Brian Chilson

When Brave New Restaurant’s executive chef Ben Lindley dropped his spring menu in late March, Peter Brave — the restaurant’s owner and founder — was about a month into a cross-country bicycle journey along the Historic U.S. 66 Byway that began in Chicago and would end more than 2,000 miles later in Santa Monica, California. When Brave and I spoke for this story a couple of weeks earlier, he was taking a break outside of a convenience store 20 miles west of Pacific, Missouri, eating fried chicken and drinking a beer and praising the strength of his crew back home.

“I have two months to go dodge weather and sore legs because I have that much confidence in [general manager] Randy [Beck], Chef Ben, my son, who’s out front along with my daughter holding down the fort,” Brave said. “I just have an incredible crew right now. I tell them the fact that they are so good, and they take such pride in what they do and they have such incredible capabilities, hell, I’m sitting here drinking beer on the side of a C-store in Missouri — what stronger vote of confidence could you get than that?”

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Brave has worked in the kitchen alongside an executive chef for the past 15-plus years. When he hired Lindley in January of 2022, he ushered in a new era at Brave New, stepping out of the kitchen but not out of the restaurant — cycling across America notwithstanding.

“He’s definitely here most nights shaking hands, roasting coffee,” Lindley said. “He and I sit down at least a couple of times a week and go over what’s happening, plans on coming menus, things like that. He’s here. I don’t want anybody to think he’s selling the place and walking away.”

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As for Brave’s location on the map during a recent tasting, Lindley said he had no idea.

“Before he left town he shook my hand and told me he had every bit of confidence in me, and I haven’t spoken to him since.”

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Brave will turn 63 in November and while he said his current adventure was spontaneous and not part of a bucket list, he’s a believer in a “no sense in waiting” philosophy. People close to him understandably feared for his safety, with the exception of his mother, who he jokes might have picked up a secret policy on him.

Lindley, 35, is working for Brave for the third time. His first experience was at age 19, washing dishes and chopping vegetables and soaking up as much knowledge as he could. “This was my first taste of fine dining,” he said. “I already had a pretty good idea this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This solidified it.”

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Brian Chilson
NEW MENU: Chef Ben Lindley’s spring menu ushers in a new era at Brave New Restaurant.

Lindley’s had several restaurant jobs around Little Rock. He managed Big Whiskey’s and worked at Sticky Fingerz and the Rev Room, and he spent the four years leading up to his current gig as the executive chef at Sonny Williams’ Steak Room.

Lindley said the role challenges him to maintain Brave’s vision for the restaurant while exploring his own creativity as a chef.

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“In a way we’re trying to get back to what Peter started,” Lindley said. “Little bit of a new direction but at the same time kind of going back to the roots. … I’ve been doing the best I can to do it to his standards.”

Brave opened Brave New Restaurant with his ex-wife, Marie, in 1991 in Riverdale in the former Steak and Egg — a 1,750-square-foot building on Old Cantrell Road. In 2000, he moved the restaurant to its current digs in the WindRiver building at 2300 Cottondale Lane — a sprawling space with elegant dining rooms and a picturesque view of the Arkansas River and downtown Little Rock skyline, courtesy of some floor-to-ceiling windows and the adjacent patio that borders the dining area. When Brave initially rented the space it was 2,950 square feet. He’s added on over the years and now boasts 5,980 total square feet, which now includes private dining rooms and offices that serve as his coffee roasting facility.

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Brian Chilson
RIVER VIEWS: Brave New Restaurant’s patio overlooks the Arkansas River.

When he first opened Brave New, the staff was little more than Brave, a dishwasher, a few waiters and Marie running the front of the house. Now, he employs a crew of 40. Transitions are inevitable, he said, but it’s happening very smoothly and gradually.

Lindley said to expect the same chef-driven farm-to-table ethos, but more inclusive — that is, not just a place people consider for anniversaries, birthdays and special occasions. Lindley’s new menu features price points that are in line with fine dining but include items priced to compete with what one might find at a chain.

“We need to diversify for a lot of reasons,” Brave said. “The thing I did initially was I wanted to take the price point of what was at Chili’s or an Applebee’s and look at some of those things and say, ‘For that kind of money you’re gonna spend there, here’s what I want to do.’ And we can do a lot better than that. Same with the smoothie at Tropical Smoothie, you get a smoothie and a wrap, you’re talking $15-$20 for lunch. Shit, I can compete with that. So it’s important that we’re not just for exclusive, special occasions. Are we good enough for that? Fuck yeah. Do we have the view and food for a special date? Yes. But there is also value there, and it’s important that it’s not lost at any time.”

This decision seems wise, especially considering the state of  the fine dining industry over the last three years: a pandemic dining room shutdown, subsequent capacity restrictions, supply-and-demand issues, inflation and a declining economy. All restaurants dealt with these issues, but it’s been so hard on fine dining that some in the industry have gone so far as to question whether it’s a sustainable model at all.

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“Over the course of 33 years you hear a lot of warning signs and it’s important to pay attention to them,” Brave said. “Reassessing has always been an important part of operating any kind of business. The way Brave New Restaurant operates — Facebook, Instagram, ordering on my phone — all that stuff has changed. The essence of what Brave New Restaurant is hasn’t changed in a long, long time and it’s important that we don’t lose that identity.”

One of Lindley’s dishes he created to make the dinner menu more inclusive is a grilled airline chicken breast (a boneless chicken breast with the drumette attached) with cremini mushroom risotto and Beurre Blanc. It was hands down one of my favorite bites of 2023 and it’s $25. Lindley finishes the dish with peach basil chutney, Arkansas pecans from Shady Grove and fresh basil.

Brian Chilson
AIRLINE CHICKEN: Served over cremini mushroom risotto.

If I didn’t know any better I would’ve assumed it was a $45-$50 dish.

“It’s still fine dining,” Lindley said. “It’s still high-quality ingredients, good service, good presentation.”

I recently popped in for lunch and ordered the grilled shrimp entree served over orzo pasta salad and it was my favorite lunch of the year thus far. It was $18. I routinely pay that much for salads around town.

Rhett Brinkley
GRILLED SHRIMP

One of Lindley’s more high-end dishes on the dinner menu is also a creative one that he admits sounds unusual. It’s a half rack of Texas wild boar ($60) that’s trimmed and butchered in-house. It’s coated with a sweet and savory raspberry rub and served with excellent sriracha mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus and a raspberry demi-glace. It’s garnished with raspberry dust.

Brian Chilson
RASPBERRY WILD BOAR

Other highlights from the new menu include the grilled portabella mushroom salad ($29) featuring sliced portabella caps finished with an aged balsamic. The mushrooms were some of the best I’ve tasted, which is no real surprise because Brave New always does mushrooms well. Lindley said it’s comparable to a lighter version of Brave New’s excellent mushroom Wellington available in the fall. Next time you’re in for lunch, order the mushroom soup; it’s fantastic.

Brian Chilson
PORTABELLA: Grilled and finished with aged balsamic.

Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt remarked that he thought he was eating lobster after trying a healthy portion of the grilled cardamom honey glazed mahi mahi ($48) served with sweet pea long grain rice. It’s sauteed with cremini mushrooms and asparagus over a pool of blueberry cream sauce.

Brian Chilson
MAHI MAHI

Lindley also made slight adjustments to some of Brave’s classic dishes. He said he’s always felt Brave’s pesto cream sauce should be served with pasta, so Brave’s original pine nut salmon ($42) is now served over penne pasta with fresh tomatoes, spinach and a pesto cream sauce.

Brian Chilson
PINE NUT SALMON

Lindley said he values constructive criticism from front-of-house management, servers and the kitchen staff when it comes to new menu items.

“Peter especially,” he said. “I like running the new dishes as specials so I can get customer feedback from some of our regulars who have been eating Peter’s food forever. I want to make sure that they’re happy with it and that it still fits the restaurant. I’m very familiar with what Peter wants in his restaurant, so things aren’t going to be changing too much. I don’t want to scare anybody off. The walleye’s not going anywhere, the creme brulee’s not going anywhere.”

Lindley’s a confident chef, but doesn’t come off as arrogant. Over the course of three different conversations in the last month, he always made a point to credit the strength of his co-workers and how much he’s learned working for Brave over the years. He said that every night before he leaves the restaurant he says, “Thank you, good job,” to each member of the kitchen crew. He said he still gets nervous about menu tastings and expects that to continue throughout his career. Knowing that there’s always room to grow and improve is an important quality for a chef or a professional in any field, he said.

Brian Chilson
WORKING THE LINE: Chef Ben Lindley’s first experience in fine dining was working for Brave at age 19.

“Something I learned from Peter a long time ago is you have to continue to learn and push yourself to get better, and that’s something I’ve kept in mind since I heard him say that when I was 19 years old. I feel like the only way I’m going to grow and get better is knowing I’m not as good as I can be.”

And while Brave knew the restaurant would be in good hands while he sips beer and cycles cross-country, he also acknowledged that they’re human and are going to make mistakes just like he does.

“One of the biggest things I had to talk with Chef Ben about was, ‘Don’t worry about getting it perfect. If it’s not perfect then, guess what, we’ll learn from it and we’ll do it differently next time.’”

And, he said, he has no intention of  riding off into the sunset on two wheels.

“I’ve got an incredible crew and a really incredible customer base and it’s not a chore. I get done bussing a few tables and schmoozing with a few people and I get beer and food out of it — hell, who wouldn’t want that job? I ain’t going nowhere, because why would I?”