Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Every time we find ourselves in Bentonville, it seems like there's something new happening in the local food scene. For the longest time, the Northwest Arkansas town was known as the home of Walmart and little else, but lately Benton County has become a haven for talented chefs, fresh local food and a cuisine that wears its commitment to simple, fresh ingredients like a badge of honor.
One of the latest entrants into this ever-growing field of tasty upscale restaurants is Oven & Tap, the first venture of the Township Provisions restaurant group. It bills itself as a "band of food and beverage hounds," and the eclectic menu at the attractive dining space just off the Bentonville square is a study in recipes derived from various sources and traditions. Dishes as diverse as pizza and edamame sit side by side, something that shouldn't work but does, thanks to the uniting factor of the wood-fired oven used to cook many of the dishes.
The restaurant itself is open and airy, with lots of natural wood giving everything a homey (yet classy) feel. Our server was enthusiastic, and although we didn't perhaps need him to read the entire menu to us, we can't fault his excitement for his restaurant's menu — that's something that can't be faked.
The only downside to the atmosphere came from the loud, garish pop music blaring over the speakers. Call us old-fashioned, but given the price point of the Oven & Tap menu, we felt like we maybe shouldn't have to listen to Nicki Minaj singing about the attractiveness of her lady parts over appetizers. "Feeling Myself" is fine for the club, but it was just vulgar over a nice dinner. We get that the restaurant wants to seem casual and hip, but the result for us was a clash in styles that honestly kept us from lingering over drinks as we had planned.
Terrible music aside, though, everything else we experienced was excellent. An order of Wood Fired Edamame ($6) was a great snack to pair with our Ozark Beer Co. brews. These slightly charred soybean pods were sweet and smoky, their lemon and herb flavor making them distinctive from Japanese versions we've tried before. It was obvious from this first dish that the "oven" in the restaurant's name was not for show.
We followed up our edamame snack with a fresh Little Gems Salad ($8), a perfect summery combination of little gem lettuce, cucumbers and fresh blueberries that the menu said came from the Neal Family Farm in Rogers. One bite of this salad and the sweet juicy berries had us singing its praises. The sweetness of the berries was offset nicely by the addition of feta cheese.
As a companion to our salad, we ordered the Berkshire Pork Meatballs ($15), and while that price was a touch steep for the portion size, we got our money's worth from the flavor of dish. The meatballs were tender and moist, with that slightly wild taste that comes from free-range pork, and the house-made tomato sauce was delightful, especially when eaten on the crusty wood-oven toasted bread served to the side. We're a sucker for well-made meatballs, being too often served hard little hockey pucks or mushy versions that fall apart, and these hit the perfect sweet spot in between.
For our main course, we contemplated the Chicken-Fried Quail or one of the pizzas, but decided to take a chance on the Wood Oven Lasagna ($18). This dish is a vegetarian's dream, with shitake mushrooms and flavorful ricotta adding heft to each bite. The fresh arugula piled on the plate added a pungent kick. We were impressed that the lasagna did not get dried out by its visit to the fire. This dish was a winner among winners and one we look forward to eating again.
Oven & Tap has been open only a few weeks, so we expect that the things we found off-putting (like the music) will work themselves out. The price-point-to-portion-size ratio is on the upper end of what we find acceptable, but the restaurant's commitment to local ingredients and fresh menu items dictates a higher price on the menu. There is obvious talent in the kitchen. It's a restaurant that suits the local, simple ethos that is currently in vogue in the Ozarks, and we look forward to seeing what the upcoming seasons inspire on the menu.
The "tap" in Oven & Tap means more than just beer — although the restaurant boasts a respectable lineup of brews. Wine on tap has become relatively common on Arkansas menus, but Oven & Tap also serves Pimm's Cup and cocktails like a Negroni, rotated regularly to keep the taps fresh and delicious.