafe, and Hillcrest Artisan Meats striving to sell meat that was raised with care and skill.
One of the most exciting chefs who has made this "nose to tail" concept his own is Travis McConnell, a man for whom butchering meat and turning every part of an animal into something delicious is more than just a way of cooking, it's a way of life. McConnell says he's worked at those restaurants that get the same anonymous meat over and over again adding, "at first I was excited about cleaning a filet, until I saw my first whole pig on a table. This inspired me to dig deeper into what it meant to cook, eat and source meat." McConnell is entering the last week of his Kickstarter campaign, a fundraising attempt that will allow him to outfit his kitchen with some top-of-the-line equipment for making sausage and charcuterie. In addition to his Kickstarter, McConnell is also teaming up with the Arkansas Times for a Farm to Table dinner party on October 16 that will feature some nose-to-tail cooking at its best. McConnell is also hosting a cooking class at Eggshells on Kavanaugh this coming Wednesday, but we're going to jump the gun and give you all a recipe straight from the chef himself right here on Eat Arkansas. Take a look below the jump for Travis McConnell's Head and Heart Braise for Pasta, a fine example of what it means to use every part of the animal.
I realize this is, technically speaking, an “Arkansas” blog, but our state’s centralized location, in proximity to a number of truly fantastic food cities, is a rather unique aspect of Arkansas. Within a short day’s drive, Arkansans can quickly be in any number of exciting locations, within Arkansas and without. Perhaps more than any other place, Memphis shares more connections to Central Arkansans than any other city in the country. Recently, I joined up with a group of food-loving scalawags for a weekend road trip to Memphis. We were determined to make this unlike any other foodventure ever attempted in this city. We researched out the culinary scene for months in advance, attempting to get a good idea of where the city’s food scene was at and what it had to offer. It quickly became clear to us, through inquiries made to many of our Arkansas friends, that Memphis is a exciting and enticing food town—indeed, nearly every person we talked to had a laundry list of restaurants that we needed to try. This was to be my first time visiting Memphis, and I was determined to make the most of the experience, wanting to leave the city with a decent grasp on some of the important things going on in this neighboring city. It was important for us to delve into some of those iconic Memphis experiences, but also to dabble in some of the exciting things recently popping up, pushing Memphis cuisine to another level and helping put some of its chefs on the national culinary playing field. Sure, it may not be Arkansas, but there’s a good chance that most central Arkansans will be heading east of the river before too long…and if you’re not planning on doing so, I’ll tell you right now, you are missing out on some splendid things.
1. Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen: A place that only barely squeezed itself onto our list at the last minute, Andrew Michael was, without a doubt, the greatest dining experience for the entire trip—every person in our party, four very persnickety food lovers, agreed. This place was something special. Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman’s Italian restaurant entered the Memphis scene in 2008. Having already spent time learning the old world cooking techniques in Italy and France, they brought an exciting approach to Italian cooking as well as a passion for innovation and quality product. Their skill has not gone unnoticed. This year alone, they were semi-finalists in the “best chef” category by the James Beard Foundation and brought home a “best new chef” award from Food & Wine magazine. I’ll attest to the fact that they deserve every accolade they’ve received—and they probably deserve more.
I walked into the new River Market location of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken with very little in the way of expectations about the place. I've never eaten at any of the Mason, Tennessee-based chicken joints, and while I'd heard odes and exclamations of praise for the restaurant's spicy fried chicken, I've generally found that deep-fried yardbird is never quite as good as it should be. There were plenty of empty tables in the newly opened dining room, something that surprised me given the hype that's surrounded Gus's ever since we confirmed that a location was headed our way. This was a soft opening, with a limited menu, but our server assured us that the full scope of menu items was on its way quickly.
So how did was the chicken so legendary that it's called "World Famous" measure up? Well, it was good. Really, really good. It's rare that a place lives up completely to the hype, but just such a thing happened with Gus's.
We started our meal off with an order of Fried Pickles, which unlike the breaded pickle chips found most places were actual long spears of high-quality pickles dredged in seasoned flour and fried to a crisp. Each bite was the perfect balance of crisp coating and juicy pickle, salty and spicy and sour all at once. We polished off a basket of six in no time, and despite the moisture content of these pickles there wasn't a soggy bite to be had. It was obvious from this starter that the Little Rock staff of Gus's had been well trained on the ways and means of getting fried food right, something that made us look forward even more to the chicken.
When our chicken hit the table, we were hit with a spicy, hot aroma that had our mouths watering. The chicken was lightly breaded, fried to a perfect golden brown — and like the pickles, fried so evenly and consistently that I was pretty amazed. First bite was cayenne pepper, paprika, and the deep, clean taste of peanut oil. Second bite was all chicken, moist and flavorful without being heavy or greasy. I'm not a big fan of the chicken breast, but I ordered one tonight because frying a breast and keeping it moist is the definition of playing fried chicken on hard. Gus's was a complete success, with even the tenderloin section of the breast winding up just as juicy as the top. This fried chicken actually tasted like chicken, and was a pleasure to eat even after the crust had been stripped away. And at around $7 a plate, this is easily the best meal deal in the River Market. The sides are no slouch either, with a creamy, tangy slaw and some savory beans rounding out a plate that was already spectacular.
With Riverfest coming up, I hope that the Gus's staff gets ready to be mobbed, because word of how good this chicken tastes is going to spread like wildfire. I know that I can't wait for the next time I'm sitting at one of those red-checkered tables with a 40 oz. in one hand and a piece of hot, delicious fried chicken in the other. I can't tell you if Little Rock's location is as good as the original, but I can tell you this: it's easily the best fried chicken in town.
