“RESTAURANTS are a lot like church,” he said, blue eyes looking out the front windows onto Main Street. I’d been talking with chef Ira Mittelman, sitting in the leather armchairs near the bar of his newly opened restaurant, Ira’s. We’d been chatting for almost 20 minutes when he said it, that restaurants are like churches.
He must have seen the confusion on my face. “They are, you know.” The door opened and a large party walked in for lunch. Ira nodded his head in their direction. “People go to church to get spiritually refreshed, to feel better. Well, why do people go to restaurants? That’s what we do here. Maybe you’ve had a long week, or maybe you haven’t seen your spouse in a long time, but you come here, you sit down to eat together and you put yourself in our hands. We nourish you, we replenish you. That’s our job.”
It’s not a connection I’d made before, but yes, in a way he’s right. In the days since our conversation, my mind has kept going back to a single word that he used: replenish. “We replenish you,” as he’d said it. On the surface, it’s an obvious word choice. As humans we need food to live, to replenish our energy reserves. But no, that’s not what Ira was talking about. He was talking about rejuvenation on a grander scale.
Talking to Ira, you get the sense that for him, everything is happening for a reason, with his entire life a chain reaction, one event leading to the next and culminating here, with the opening of Ira’s. It was a visit to a friend’s house as a child that turned him on to food, an Italian family dinner with “dishes stacked up to there,” and a variety of foods he’d never known existed. From there, food has been a constant in his life. He’s worked in restaurants ranging from high-end Napa Valley staples and beachside Caribbean cuisine to running restaurants in Mountain View and Heber Springs.
His most recent venture, Ira’s Park Hill Grill, was a North Little Rock-based prelude to the restaurant that would eventually open in downtown Little Rock. Opened in 2015, the first version lasted almost two years, and in that time it garnered positive reviews and earned Ira a small but loyal foodie following in the capital city. In early 2017, it was announced that the North Little Rock establishment would close and a new version of the restaurant, now just called Ira’s, would open in the Rose building, one of Main Street’s most historic structures. It would be almost 18 months before the first guests sat down for dinner, but when they finally did, they were treated to a dining experience unlike any other downtown has to offer.
I had visited Ira’s the restaurant for dinner a full week before I sat down to talk with Ira the chef. I had never visited the Park Hill restaurant before and had tried to avoid any reviews of the new location, hoping, instead, to savor the surprise of a truly brand-new restaurant, a rare occurrence in Little Rock. Walking in, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d stepped out onto a stage. Spotlights above the tables highlight not the diner, but the open table between them, turning each tabletop into a mini theatre-in-the-round.
That Friday, the restaurant had been full when we’d arrived, my party seated snug at our table, halfway down the shotgun-style dining room. At one end, floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto ever busy Main Street and at the other, a slightly larger than life-size painting of Ira himself, knife in hand, looms over the room. Given his remarks about church, it has an air of iconography, at least to me—a statue, a stained glass window.
The menu is modern, and as Ira would later put it, “always pushing people’s boundaries.” On my visit, we started with a round of appetizers. Slices of ripe and bulging tomatoes piled with onion and pesto, smoky buffalo cauliflower, each showing off the bounty of local farmers. It was a parade of delicacies as, dish by dish, our table was beset with novel flavors and presentations. And then we got the cheesecake. It might be Ira’s most famous dish, one that’s followed from restaurant to restaurant: a poblano chile cheesecake. A dish as idiosyncratic as anything else in town, it waffles between sweet and spicy and savory with every spoonful, careful to never be too much of any one thing.
The entrees were next. Salmon en papillote, my favorite, delivered to the table wrapped in its signature parchment, like a present for the unwrapping. A pork chop with mango-habanero sauce, again playing to the spicy and the sweet. A tenderloin, linguine with clams. New flavors, new ways to push the envelope, new ways to make dining in Little Rock fun again. It’s what Ira had meant when he’d said “replenish.”
We hadn’t meant to overstay our welcome, finding ourselves at the bottom of empty wine bottles, the last table in the restaurant. We’d been so absorbed in our own conversations and catchings up that we’d failed to notice the dining room emptying around us. In retrospect, it makes sense. Ira made his restaurant a place to focus inward and ignore, if just for a few hours, outside stressors, and we’d done just that. We were so deep into our own little communion that we’d forgotten the world going on around us, even the gathering of servers that crowded the bar for a post-shift drink.
Leaving Ira’s late that night, full and happy, sated not only from hunger but from the strife that so easily falls away during a meal with loved ones, it’s then that what Ira meant became clear. He wants his restaurant to be like a church, a place of nourishment in whatever form it’s needed. It’s not so different from the way I’d felt leaving those Sunday suppers hosted at the little white church of my childhood, seemingly endless tables of food, each dish lovingly prepared by a member of the community. As I’ve grown older, I’ve most often found that same sense of being nourished and recharged at the dinner table, be it my own or someone else’s. When you walk into Ira’s you’re giving your troubles over to him, at least for a few hours. To Ira, whether it’s the belly or the soul, everyone is just looking to be fed.