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For a growing minority of Central Arkansans, the arrival of Dempsey Bakery — a modish joint on the edge of downtown that serves gluten-free sandwiches and treats — was the most exciting food news of 2011. In the past decade, the gluten-free craze has been touted by celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel, Gwyneth Paltrow, Oprah Winfrey and Billy Bob Thornton, while gluten-free retail sales have soared from $935 million in 2006 to about $2.64 billion in 2010, according to a report by market researcher Packaged Facts. Major manufacturers such as Anheuser-Busch, Betty Crocker and General Mills have all introduced gluten-free products.
Central Arkansas is increasingly in on the trend. A handful of local restaurants are offering gluten-free menu items, and there are a couple of gluten-free support groups in the area. But to date, Dempsey is the first entirely gluten-free restaurant.
The ever popular sans-gluten diet ameliorates celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Untreated, this disease fosters a host of problems — among them malnutrition, irritability and skin disorders. A Mayo Clinic study published in 2009 indicated a 50 percent rise in celiac disease since the 1950s, and as awareness grows, diagnoses, both professional and armchair, have kept pace. But gluten is an important binding agent in many common foods, and trying to avoid gluten is, well, trying.
Paula Dempsey, formerly of Dempsey Film Group, has a family full of dietary restrictions. Her frustration in purchasing gluten-free basics — sandwich bread, birthday cakes, cookies — led her to develop her own recipes. So last June, she opened Dempsey Bakery in a sunny, former garage at Cross and Third streets. The decor — checked tiles and a red and white theme — nods to sock-hop nostalgia. It's spacious and geometrically clean, and there's always someone behind the counter willing to discuss the virtues of going gluten-free.
But it's not just that problematic gluten. Dempsey scorns a whole grocery list of common allergens. You'll find no wheat, nuts or tapioca, and many items are dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan. Dempsey does breakfast, lunch and special orders, with soup and sandwich offerings that rotate daily. There's always frozen items, such as pizza dough, ready to take home. Ingredient lists are available for everything, and Dempsey is generous with samples. (From random tastes plucked over multiple visits, we can tell you that the tangy-sweet Lemon Blueberry Teacake, the Milk Cake and the Monkey Bread are moist and delicious.)
As far as we can tell, most sandwiches start with the tabula rasa of Everyman's Bread. Everyman's is an airy but solid, nutty-flavored bread, with a thin, crispy crust, thus named because it eschews allergy triggers: soy, dairy, egg, corn, rice, tree nuts or refined sugar. Instead it's made of sorghum flour, flax meal, potato starch, yeast, sea salt, vinegar, molasses and arrowroot. (Arrowroot, an herbal thickening agent, features prominently in many of Dempsey's baked goods.) Everyman's Bread is a bit stronger, in both texture and flavor, than Grandma's lightly sweet, chewy, warm-from-the-oven affair, but for those with allergies, we're sure it's celebrated.
Beyond the painstakingly constructed bread (which, in our opinion, gets the job done just fine), Dempsey's Club is a fairly standard sandwich. Everyman's is laced with garlic mayo and piled high with deli-thin turkey, ham and about four of the most perfectly crunchy, non-greasy, strips of bacon. Fresh spring greens and thick slabs of juicy tomato round out this muscular lunch. Take off the meat and add fresh roasted red pepper and a thick layer of salty, tangy olive spread and you have the Tapenade sandwich — which we found just as satisfying as the Club (although perhaps a Tapenade with bacon would be the perfect compromise?).
The Muffaletta is another heap of hearty, savory ingredients set against the Everyman's Bread. There's that chunky oily olive spread again (with just a hint of citrus), paired with pepperoni, salami and provolone — pretty solid, although we have to admit, we miss the classic Italian loaf a bit.
The black bean soup is flawless. The base avoids doing that thick glue-texture thing that is so often the fall-out from cooking beans and bean stock. There are also big chunks of tomato and whole cooked celery, the perfect amount of heat and a strong cumin flavor.
Each Wednesday there's a chicken-optional pot pie, which Dempsey makes and freezes, so they're available to take home. Even if you go in for lunch, you get a defrosted pot pie, which doesn't seem to hurt the rice-flour crust a bit. The crust is thin, flaky, buttery goodness — so light, in fact, that it dispelled that too-familiar pot pie post-consumption lethargy we Southerners have experienced at one time or another. The pot pie isn't vegan, but there is a tomato rather than a cream base, which also lightens things a bit. Cooked celery, carrot and potato mush together in this more pasty than saucy base, which has an overwhelming tomato flavor. But that crust? That crust is definitely crave-able.
As for the sweets, the iced sugar cookies are among the best we've ever tasted. At $2.50 a pop, we thought this must be some ridiculous cookie — but actually, it is. The cookie tastes rich and buttery, with a subtle sweetness and a light, melt-in-your-mouth texture — which we attribute to rice flour being so much lighter than wheat flour. The icing had a crisp shell and a soft interior, and the whole shebang tasted soooo fresh. And did we mention how adorable? Ours was iced as a rainbow landing in a pot of gold, and if you keep up via Facebook, you'll notice that the offerings seem to get even cuter and more creative daily.
We found the chocolate cloud cookie — a powdered sugar, round brownie kind of deal — to be a bit gritty. Whatever Dempsey is using to compensate for the gooey gluten in this treat, at least, isn't entirely cutting it. But we dug the gigantic mint sandwich cookie — two soft molasses-flavored jumbo cookies with knotty little chocolate-chip surprises and a fluffy mint ganache, which is probably quite full of delectable dairy.
All in all, Dempsey significantly broadens Little Rock's food offerings, and there's plenty of reason to drop in even if you don't have dietary limitations. The down side? Well, let's just say, specialization costs a pretty penny. If you're truly gluten-sensitive, we suspect the convenience will help balance the price tag.