As dinnertime reaches downtown Rogers, the streets are still. Only a few cars rest in the slanted spaces along Second Street.
But through the window at 113, there’s life. In a small dining room, nearly every seat has been filled, and a playlist of folk-pop fights to be heard over conversation.
Behind a tan curtain, a silhouetted figure is putting the final sear on a dish, the gas stove flaming up and projecting his profile in sharper relief before settling to a glow. A few heads in the dining room turn at the burst of heat, but no one is startled because it’s clear that chef Jason Paul, the guy plating dishes with the hunched precision of a symphony director, knows what he’s doing.
The space he’s working in really isn’t a kitchen at all, but a sort of closet-sized makeshift setup that takes up a corner of the dining room at Heirloom Food and Wine, the restaurant where Paul takes the reins each weekend for his pop-up dinners that he’s dubbed Heirloom After Dark. To get to the restaurant’s bathroom, customers have to squeeze past Paul and into the old kitchen-turned-pantry and office. But Paul barely notices. He’s completely alone in the prep, cooking and plating for tonight’s dinner, just as he is every weekend. If something goes wrong, it’s all on him.
So it’s understandable that rehearsals for his Friday and Saturday dinners start days before. Monday and Tuesdays are dedicated to menu creation, with Paul driving around and calling producers in Northwest Arkansas to see what he can source locally. A pile of plump king oyster mushrooms at the Asian market up the street from his house inspired a course of mushroom “scallops.” As the winter turned cold, root vegetables and comforting short-rib dishes made an appearance.
By Wednesday afternoon, the three-course weekend menu is posted online. The dishes are specific and vague all at the same time:
Roasted delicata squash. White bean puree. Spiced tahini. Pancetta. Confit tomato.
Braised lamb leg. Smoked ricotta gnudi. Rainbow chard. Harissa bread crumbs. Lamb broth.
Warm chocolate cake. Banana maple ice cream. Hazelnut. Orange.
Ingredients are in focus. Presentation is left to the imagination.
Each week, the menu shifts with no real loyalty to a specific cuisine or theme. So far, no dish has appeared on the menu twice. Paul is restaurant-trained, with a background in fine dining and French cooking. The influence becomes obvious in courses such as beet root risotto, smoked duck with cranberry creme fraiche and a maple pot de creme with vanilla whipped cream—less so on nights where trout and kimchee dumplings make the cut. Paul also puts a heavy emphasis on vegetarian dishes, with some weekend menus going entirely meat-free.
“There’s nothing that’s off limits,” Paul says. “Sometimes I’m cooking things I’ve never done before. It’s like improv music or jazz. … It’s either going to go really well, or I’m going to have a meltdown on stage.”
By 11 a.m. Fridays, Paul is backstage, readying himself for the doors to open at 6 p.m.
His audience is a small one. Heirloom’s dining room only has room for a handful of tables. On a good night, Paul is playing for a room of 20. That’s the number it takes for him to be “financially OK.” But the room, so far, has averaged around 15.
Because of all the prep that goes into each meal, reservations are essential. Paul makes only enough to feed those he’s expecting, plus the occasional walk-in. There are no second helpings or requests for something off-menu. Each menu is a two-nights-only engagement.
Seats are taken, and the action begins. The dining room is managed by Paul’s girlfriend, Danielle Ribaudo, who goes over the limited drinks menu: Ozark Beer Co.’s pale ale, red wine, white wine.
It’s not mentioned on the night’s menu, but a bread course kicks everything off on the night we visit—slices of soft house-made oat bread, dense and slightly sweet, ready to be slathered in salted butter. Next, it’s mussels in a curry broth with smoked potatoes and spicy, toasted French bread. Paul and Ribaudo share serving duties, with the chef describing every dish to every table for every course.
Some courses, such as a rich lasagna made with butternut-squash noodles and mushrooms, he simply describes before nodding in grateful acknowledgement to the diners and hurrying back behind the curtain. Other times, he’s more interactive, pouring a cranberry broth over a dessert of baked apples. It’s a level of care more typical of big-city restaurants, where intimate dining rooms and limited seatings are on-trend.
But this is downtown Rogers. To do a tasting menu alone is pushing boundaries, so ensuring that meals hover between $35 to $40 a person is smart. The segment of Heirloom’s diners already entrenched in the growing Bentonville dining scene—frequenting higher-ticket spots like The Hive or Tusk & Trotter—see Heirloom as a steal. And for those who think of $35 per person as a once-in-a-while treat, the quality warrants the splurge.
“Getting people in the door is an ongoing process,” Paul says. “The thing that makes me the happiest is seeing how many repeat customers we have already. On a slow weekend, there may be 10 people, but at least I know almost everyone in the room.”
When the weekend dinners first started in August, Paul had a built-in audience, thanks to Heirloom Food and Wine’s daytime clientele. On weekdays, chef and owner Jen Kiple runs her restaurant as a lunch-only cafe, serving a rotating menu of soups, salads and sandwiches that focus on fresh ingredients and are heavy on the vegetables, some of which come from the garden out back. Kiple’s dishes are delicate and creative. No turkey and Swiss here. Instead, she’ll pair creamed Brussels sprouts with mushrooms, bacon, mustard and red wine on toast, or white cheddar with apricot jam, apples and juniper mustard on sourdough.
The two chefs work separately, but a shared ethos is clear: Creativity reigns.
Combined into an overall picture, Heirloom Food and Wine is something to be seen—something wholly unique and on the brink of achieving well-deserved dining-destination status. Get a seat while you can—a performance this good is certain to sell out.