Downtown diners need to put Canvas, the newly renamed restaurant at the Arkansas Arts Center, on their must-try list. New owner Brian Kearns — who bought the business, as well as Simply the Best Catering, from Martha and Rob Best — has definitely elevated the fare at both lunch and brunch.
Kearns came to town with the original opening crew at YaYa's EuroBistro and later made his mark at Arthur's, Oceans, Kemuri and the Country Club of Little Rock. He's ratcheted up the Canvas menu by doing fairly simple things well and using locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.
Our day-after-Thanksgiving lunch started with a pair of soups, one we were supposed to have and one we weren't. We asked about the soup of the day and were told it was a spicy chicken gumbo. When the waiter brought it to us he told us that fabulous gumbo was actually something the chef (not Kearns this day) had made to take home, but he let us have a bowl anyway and we paid the same $5 we would have paid for cream of mushroom, the true soup of the day. The always-available tomato soup ($5) was as thick as tomato pudding. It is well-spiced — cumin, we think — and not crazy rich, despite its consistency.
Our Reuben sandwich ($10) and gnocchi ($12) were definite winners — and both were huge, two meals' worth. Canvas makes its own corned beef and the effort is worth it. The beef wasn't as marbled or as salty as we're used to, but it was tasty and tender. Where Canvas found such gargantuan marbled rye we'll never know, but each half — piled high with sauerkraut and topped with Swiss cheese and Russian dressing — was the size of a normal sandwich. A cup of baked potato salad — mayonnaise-and-sour cream-based with bits of celery — accompanied. (Chips and fruit are the other two options).
At least 20 firm but tender gnocchi were swimming in a rich broth and paired with plenty of shiitake mushrooms (from Sweden Creek Farms in Kingston) and cubes of not-quite-tender-enough butternut squash. A dusting of Parmesan added a nice touch. Rosemary is dominant in this dish. If you like rosemary you'll love it; if not, you won't. A suggestion: Serve bread with the gnocchi and the soup, for sopping purposes.
Two days later we were back for brunch, which features the same lunch options except the gnocchi and 10 breakfast items, including four Benedict choices.
We started with a couple of barely orange mimosas ($6), just the way we like them. Our sweet-toothed companion went for the French toast waffle ($5 alone; an extremely reasonable $9 with two eggs and three strips of fabulous, thickish Wright's bacon). It was cinnamony, crisp and absolutely fabulous.
So was the quiche du jour ($9), a generous slice that featured small cubes of chicken, bits of broccoli and cheddar. We opted for a ramekin of War Eagle Mill grits over roasted potatoes, and they were tasty (not something we have ever said about grits sans cheese before). War Eagle mills its grits on the coarse side. We'd guess they were cooked in broth. The side of cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple was appreciated, but basically ignored.
Apropos for the season, the two homemade dessert options on both our trips were pumpkin creme brulee ($6) and pumpkin pie ($5). Both were rich and nicely flavored with spices.
Canvas feels just like Best Impressions, the name the space went by formerly, which is fine, as there is little way to improve this glass-walled, light-filled space that overlooks Little Rock's first city park and benefits from an enormous skylight that is a design feature of this section of the museum. Guests can enter the restaurant either from the patio (parking in the circle drive in front of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History) or through the Arts Center's gift shop.
Canvas Arkansas Arts Center 501 E. Ninth St. 501-907-5946 arkarts.com/canvas
The patio is nonsmoking and dog-friendly.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Beer, wine and takeout available. All credit cards accepted.