Bentonville residents hope Central Arkansans headed north for a Razorback game or two this fall will take an extra day to explore its latest attraction: a little place called Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. And while they're in the neighborhood, spend other tourist dollars at, for example, its fine dining.
One notable void for Northwest Arkansas has been the absence of chef-owned and run restaurants. There have been precious few eateries willing to stake a culinary claim, to dare with their fare. The easy business model here has been the sports bar: Hang a television from every corner and serve up chicken tenders and burgers.
But as Crystal Bridges rounds the corner to conclude its first year, it has proven visitors with refined palates will provide opportunity to chef-inspired restaurants in Benton County. Just two years ago, there was a single downtown evening restaurant on the Bentonville Square. Now there are at least four, with several upscale cafes in the mix.
Rob Nelson's Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie, located just off the square, was one of the first, opening in June 2011. It isn't exactly white tablecloth, but the food is worthy of calling the sitter and pulling out the fancy duds. Nelson calls his menu Progressive American: "old American comfort foods with a modern twist and a little European flair." If that sounds like a lot to, uh, swallow, here's a sample of the dishes offered every night: Beans and Cornbread (made with duck confit and duck pastrami), Crispy Pig Ear Nachos (yeah, fried pig ear chips) and Applewood Smoked Pork Belly and Shrimp.
Evident in the name, the menu and Hawg-clad walls, Nelson favors the porcine.
On a recent Saturday night trip to Tusk & Trotter, Nelson's professional and attentive wait staff kept the table topped with whet-your-appetite samples — bread and fruit compote — but one also suggested we try the Risotto Balls. Hushpuppy-ish in appearance, the starter is deep-fried risotto with a mild sausage and a pleasant mix of fresh herbs. Hearty but not heavy, the outer crust gives a satisfying crunch to an even more satisfying creamy middle.
While we were tempted by Nelson's signature dish, the Canadian Bacon Pork Chop, we were won over by the sound of the ultimate in comfort food: Fried Chicken and Waffles ($17). The dish is a chicken breast, ratatouille and a carrot cake waffle with a maple-bacon bechamel sauce. The chicken's batter is darker than many Southerners will find appealing, but the visual is mere trickery because the crust is thin and perfectly set, the breast inside succulent and juicy. A forkful of chicken topped with a stabbed corner of waffle sopped in "gravy" is the only way to eat this dish. Sweet and savory combos are a hit flavor anywhere, but with Nelson's delicate touch on this dish, it's a masterpiece.
At the recommendation of the waiter, we also tried the halibut ($29). The dish is pine-nut encrusted, with summer vegetables, a stone fruit remoulade and a fried risotto cake (a larger version of the appetizer balls). The fish is tender and far subtler than the chicken.
Nelson, an Atlanta native who transplanted to Hope as a teen, originally sought a career in politics. After he earned a degree in political science from the University of Arkansas, he worked on Sen. Mark Pryor's 2002 campaign. But the kitchen was calling. He'd labored in kitchens up and down Dickson Street while working for his degree and his father was a master baker, so the passion to cook was, so to speak, bred into him.
Poor puns and genetics aside, Nelson is classically trained. He studied at a culinary school in Colorado and also at Le Marmiton Cooking School in Avignon, France. In the spring and summer he sources 90 percent of his foods from within 150 miles of the kitchen and displays a blackboard in the main dining room that lists ingredient farms and locations.
Tusk & Trotter is worth a taste-testing tour for those looking to expand their culinary culture after a day seeing priceless paintings. Though it's posh in offerings, the vibe is laid-back: Shorts pass as easily as eveningwear.
Tusk & Trotter
110 S.E. A St.
There's an eclectic selection of wine and beer at Tusk and Trotter. It's definitely no flat-screen-filled sports bar, but if you find yourself there while an important game happens to be on, there is a single television at the bar.
11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Full bar. All CCs accepted.