Some young men may turn their thoughts toward love in the spring, but mine always go straight to horse racing. There's very little that Arkansas has to offer that's more fun than a warm day at Oaklawn, the air filled with excitement and the smells of overpriced track beer and the distinctive tang of cigar smoke. The track has some respectable eats to suit most tastes, too, something I enjoy just as much as losing money on the ponies.
Oaklawn's most famous food item is the corned beef, and no matter if you're a fan of sauerkraut or not, these mammoth sandwiches of cured and thin-sliced beef are a must. Corned beef isn't exactly a traditional Southern food, but it comes pretty close in Hot Springs — they sell literal tons of the stuff annually. There's no easy way to eat one of these monsters, and I've seen people alternate between polite picking and small bites with a fork to pure, elbows-out gluttony. It isn't the best corned beef in the world, but when seasoned with track dirt and a winning ticket, it comes close.
If hot dogs are more your style, you can choose from the traditional bun-wrapped kind or go for one of the track's foot-long corn dogs. The regular dogs are available in both the red-hot and Polish varieties with all the usual condiments: relish, mustard, and ketchup. The corn dogs are a real thing of beauty — a perfect breading-to-dog ratio fried just right to have a firm outer crunch that gives way to a soft, tender middle. Add a bag of the fresh-popped popcorn that can be smelled throughout the concession and betting areas and you've made yourself a very happy (if not very healthy) meal.
For my money, though, the highlight of the Oaklawn concession areas is the Oyster Bar, and I still recall my joy at discovering it years ago during my first trip to the track. The seafood bar has a large selection of fried shrimp, fish, oysters, and fries, but bypass all that and head straight for the fresh stuff: jumbo shrimp bigger than your thumb and some of the largest, freshest oysters on the half-shell I've seen in the state. Some of you may be loathe to trust an oyster served to you in a land-locked state, but I've eaten the things from Florida to Washington state and am more than happy to vouch for Oaklawn's quality. Oysters should be mild and briny, ice cold with just a hint of fresh sea air to the nose — these meet those qualifications well. Grab a cup of horseradish and a few lemon slices and go to town.
While there are some sit-down places to eat at the track, my preference has always been for food that can be carried and eaten while watching the races. Oaklawn is one of our best traditions here in Arkansas, and one that can be a tasty enterprise — no matter how your bets turn out.
No offense, but a lot of you out there are doing olive oil completely wrong. Somewhere along the line, you read somewhere, or somebody told you, that olive oil was the healthiest of all the oils in the world, chock full of good stuff like monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. And because we all want to live forever, you ran down to the nearest supermarket, saw that the name brand stuff was pretty expensive, and settled on a bottle of the store brand. After all, Rachael Ray just says grab some EVOO — she never really says what kind. And since the difference between the more mundane corn, canola, and mixed vegetable oils aren't all that noticeable, you're to be forgiven this mistake. Olive oil isn't like those other oils, though, because the subtle differences of style, type of olive, and method of pressing makes for a wide range of tastes and flavor profiles.
Like wine, understanding the different flavors of olive oil can be confusing, which is where the Strippaggio Center in the Promenade shopping center comes in. There, a knowledgeable staff awaits the olive oil novice, and every flavor of oil is labeled with a name and brief description about what to expect from the flavor. Want to get even more in-depth? Strippaggio also allows for in-store tastings of all their oils (as well as their diverse balsamic vinegars), allowing someone used to Great Value brand oil to experience an entirely new world of oils that range in flavor from bright and floral to deeper and peppery. And with bottles ranging starting at around $10, the whole experience is one that can be had for a very reasonable price.
Olive oil and vinegar tasting may sound strange, and it's certainly a new thing for Central Arkansas. Don't get the wrong idea — you won't be slugging down glasses of olive oil at Strippaggio. What you will be doing is getting a small taste to see how the oil begins on the tongue, how it finishes, with somebody well-versed in oil available to provide serving suggestions and vinegar pairings. Similar to how one might pick a favorite coffee or tea, Strippaggio takes the guess-work out of olive oil and vinegar in a way that is unique — and quite a lot of fun as well. So throw that bottle of Kroger brand oil right in the trash and head to West Little Rock: a new world of olive oil awaits.
The Capital Hotel’s new executive chef, Joël Antunes, plans to bring some international flair to Ashley’s and the Capital Bar and Grill, but is committed to maintaining the local (and Southern) flavors that have made them city favorites.
“Little Rock is not going to change for me,” Antunes told us in an interview at Ashley’s before the holidays. “I have to change for Little Rock.”
That’s music to the ears of locals worried that Antunes might put too heavy of a French accent on the popular restaurants. Antunes has a stellar reputation and background (James Beard award, Michelin star) grounded in classic French cooking, but his turn at the Oak Room in New York’s storied Plaza Hotel ended in disaster, reportedly in part because of a refusal to offer more American dishes.
“I’m going to continue and learn the local influence because it’s very important,” Antunes said, adding that he had learned from the mistakes of the Oak Room. “My goal is to keep the strong influence of food from Arkansas and from Louisiana.” He said that he was eager to continue to make use of local farmers.
That’s not to say that we won’t also benefit from Antunes’s cosmopolitan expertise — including influences from Asia, where Antunes has done stints in Tokyo, Bangkok and Singapore. “It’s very nice if I can bring a little touch from Japan, from the south of France,” he said. “I think the world is smaller and smaller because people travel everywhere. I can bring my little twists and find a niche for our customers and bring happiness to the people.”
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