As more of us opt for gluten-free diets for health or allergy reasons, chefs are responding with ever-more creative solutions.
We pick five Little Rock restaurants going above and beyond.
The 1836 Club
The restaurant in the 1836 Club is relatively new on Little Rock’s eating scene and is tucked within the magnificent McDonald-Wait-Newton House on the old Cantrell Road. This is a members-only club, but with food prepared by Executive Chef Donnie Ferneau, who has been named one of the “Best Chefs in America,” we urge you to beg, borrow or steal an invitation from a member. We promise it will be worth it.
Passionate about the concept of “food as medicine,” Ferneau has been highly active in trying to change the way we eat for years, and has even designed menus for Alzheimer’s patients as national executive chef for Memory Care America, following groundbreaking studies showing that gluten-free diets can halt and even reverse the onset of the disease. At the 1836 Club, Ferneau is in his element and delivers pure class on a plate. Start with the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly nachos – which he customized on the fly – then follow with his signature fried chicken and gravy (the best you’ll ever taste – gluten-free or otherwise) and thank the gluten-free gods for this culinary revelation. Finish with baked, sweet Arkansas peaches and crumble. Outstanding.
We featured this well-established restaurant, sitting within the Burgundy Hotel in West Little Rock, not so long ago for its great farm-to-table ethos. The good news is that it also offers fantastic gluten-free options. Chef Scott Rains is happy to customize existing dishes on the menu and also offers to create impromptu dishes not listed. Rains’ mantra is “keep it seasonal and local,” and there really is something for everyone.
The shrimp and grits is a great way to start off your gluten-free experience, followed by the blackened sea bass served with chipotle bleu butter and chorizo corn. This is Southern cooking done with care and style. We dare you to have space for dessert.
Café Bossa Nova
One of our favorites, charming Café Bossa Nova on Kavanaugh Boulevard is officially Little Rock’s home of soul food as far as we’re concerned. With dishes tasting as if they have been plucked straight from a Brazilian family’s dining table, and with a bakery next door that specializes in homemade yucca bread, among other treats, they take homestyle to another level.
Start with the extremely moreish pão de quiejo (cheese-stuffed rolls made from gluten-free yucca root flour), but save some to dip into the delicious trio of soups starter. Although the majority of the dishes are naturally gluten-free (and clearly labeled on the menu), a particular treat for celiacs – who rarely get to indulge in bread-crumbed food – are the heavenly bolas de salmão (salmon cakes). We also highly recommend the Saturday special of feijoada (rice, bean and sausage stew and pork ribs). Finish with the divine chocolate crème brulée.
South On Main
Seasonal ingredients, quirky dishes, stylish cocktails in mason jars, bearded and tattooed staff. Yep, this is a hipster joint, and we love them for it. Named after the oh-so-trendy SOMA district that it lies within, South on Main is sure to both delight and earn you kudos from your friends.
Chef Matthew Bell takes allergies seriously, and even asks if your food needs to be prepared in a separate part of the kitchen. We recommend you start with the cauliflower popcorn served with aioli, or the boudin balls with a kicking comeback sauce (all customized to make them gluten-free). Follow with the gorgeous rabbit leg and country ham-wrapped loin served with brown sugar carrots, roasted Brussels sprouts and onion jam. For dessert we were treated to a very fancy version of peanut butter and jelly – a gluten-free alternative of their dessert of the day – which was spontaneously whipped up. Complement your meal with a tipple from the ever-changing and highly original cocktail list. The Aviator (gin, crème de violet, maraschino liqueur and lemon juice) does the trick.
If you’ve ever lamented the fact that being gluten-free completely eliminates Italian food from your diet then weep no more! Vesuvio Bistro, a longstanding haven of sophistication within the city, is run by chef and co-owner Bill Criswell, who has family members with celiac disease and thus lends a sympathetic ear.
Ask for the gluten-free menu and treat yourself the proper Italian way, with the full four courses. For starters have the chef’s selection of antipasti, a smorgasbord of meats and cheeses of the highest quality. For the pasta dish you simply must have the gluten-free ravioli (yes, ravioli!) in a creamy herb sauce. Absolutely divine. Follow this with the tilapia piccata, pan-seared tilapia presented with a white wine and lemon sauce and capers on a bed of risotto. After this feast, you may just have space for ice cream.