On most Sundays, Crystal Bridges' Eleven is slammed around midday. And why not? The food is delicious and reasonably priced, the space is breezy and inviting, and you're seated in the shadow of Claes Oldenburg's 1975 "Alphabet/Good Humor" — three feet of pink cartoon letter/intestines, mounted on a popsicle stick. It's a unique experience, tempered by a few (slightly) annoying pitfalls.
You'll have to wait in line to order. It's a long line, but it'll move quicker than you think. You'll take a seat and wait for the staff to bring your food. You'll wait longer here than you waited in line. You'll need to order dessert, adult beverages (a very limited selection of beer and wine) or coffee up front, or either join that line again. There's no "after the crowds clear," because the restaurant closes at 2:30 p.m. If you need a soda refill, you'll have to muscle past the line and gesticulate wildly to attract the attention of an overwhelmed cashier. You'll feel obnoxious and apologetic for having to do this.
But you'll forget all of that when you bite into what is among Arkansas's most perfect burgers. Don't let your prejudices (you know, the idea that a burger is bit rustic for an art museum) derail you. The Eleven Burger ($8) is high-quality beef, nestled on a thick homemade bun and dripping with buttery Havarti cheese and melded juices. The beef is coarsely-ground, which unlocks its inherent flavor and gives it a gamey edge. Ultimately, the meat tastes a lot like venison or buffalo. (We've heard that the chef prepares his own rub, and we wish he would bottle and sell it.) The crusty bun is lightly spread with a sweet peppercorn mayonnaise and dressed with tomato and pepperoncini. Our only complaint is the side of fruit — unfortunately, we can't get too excited about a clump of green grapes and a barely ripe strawberry.
Eleven's lunch menu is brief, which means vegetarian options are limited. The Prairie Wrap ($9), with white bean hummus and an abundance of purple and green leafiness, is adequate but less than thrilling. At least it tasted fresh. Toss some cucumber with your leaves, douse it in gritty tahini (dolled up with quinoa flakes), and roll it in a soft wheat shell, and there you have it. Nothing offensive, but next time we'll just go with the Autumn Harvest salad, hold the chicken please.
The Autumn Harvest ($9) is big enough to share. It starts with the earthiness we just met in the Prairie Wrap, but it offers a more satisfying play of light and heavy flavors. The dried blueberries bring a welcome chewiness, and the green apples are tart and crisp. Top it off with toasted pecans, sharp, crumbled chevre and tangy-sweet maple balsamic dressing, and you have one fantastic salad experience.
Now we've come to the Shrimp and Grits ($12), the true standout of our meal. Like the beef, the grits are coarse-ground. We think the chef is onto something, because these are some of the most luscious grits we've ever had. We usually consider grits a carrier for other flavors, but at Eleven, the grits themselves are showstoppers. They're tender, thick and cheddar-cheesy, and we could actually taste the corn. And we usually eschew shrimp, but these are large, succulent, mild and, despite our distance from the Gulf, fresh tasting. They're sauteed in a creamy Worcestershire sauce, with a smooth, oily texture and a wood-smoke flavor that resonates throughout the dish. There's something about Eleven's Shrimp and Grits that make you feel warm, content and maybe even a little blissfully silly. And that's a something we hope to repeat, as often as our northerly travels allow.
Crystal Bridges is open for dinner on Wednesdays and Fridays. There's table service and of course, the entrees are more pricier (though the priciest item is only $24, for the Eleven Beef Filet).
600 Museum Way
Try the deserts. We polished off an excellent Mocha Cupcake with the airiest icing you'll ever encounter, and the Double-wide Cookie is a house special. It's your classic peanut-butter offering, with the not so classic additions of crushed cereals and potato chips. It's a kid-friendly twist on the sweet and salty dessert trend.
11a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Tuesday and Thursday.
Beer and wine, all CC accepted.