I spoke with Jonathan Wilkins tonight about the much-anticipated Arkansas Fresh Bakery Cafe in Bryant — and he threw me for a loop with this: “We are opening the doors at 6:30 am in the morning [January 6]. We opted for just opening and going for it instead of doing a big launch.”
The cafe had recently been on my mind after having some Arkansas Fresh bread just this past weekend, so it was a great and wonderful surprise to learn that the opening of the cafe isn’t just coming — it’s here! Best of luck to Bread Genius Ashton Woodward and the rest of the Arkansas Fresh team, although they don’t really need any luck with skills like theirs.
The new cafe 304 N. Reynolds Road and is open from 6:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Update 1/6/15, 1:54 p.m.
It was my good fortune to have some business down in Saline County today, which gave me the perfect reason to stop on in to the Arkansas Fresh Bakery Cafe’s first official day in business. The Bryant Town Center location is bright and open, with clean lines, lots of varnished wood, and a homey, handwritten menu board that had me in a good mood before I ever even put my order in.
Everyone who has missed Jonathan Wilkins’ expertise in the Kitchen at White Water Tavern will be happy to know that he’s expanded on his bag of culinary tricks at Arkansas Fresh, presenting a menu of breakfast sandwiches, lunch sandwiches, open-face French-style tartines, and a case full of scones, cupcakes, and other delicious Arkansas Fresh products. The cafe also features a selection of gourmet products not seen anywhere else in Saline County: handmade jellies and jams, gourmet balsamic vinegars, imported cheeses, dry-cured salami, and Little Rock’s own addictive gift the world, Bonta Toscana garlic sauce (which comes with a side order of its creator, Amy Bradley-Hole, who is also working at the cafe). They’ve even got tahini on the shelf, something I would have loved to be able to buy during my time as a resident of those parts.
I settled in and ordered The Dunwich, Arkansas Fresh’s take on the classic Reuben: marbled rye bread, house-smoked corned beef, and a crunchy jalapeno and cilantro slaw that I found superior to kraut. I knew the bread was going to be good when I ordered the sandwich; it was nice to see that every else involved in the Dunwich was also superior. If this one sandwich is any indication of how the rest of the menu tastes, then Ashton Woodward and team have given us Little Rockers a reason to travel down I-30 for lunch.
I spoke briefly to Woodward, who took me all through the Arkansas Fresh operation, just a few blocks away from the cafe on Prickett Road. This must be the best-smelling workplace in the entire world, because it starts with the warm smell of bread and pastries, then transitions to the rich smell of Woodward’s Cocoa Rouge operation. Haven’t heard of Cocoa Rouge? You will, I promise — this is high end chocolate as good as any I’ve ever had, either domestic or European.
Asked what made him think to open a cafe so soon after the launch of his line of chocolates, Woodward laughs and says, “I want to do what nobody else is doing. I take a look at what everyone else is up to, then I pick the hardest thing out there to work on.” Gourmet bread and candy making certainly fits the bill, especially at this level of quality. For Woodward, candy-making is an attempt to reclaim the classic box of chocolates from companies who load their boxes with inedible fruit cremes and inferior quality chocolate. “A box of chocolates should be special,” Woodward says, adding that nobody should “ever bite into a chocolate and it not be delicious.” That philosophy permeates everything that Arkansas Fresh is doing, both in their production operation and now in the cafe. Woodward says he’s proud of the strides that the Central Arkansas food scene has made in the past few years, and I’ll be the first to say that his company is one of the main cornerstones of this scene’s continued growth.