Not familiar with Arkansas terroir? That might change sooner than you think. Thanks to last year’s opening of Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by philanthropist Alice Walton, who chairs the museum’s board of directors), the stunning, shimmering structure created by architect Moshe Sofdie, the town is ramping up to welcome a new breed of cultural tourists. As a result, there have been major efforts to spiff up the historic downtown square, connect that square to the museum via leafy bike paths, and ramp up the restaurant scene. New additions include Eleven, the museum’s breathtaking restaurant that’s suspended over water and nods to local flavor in dishes like Sweet Tea-Brined Chicken and shrimp served over grits from nearby War Eagle Mill, as well as downtown gastropub Tusk and Trotter, Tavola Trattoria, and local favorite Petit Bistro.
“Bentonville is a big city with a small town mask on it,” says Matt McClure, the newly appointed chef at The Hive, the upscale restaurant in the forthcoming 21c Museum Hotel, which opens in the first quarter of 2013. McClure was most recently at Ashley’s, the fine dining restaurant at The Capital Hotel in Little Rock. The decision of the hip hotel concept (which has two other locations, one in Louisville and another in Cincinnati) to open in Bentonville shows confidence in the area’s growing cultural scene. “It’s pretty incredible how the downtown square has transformed,” McClure says. “The local economy brings in a lot of transplants from around the country. You can’t swing a a bat without hitting a Harvard MBA.”
“The soil here makes us unique,” he continues. “Arkansas terroir gives us the opportunity to serve unique food. I really like French cooking techniques applied to what’s available at the local farmer’s market. I like those challenges of shopping, picking things up, and making a menu. Perimeters aren’t a bad thing, we don’t need to fly in fish from South Pacific.”
The evolution of what McClure calls “high South style” begs the question, what is today’s Southern food? Beyond the signature, bacon-studded flavors of the deep South, it will be compelling to watch how cities like Bentonville and St. Louis continue to embrace deeper relationships with regional farmers and purveyors.
“The tourists that come here are going to want that uniquely Arkansas experience, and that’s what they’re going to get at The Hive. You can bet there will be million to hundred million dollar deals happening at the bar. In turn, our kitchen will be serious, but the food and atmosphere will be fun and relaxing, not intimidating.”
If you have any doubts about how humble beginnings can grow to influence a nation, consider two examples: