Johnson, Arkansas's culinary capitol? 

James at the Mill makes a strong case.

JOHNSON — James at the Mill should be part of any conversation about the best restaurants in Arkansas. Chef Miles James' "Ozark Plateau Cuisine" was a new concept for most Arkansans when he introduced it in 1995, as was his approach of serving locally and regionally sourced fresh food, offering small-plate "tasting menus" (with or without wine pairings) and his artfully constructed "vertical presentation."

Adding to the appeal — then and now — is the amazing setting in which James and staff work: a dramatic two-story space with huge expanses of windows that allow diners to gaze at the accompanying, high-end Inn at the Mill and the pond and other landscape features that fill the space between. And then there's the birch tree inside the restaurant that stretches almost the entire height of the space. (Seventeen years ago the view was even lovelier, when the restaurant was surrounded by woods, but Northwest Arkansas has changed a tad since then.)

James was at work on a busy Saturday night in the open kitchen behind the bar, but he found time to make his way to several tables and even took pictures with some of the guests. He might not be a true celebrity chef compared to Food Network stars, but he's about as close as it gets in Arkansas.

Prices at James at the Mill vary enough to allow folks to experience the restaurant on a budget that suits them. Appetizers range from $7 to $12.50, entrees from $12 to $36. However, on the night we visited — it was graduation day at the nearby University of Arkansas and Mother's Day weekend — there were only two choices: a $65 prix fixe, three-course choice (oddly billed on the menu as "pre-fix") and a $75 five-course tasting menu ($100 with wine pairings).

We took the $65 meal, which included almost everything from the usual menu. But it stung a bit as the three courses ordered on any other day would have ranged from a collective $27 to $56.50. And it's doubtful we would have had three courses if not required. Add tax, the mandated 18 percent gratuity and one glass of wine each, and it came out right about $100 a head.

The food was damn good, thankfully, but maybe not $100 good, particularly when Ashley's at the Capital Hotel, the only restaurant in the state that might convincingly argue it's better than James at the Mill, offers a three-course option nightly for $50.

We started with a James at the Mill classic — the warm goat cheese salad. It's not what you'd expect; the goat cheese is the base of a dressing drizzled over tender, tasty Yukon gold potatoes and warm bitter salad greens (frisee) dotted with hunks of peppered bacon. We believe it's been on the menu since the earliest days, and the way these varied tastes work together we understand why.

Our other appetizer was also a winner — a lump crab cake plopped on a small pool of freshly made tomatillo salsa verde accompanied by a small frise salad teamed with spicy pecans and shaved Parmesan in a white truffle vinaigrette. There are generally two types of crab cakes — those with filler and those without. This is a great example of the latter with little except subtly applied herbs and spices getting in the way of succulent, tasty crab.

We ventured off the known path on the entrees. The grilled ahi tuna and braised short-rib "stack" was an interesting and satisfying combination of almost polar opposites. The sushi-grade tuna was very lightly seared, meaning rare-to-raw in the middle, just as we like it. The short rib was fall-off-the-bone tender and extremely flavorful thanks to the slow-cooked method of preparation and the rich red wine reduction that was jazzed up with whole-grain mustard.

On no dish is the vertical presentation more attractive than the pecan-crusted wild Scottish salmon, a tender, flaky slab of which sat high on a pile of fingerling potatoes with a layer of cut, buttered leeks sandwiched between, a pool of ginger-cilantro-corn cream sauce accompanying. Our salmon lover declared the fish world-class.

Desserts (normally $8) were part of the deal, so we soldiered on with the water-baked chocolate "Nemesis" and the lemon tart on a chocolate cookie crust. The first was a very dense piece of fudgy chocolate cake topped with a scoop of homemade caramel ice cream with a large chocolate star spiked into it. It was an excellent take on what's become a tired concept, though we would have loved a second scoop of that fabulous ice cream. The lemon tart was about perfect, too — tart but rich, and it worked well with the crisp cookie crust.

James at the Mill is priced to be an "occasion" restaurant — especially on UA graduation day — but it's worth the splurge (at normal price).

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