Arkansas summer can be a brutal mistress when it comes to heat and humidity, but she is even more kind when it comes to local farmers and their produce. All over the state, at farmers markets and grocery stores and roadside stands, you can easily find some of the best fruits and vegetables you will ever eat. This year, tomatoes, blueberries, corn, squash and purple peas have all been outstanding, and we can look forward to even more good things as the season moves along.
Of course, Little Rock chefs aren’t letting this glut of wonderful ingredients pass them by. All over the city, you can find new dishes and menus featuring the best that Arkansas has to offer. That includes So Restaurant, a veteran, upscale dining establishment nestled between Hillcrest and the Heights neighborhoods. There, executive chef Casey Copeland has hunted everywhere he can to find the freshest ingredients possible straight from Arkansas soil.
That dedication to Arkansas freshness comes through in many areas of So’s new summer menu, but nowhere is it as deliberate as the new Summer Salad, which looks like your local farmers market on a plate. Heirloom cherry tomatoes, zucchini, sugar snap peas, grilled asparagus, English cucumbers, radishes and radicchio just sing when all put together. Each bite brings different notes of the harvest, and the Dijon vinaigrette helps tie everything together nicely. Vegetarians, vegans, or really anybody looking to take advantage of some wonderful vegetables should give this dish a try.
For a heartier start to the meal, consider the new Fried Artichoke Hearts appetizer. Copeland and his team flash fry the artichoke hearts to get them just crispy, then serve them in a cow’s bone with bone marrow vinaigrette and lemon zest. There is plenty of food for the table to share here, and tastes great to boot. Sometimes artichokes can get to briny or lose their texture, but these were firm and light, making them a pleasure to enjoy, whether alone or with friends.
Summer is traditionally the best time to enjoy lighter plates, though, and So’s newest two entrees take that missive to heart. Take the new Red Royal Shrimp and Grits special, marinated with Arkansas peaches and grilled until just done. Copeland has paired this with roasted heirloom tomatoes in a sherry-thyme reduction. A little cornmeal spoonbread made with jalapenos and a Creole soffritto paste both provide a welcome kick to the plate. While nothing on the plate is really heavy, this plate won’t leave you hungry, either.
For an even lighter evening, go with the Pan Seared Smoked Salmon, featuring a thick filet of salmon that gets lightly smoked before crisping up on the frying pan. The salmon is served beside a celery root puree and a creamed lemon fennel that both bring vibrant, earthy flavors to the plate. A little fresh dill and some dill oil continue the theme of dramatic, pungent flavors that leave quite an impression on your palette.
Now, I know that some of you feel like you have to order the chocolate sack when you’re at So. You can’t help it. It’s tradition! But if you do decide to branch out, I highly recommend So’s new macarons served with vanilla ice cream. Copeland’s team put together a black currant and white chocolate jam as the filling for these dainty cookies that is really remarkable. Never one to play it safe, Copeland pairs the macarons with vanilla bean ice cream and a spicy dusting of crushed pecans. Still, the star of this plate is the excellent macaron. Copeland and his team should be commended for coming up with a dessert that truly nails the flavor and texture.
Summer is for enjoying great food, great drink and great company, and So’s new menu aims to provide at least two of those three elements for your next gathering with friends and family. Make sure to try these soon; Copeland says these dishes won’t stay on the menu for too long.