As a break from the hellscape this legislative session has become, two reporters met for dinner last week at La Terraza Rum & Lounge, a Venezuelan bar and restaurant that opened last fall in Hillcrest. We came for rum, specifically the top-shelf Bacardi rum promised in the restaurant’s ticketed dinner. For $45 per person ($42 if you bought one early at centralarkansastickets.com, a ticketing site the Arkansas Times operates), we got a delicious three-course prix-fixe meal: fried croquettes filled with a creamy filling of potato, fish and cheese served with a chipotle marmalade; pan-seared tuna coated with chia seeds and a salad topped with goat cheese; and a Bacardi rum cake topped with a maraschino cherry. At every course, we also got a shot of fancy varieties of Bacardi rum and a spiel from our server about the blend or the flavors to look out for. We couldn’t detect any “notes” of coffee or banana, but we left slightly more sanguine about the state of the state than when we arrived.
La Terraza’s dinner fits into a trend that Central Arkansas restaurateurs seem to be increasingly embracing. @ the Corner, the modern diner at the corner of Scott and Markham streets downtown, hosted a Fat Tuesday event on Feb. 28, the first of what owners Leila King, Helen Grace King and Kamiya Merrick said would be a monthly “supper club.” The five-course prix fixe came paired with 5-ounce beer samples from Lost Forty Brewing. The menu was fittingly Creole-inspired: red beans, gumbo, shrimp with a “grit cake,” king cake pancakes with fried chicken and beignets. Before each course and new beer, Chef Merrick and Lost Forty brewers talked about the food and beer that was about to be served.
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The restaurant regularly opens only for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch. The supper club is a way for more people to take notice of the restaurant’s talented kitchen, Leila King said.
“I feel like in this very small town, we’re not given the credit we deserve. We’re three young women entrepreneurs under the age of 33. We’re serious and our kitchen is gifted. Maybe people take you more serious when you have dinner and beer and wine,” she said.
But it’s also a fun way to build community, King said. The dinner pulled tables together to seat many of the Fat Tuesday patrons community-style. People hung around for several hours. After the meal, the owners sat around the table with lingering customers and drank beer. “We were hoping for some dancing,” Helen Grace King said, “but that didn’t happen.” There’s always next time. That’ll be @ the Corner’s two-year anniversary party in March. Stay tuned for details. Meanwhile, @ the Corner has a lot of additional ideas for the supper club, from a sake dinner with local expert and brewer Ben Bell to a sneaker showcase with Rock City Kicks and Heights Corner Store’s Corey Bacon.
The Root Cafe might have been at the vanguard of the trend in Little Rock. It hosted ticketed dinners even before its brick-and-mortar cafe at 1500 S. Main St. existed. “Building community through local food” is The Root’s motto on its website, and that was the idea of the initial dinners, which were held at Christ Episcopal Church beginning around 2009 or 2010, co-owner Jack Sundell said. It gave his team a chance to test recipes, get early buy-in from customers and begin to develop relationships with local farmers and providers. Those early dinners usually had a dinner-and-a-show component. Local filmmaker Graham Gordy was on hand once to screen several short films, including his “Spanola Pepper Sauce Company”; another featured this author interviewing Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt on the history of the company.
More recently, The Root hosted regular ticketed dinners in its expanded dining room as a way for Chef Jonathan Arrington to test recipes and try out food that Sundell described as “a little more elegant, but still something recognizable to your grandmother” before the cafe began its long-anticipated dinner service, which is now available Wednesday through Saturday nights.
Sundell said The Root was planning to host an event with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel that would have food, drink and some sort of speaker. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t have immediate plans to resume event dinners, but Sundell said the long-term vision was to do one with a winery or local brewery once a month.
Yellow Rocket Concepts, the restaurant group that owns Lost Forty, has been doing ticketed dinners since 2012. The first one, at Big Orange West, was a collaboration with the Saint Louis Brewery, the maker of Schlafly Beer. Since then, Yellow Rocket has hosted dinners at all of its restaurants — Big Orange Midtown, Local Lime, Lost Forty, ZAZA in Conway and ZAZA in the Heights — except Heights Taco and Tamale Co., which will do a special mezcal dinner at the end of the summer.
Amber Brewer, the creative director of Yellow Rocket, said she designed each restaurant space with areas in mind that could be cordoned off for special events, including ticketed dinners. All the dinners include items not usually on the menu and have a cocktail, beer or wine component. No restaurant hosts more than three or four a year. “It’s a way to build rapport and have more intimate conversations with some of our guests,” Brewer said.
On March 23, Big Orange West will host a special four-course dinner paired with five wines from Oregon’s Raptor Ridge winery. Chef Scott McGehee is creating the menu and winemaker Kevin Wiles will be at the restaurant to discuss the pairings. Tickets are $70. Buy them on Eventbrite.
Meanwhile, as Lost Forty has expanded the distribution of its beer, it’s expanded outside collaborations. It’s teamed with South on Main to do a winter beer dinner for three years running. Brewer said Lost Forty likes to do annual collaborations. She hopes its partnership with @ the Corner will continue next year. Meanwhile, it’s planning on doing beer dinners with Oven & Tap, Butcher & Pint, and Tusk & Trotter in Bentonville later this year.