BENTONVILLE -- If you haven't been here recently (or at all), you might be surprised at how much Arkansas' 10th largest city resembles a leafy Sonoma Valley wine village, particularly in the area immediately around the downtown that marks ground zero for the planet's largest employer.
Sam Walton's original 5 & 10 on Main Street -- now the town's second most famous museum -- looks out on a city square with fountain, garden, benches, a life-size statue of a Confederate soldier and, on a recent Sunday evening, enough dogs and children and milling adults to suggest some sort of street fair or market might be underway.
With a few minutes to kill before our dinner reservation, we wandered over to check it out and discovered there wasn't any special attraction, just the perambulations and idlings of locals and tourists -- a Norman Rockwell via Georges Seurat tableau. (Or maybe the Chamber of Commerce had employed some actors to provide an illusion of vitality.) Anyway, it's easy to get the feeling that this part of Bentonville isn't exactly a real place -- it feels more like a Disney-erected simulacrum of a more Low Midwestern than High Southern farming town. (And then you round the corner and confront the menacing green penguins of the 21c Museum Hotel-- Bentonville is a different kind of Pleasantville, y'all.)
Thank the gravitational pull of the nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art -- another Walton-founded institution -- for bringing an influx of visitors from all over the world to the northwest corner of Arkansas. Since all these visitors, no matter how cosmopolitan, need to eat at regular intervals, opportunities have arisen for entrepreneurial restaurateurs with aspirations. And so we should not be surprised to find one of the state's -- and maybe the South's -- best restaurants occupying what was once Walton's general office and warehouse, down the block and around the corner from the old 5 & 10.
That's not to say that there's much intimidating about Chef Rob Nelson's Tusk & Trotter. From the outside and, for a moment, until one's eyes adjust to the dim interior, it looks a bit like another theme-park eatery, a place where, in the days before Office Space satirized the trend, you might be approached by a hostess blaring signifying "flair." But the interior, despite being touched here and there with depictions of swine, is comfortable and restrained enough to be called tasteful, with its stained concrete floor, high exposed ceilings and deceptively heavy and dark butcher-board tables that are so wide you might consider sitting beside, instead of across from, anyone with whom you wish to share intimate secrets. It's not that the space is loud -- I suspect it has somehow been tuned to produce a pleasant tinky, clinky burble when the restaurant reaches near capacity -- it's just that there's an uncommon stretch of tabletop between facing diners.
The layout is that of a nearly square box bisected by a wall -- broken, at the eastern and western ends, by a couple of proscenium arches -- that divide the space into roughly equal-sized dining and lounge zones. Apparently the idea is that the lounge is slightly less formal than the dining area, but on our recent visit we didn't perceive any stuffiness. There were several diners who'd elected to wear T-shirts and khaki shorts in the dining area where we were seated. And if anyone was getting rowdy in the bar, well, they held it down.
On first examination, Tusk & Trotter looks and feels like a good place to get a drink after work -- and I'm envious of those who live and work within walking distance. It's sort of like the Capital Bar mashed up with an upscale iteration of a funky barbecue joint, and with a menu that offers "pub fare" and an array of savory appetizers (including a cheese plate with alligator sausage, chicken mousse parfait and chicken wings) to go with your double Knob Creek. (It's not my thing exactly, but the house-infused cocktails -- only $7 -- have a great reputation. And the Peach Whiskey Manhattan my wife, Karen, ordered lived up to it.)
But while the slightly clubby but approachable ambience of Tusk & Trotter might be a draw on its own, the real reason to go there is the meat-intensive menu. (There are even rumored to be veggie options. We would not know about that, although the menu lists a "Vegetarian Picnic" consisting of quinoa, seasonal vegetables, arugula topped with frico -- crisped cheese -- and a sweet/savory "vindaloo-curry gastrique" for $16.95.)
Pork is one of the main deals here -- just look at the pictures on the wall -- but it's not exclusively porcine. One of the highlights of the menu is a $12.95 catfish pastrami sandwich ("pastrami" in this case refers to the process -- the catfish brined and smoked like pastrami -- not the cured beef), which is served with Swiss cheese, remoulade and coleslaw on a potato bun. It's succulent, and the textures mesh well, but what's surprising is how the process brings out ribbons of flavor in the fish.
Further helping keep T&T weird were the remarkably light and tasty kitchen-made pork rinds which, even in their downmarket plastic-baggied iteration, aren't the trashy junk some assume them to be -- I remember reading sometime back in the Carter administration that they're actually good for you. But then I'm not a cardiologist.
Speaking of foods that some might deride as declasse, the absolute star of our evening was Tusk & Trotter's version of poutine, the French-Canadian gravy and cheese curd over fries concoction served in dive bars and bowling alleys all over Quebec. Seeing how people can become futbol experts by watching the highlights of the U.S.-Germany match on Sports Center, it's appropriate that -- by virtue of a 2013 trip to Montreal in which I sampled a couple of the local versions and found them unnervingly comforting -- I declare myself a connoisseur of poutine. And I can state unequivocally that T&T's poutine ($18.95) is the best I've ever had.
Perhaps it should be -- it is, after all, based on meatloaf of Angus beef and sausage, topped with pate gravy, tomatoes, green onions and "herbed" feta cheese served over pommes frites. As hearty as that might sound (and it is a roundly satisfying meal), there are delicate and discrete layers of piquancy and spice apparent in each bite. While it's not something one should eat every night -- or many nights, I suppose -- it will be a test of discipline not to order it the next time we visit Tusk & Trotter.
Though I really shouldn't -- there are too many must-try dishes on the menu. There's a pork chop that comes highly recommended by others, and pork and beans made with pork belly confit, chicken, duck, lamb and steak. Prices for entrees on the dinner menu (there's a separate lunch carte that reprises many of the same items) range from $10 for a turkey club (a gorgeous looking hamburger is available for $10.50 -- add bacon for an additional two bucks) to near $30. The priciest dish the night we showed up was a production enthusiastically titled called "Mary Had a Little Lamb But You Ate It!" which consisted of locally sourced loin of lamb "ham," lamb bacon, lamb boulette, seasonal vegetables and red mashed potatoes with lamb jus. It was $28.50.
But, like the weather, the menu at Tusk & Trotter rotates seasonally, and can vary from day to day. This is in part because Nelson -- a University of Arkansas product who honed his cooking skills at Boulder, Colo.'s Culinary School of the Rockies and in France -- is committed to using local ingredients sourced from farms within a 150-mile radius.
This philosophy apparently extends to the bar's tap list, which carries a rather extraordinary number of local and regional beers on tap. Thanks to our knowledgeable server, Chelsea (who all evening read our table well, showing up just at the moment we had a question or were ready to order), I took the unusual (for me) step of ordering a flight -- four 4-ounce pours -- from the tap list. (At $8, this might be the best bargain in the restaurant.) All four were formidable (I think the average alcohol content worked out to about 9 percent) but two, the Double Red IPA from Springdale's Core Brewing & Distilling, and Lost Bridge Rouch (Smoke) from Saddlebock Brewery, also of Springdale, were uncommonly interesting.
The former was extremely hoppy and refreshing, with pronounced pine and citrus notes, while the latter is a rather restrained example of smoke beers, with an unmistakable -- and under the circumstances, quite fitting -- hint of, uh well, bacon.
Weekend on 07/17/2014
Print Headline: Getting piggy in Bentonville