In 2002, Arkansas native Kathy Webb and her partner Nancy Tesmer opened not one but two Little Rock outposts of their Lilly's Dim Sum and Then Some restaurant in Memphis.
First came the River Market kiosk downtown in June. It was so successful that they opened a full-service location in the Market Place shopping center on Rodney Parham in October. The west Little Rock location was voted Best New Restaurant in Little Rock by Arkansas Times readers.
"We're very excited to get Best New Restaurant. It's kinda neat to come home and have that happen," said Webb. "We want to thank everyone in Little Rock and Central Arkansas. We're truly gratified by the support."
The advent of Lilly's has started a dim sum chain reaction. Old guard Chinese restaurants like Chi's and Fu Lin are now serving a tasty variety of dumplings and more. How does it feel to be a trendsetter?
"It's great for the citizens to get more choice. I'm glad we could be a part of that," Webb said.
Part of the restaurant's success is its emphasis on freshness, both with menu choices and preparation. Everything is made to order, all the sauces are made on site and nothing's sitting on a steam table.
Webb said the other element of Lilly's success is its customers. "If anyone in Memphis reads this, I'll probably get in trouble," Webb said with a laugh, "but the reception in Arkansas has been phenomenal. People in Little Rock seem to be more adventurous."
The partners took very different paths on their way to the Lilly's concept. Nancy Tesmer, whose culinary background includes contemporary American cuisine, was recovering from a serious illness when doctors advised her to eat more freshly prepared foods such as Asian stir-frys. Webb, who started her career in barbecue, discovered her passion for Asian cooking while traveling the Far East. She later studied under a Japanese chef in Chicago.
"We're constantly reading and talking to people, trying to find ways to incorporate new ingredients and ideas into our cooking," Webb said. "It's a constant process of experimentation."
Some of the fruits of this experimentation: edamame (Japanese soybeans in the pod) dishes, and updates of tried-and-true favorites like egg foo young.
"A lot of people remember egg foo young with a thick sauce and MSG," said Webb. But in February, Lilly's will introduce a lighter, portable version: the egg, meat and vegetable mixture rolled in a spring roll wrapper, deep fried and served with a light dipping sauce. It will be offered as a lunch special in the full-service restaurant and as a breakfast item at the River Market.
In the couple of weeks, Lilly's at Market Street will start renovating the empty space next door, doubling the size of the restaurant. The additional space will be used for private parties, wine dinners, cooking classes and special dinners with the chef, and will accommodate 50 to 60 people. Lilly's also expects to receive a Sunday liquor license for the Market Street location in the next couple of months.
With all of this popularity, is there any chance of seeing Lilly's go national? Webb said she and Tesmer were approached in Memphis about a year ago with the idea of a national chain, but turned down the offer because they felt they weren't ready at the time.
"Maybe the answer would be different today, but we won't go looking for it," she said.
Webb and Tesmer do have set their sights set on other parts of the state. "We'd love to go to Northwest Arkansas," said Webb. She said it was a possibility for later this year.