IT’S A SATURDAY in mid-January, the sky is gray, the temp is 30 degrees below what I deem acceptable, and I’m in desperate need of a pick-me-up—something to pull me out of the downward spiral of post-holidays/ pre-spring doldrums. So I press pause on researching cheap flights to Mexico, re-hide my January survival stash of chocolate truffles, layer up within an inch of my life and set off with my sig other to a place that I have a feeling might just do the trick: Leverett Lounge in Fayetteville.
Why Leverett Lounge? Since the restaurant opened back in November, folks (my foodie friends, in particular) have been bending my ear nonstop, telling me how “unique” it is, how I’ve just got to try it. One chef I ran into recently became so animated while describing a pork roulette topped with an “outstanding” shakshuka sauce that I lost all enthusiasm for the pizza I’d just picked up for dinner.
The chef at Leverett who’s got all the other local chefs drooling is Ben Gitchel. He and Hannah Withers, his partner in the business (and in life, the pair are married), are no strangers to the Northwest Arkansas food scene: They’re the folks behind both the second iteration of the historic and well-loved Maxine’s Tap Room and the initial launch of the Little Bread Co. (now under new management), both veritable Fayetteville institutions.
I’ve had Leverett Lounge on the brain since I dipped in to do a bit of recon the week before. During that visit, I learned that for the couple, the opening of Leverett Lounge required a bit of evolution. Back in the spring of 2017, they’d opened the restaurant side of Sit & Spin, a hip, eco-friendly laundromat-slash-burger joint. But ultimately, they realized what the neighborhood, a mostly residential area inhabited by a large number of young professionals, really needed was a walkable nighttime restaurant—something that, unless you live in a downtown area, is sorely lacking throughout most of Northwest Arkansas. So while the laundromat side of the endeavor kept spinning along, the pair decided to revamp the restaurant to better meet the needs of the area.
“We get a lot of diners who are walking from their homes in the neighborhood to have dinner and a glass of wine or meet up with friends,” Hannah told me as we cozied up to the tiny bar overlooking the kitchen. “We weren’t seeing that with Sit & Spin.” Not to mention, she explained, that rejiggering the concept has allowed Ben to do … well, to do Ben. Ben’s a classically trained chef who worked for a time as a saucier. And a cursory look at the menu Hannah showed me makes it clear that this guy is serious his sauces. There’s a bordelaise sauce, a remoulade, a romesco sauce, a plum sauce, an orange-marmalade sauce (!!!) and a Cuban sofrito.
The menu is also an outlet for the inspiration both Ben and Hannah regularly collect during their culinary travels, they told me. Taking off to delicious destinations is a priority for the pair—just two days before my visit, they’d returned from San Francisco. There, Ben fell hard for ezme, a spicy tomato-based Turkish dish, which he’s thinking of somehow incorporating onto the restaurant’s upcoming new menu, set to launch later in the month.
“Some of the stuff that we do is just classic French cooking, like the cordon bleu,” he told me later. “I’m not going to change it or do anything fancy to it because it’s good enough as is. But other dishes, I’m having fun playing with, especially bringing in sauces that people aren’t familiar with.” And, he said, he’s not about to be hemmed in by geography—the current menu is dotted with inspiration from Asia, Italy, Spain and North Africa.
And that’s just the kind of inspiration I’m in need of today.
The dining room is packed. Nonetheless, my husband and I grab a just-vacated high-top with a great view of the small open kitchen. After liberating myself from my cocoon of outerwear, I settle into the table and begin to thaw, thanks in no small part to the Latin music that fills the air and the bustle and clink of the dining room. “Funky chic” is the best way to describe the space. Festive runners lie over white table clothes. A quirky assortment of what could only be called “stuff”—old-timey portraits, an eclectic plate collection and the grinning and mounted head of a boar (Boris)—adorn the ash-blue walls. This small intimate space (there are eight tables total, along with a patio that’ll be back in business come spring) screams neighborhood restaurant.
When it comes time to order, we decide to begin with two small plates: the “Mel’s Diner,” wedges of fried garlic cheese grits with remoulade, and the patatas bravas, fried new potatoes topped with scallion aioli and red-pepper tomato sauce. At the last minute, I opt for an order of beer-battered shrimp, intrigued by that orange-marmalade sauce (!!!) that’s served on the side for dipping.
The fried grits are everything you’d expect them to be: crisp on the outside and warm, cheesy and creamy on the inside. And the remoulade sauce—a sauce that can easily be too mayonnaise-forward and lacking in nuance—is spot on. Red and green and golden, the patatas bravas are a cheerful highlight of the meal and elicit an “Oh!” when they’re set in front of us. As for the shrimp, they’re plump and perfectly fried (here is where you don’t judge me for ordering three fried appetizers) and the perfect vehicles for the marmalade, which basically tastes like sunshine in a ramekin.
Next up is entree time. I’ve ordered the seared cod and my date has opted for the cordon bleu. The delicately pan-seared fish is buttery and flaky and topped with house-made croutons and fresh dill, which bring texture and lightness to the dish. I inhale it. Then I get to the leeks. And, oh reader: Do not leave Leverett Lounge without eating these leeks! They actually also come as a small plate, which we chastise ourselves for not ordering. But who knew that charring leeks and then covering them with bacon and a dollop of Romesco sauce would transform what is basically a lowly onion into such a delectable morsel of goodness? As for the cordon bleu, it’s perfectly executed, with a bordelaise sauce that manages to be both delicate and robust. And again, accompanying this dish is a side that threatens to steal the show: wilted spinach with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins and Zirbenz pine liqueur. It tastes like hope. Clearly, this is a chef who knows how to treat a veggie.
Lastly, dessert: zabaglione, or raspberries, blackberries and blueberries bathed in a Marsala wine custard. This sign-off to the meal is just what I want it to be: bright and refreshing with a hint of decadence, thanks to the custard.
After we’ve settled the bill, we linger a bit, loath to leave the warmth and cheerfulness of our corner table. As I look around, I realize the place is still brimming with diners, most, like us, finished with dinner but content to hang out and bask in the warm glow of what Hannah and Ben have created here. Once we finally bring ourselves to leave, I brace myself as we step outside for the chill I know is coming, but when it does come, it’s not so bad. It feels kind of invigorating.