Move over fried foods and grits: Little Rock’s culinary scene is exploding. As Arkansas’ historical capital city, the region is these days teeming with local farms and food artisans who partner with major players -- from the editors of a literary magazine to the world’s best winemakers -- to execute innovative dishes and culinary experiences. Within the past few years, several new eateries have cropped up within Little Rock and its stylish sister city, North Little Rock. Here’s where to have a taste.South on Main
An offshoot of Oxford American (a quarterly literary magazine), now based in Little Rock under a third incarnation, South on Main recasts Southern cuisine as sophisticated. Dinner entrees run between $8-$13. Comfort foods like rabbit pot pie topped with a sweet-potato crust, or hot chicken-liver salad with blue cheese and bacon, are paired with literary and music performances ranging from hip hop to poetry to jazz by Southern artists. The eatery opened two summers ago in the hip SoMa (Southside Main Street) neighborhood with chef Matt Bell at the helm.
Along Main Street in Little Rock’s Argenta Arts District, two brothers opened Ristorante Capeo in 2003, quickly growing the restaurant into a destination difficult to snag a reservation at. The intimate dining room has romantic flair, with elegant dishes such as veal scallopini or linguine tossed with scallops, calamari, shrimp, cod and clams in dry white wine to match. Entrees run between $10 and $27, with a range of solid pasta dishes to more indulgent picks like pan-seared duck breast with sambuca and port-wine sauce. The lengthy wine list is full on Italian picks but also features pricy gems like Armand de Brignac Brut Gold along with value-oriented selections by the glass or bottle.
Crush Wine Bar
For a proper nightcap -- or a wine flight to kick off the evening -- drop into Crush Wine Bar along Main Street in North Little Rock, celebrating its seven-year anniversary this year. The best seats are at tables in the backyard, which has the welcoming vibe of a local friend's home, with lights strung in the tiny, urban space. Indoors, the art is made from wooden wine crates, with walls painted a mustard-yellow and dusty blue. With 40 wines by the glass, even the pickiest palates can be satisfied. The food selections might be light, but you can't go wrong with the tapas plates and cheesecake slices.
Little Rock’s newest restaurant opened in August by local restaurant veteran Jerry Barakat. (Barakat’s other restaurants are Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse and Ocean’s.) At Kemuri, it's sushi with a twist -- in addition to maki, seafood dishes, and robata (charcoal-grilled foods), you'll find treats like smoked meats on the menu ($11-$30). Chefs thoughtfully fold in ingredients like shishito peppers and present their creations in a highly visual, dimensional format.