We missed Drew Barrymore and Harrison Ford by a day, sadly, but the company of a large green penguin more than made up for that. The 21c Museum Hotel is star-studded in its own right, with its check-in smack dab in the middle of an art gallery, one among four on the ground floor exhibiting installation art, video art and, for the time being, a show called "Hybridity: The New Frontier," that explores uncomfortable combinations of animals with animals and animals with humans.
Then there's the Hive, the hotel's restaurant, all glass walls and swanky white banquettes and shiny floors watched over by an elk's head fashioned of high-heeled shoes. The bar is equally swell, and, the night we visited, there was hockey on television and the place was packed with 30-somethings.
"This is [expletive deleted] Bentonville?" That's what our friend, who used to report on Wal-Mart in the 1980s and remembered the town as a small, sad place, exclaimed as we entered the restaurant for our 8:30 p.m. (the earliest we could get) seating.
Who could blame her for her astounded oath? There's nothing quite like 21c anywhere else in Arkansas, but then there's nothing that quite compares with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, either. The hotel, which opened in February, is owned by art collectors, and is a luxe spot situated just across the road from the Compton Gardens entrance to the museum.
The kitchen, on the other hand, can't claim supremacy over other fine dining spots. On the night we dined there were some bumps in the otherwise elegant road.
But first, the brined pork chop. This expertly made entree lived up to the high expectations that are set by dining among high art. The kitchen, with Matthew McClure at its helm, butchers its own Berkshire pigs so that the chops are oversized. Ours was tender and juicy and the best thing that came to the table with the exception of the salad that accompanied the 25 Minute Egg. Glad you asked about the egg: This, our effervescent long-black-apron-clad waitress explained, is an egg cooked at a low temperature for 25 minutes to produce the perfect texture, with a soft yolk that would not run. They are cooked beforehand, somehow, so you don't have to wait 25 minutes for one, she said.
This was bump no. 1. The yolk ran like crazy, which didn't bother this eater but would discomfit people who have a past with runny eggs. Nevertheless, the egg was atop an extraordinarily delicious salad of frisee (a type of chicory) dressed in truffle oil and bacon. It was the best salad in the whole wide world, even if the 25 minute egg on top was shy about 20 minutes. We also had a tasty, if a bit precious, little go-before of ricotta-stuffed cavatelli served with wild mushrooms, edamame beans and little shavings of pecorino cheese.
Bump 2 was a bit more serious. The Aleppo Pepper Panisse, chickpea cakes served with roasted root vegetables and fennel, sounded delicious to our more daring diner, and the vegetables were fine. But the proportion of chickpea to salt was roughly 1 pea to 3 T salt. So was the second brought to the table after the first was sent back. We thought it best to alert someone in the kitchen that perhaps more than one cook had thought it his job to add salt to the batch and a nice man who identified himself later as the manager swiftly returned the second chickpea dish back to the kitchen. Just as quickly he came back to our table to say the line chef had had a bite and spit it out, so now his sincere apology became a super sincere apology and the dish was comped, as was its substitute, roasted locally-raised chicken.
Our other dining partner chose the Chatham cod, fine but nothing to write home about. Does anyone ever write home about cod? It was a wee bit overcooked.
Delicious purees accompanied the cod and chop; carrots with the cod and sweet potato with the chop. The braised greens that came with the chop were delicious. A minor flaw: the bread was served after the first course.
One of the high points of the experience was the solid green plastic penguin that joined us at our table at the request of the chickpea chooser. Our penguin made us happy. We had our pictures made with (we assume) him. We kept patting his head. He had such presence! These tall plastic penguins are a Hotel 21 c shtick; they're scattered about the hotel, in our case able to turn a party of three into a party of four. There are penguins of various colors at all 21c hotels (Louisville [red], Cincinnati [yellow] and, soon, Lexington, Ky. [to be determined]); one of the 15 people who came to our table to check that we'd been properly attended to said the staff had chosen the color. They are designed by the Cracking Art Group, named for "the chemical reaction that occurs when converting raw crude oil into plastic, or the moment when the natural becomes artificial," according to the website.
Wine, it should be noted, isn't cheap, but it isn't big city prices either: Our glass of Sonoma-Cutrer was $10; a bottle of Lai Lai pinot noir was $36. One is made to think the wine by the glass is a bargain because it is served in an amount the hotel calls a "quartine" – a glass plus a tiny carafe.
Oh, about Barrymore and Ford. They were up for a Walmart meeting.
Lunch will be served starting sometime in April. Green penguins may accompany you at your table.