THE STAFF OF Bar Cleeta is tired. They’re assembled, almost in their entirety, around a backyard chessboard, where knee-high chess pieces are shuffled back and forth, a server and a sous chef doing their best to outwit each other. Around them, the rest of the staff sits watching, passing beer cans and a whiskey bottle among them. It’s 4 p.m. on a Saturday, and right now, they should be working—polishing glasses, rolling silverware, heating pans and simmering the first sauces of the night. But tonight, the restaurant is closed, and the staff is taking a much-deserved break.
What’s pulled them away from the restaurant is—what else?—a crawfish boil, one hosted in part by their bosses and owners of Bar Cleeta, Trae and Weisi Basore. The party is part reunion and part celebration. A chance for Trae, a Bentonville native, to have his high school friends together all in one place again, just for a day. It’s the kind of party at which there are no strangers, just friends you haven’t met yet, a mood that fits seamlessly into not only the restaurant lifestyle but also the one-to-two-degrees-of-separation world of Northwest Arkansas.
Bar Cleeta in Bentonville has been open for three weeks—three good weeks, Weisi and Trae agree, and it’s time for the staff to blow off some steam. Some 60 people are at the party, but as any group does, the employees of Bar Cleeta have sequestered themselves, congregating above the chessboard, swapping three-week-old stories as if they were legends, waffling between the shared trauma and joy of restaurant life. I’d seen the team members in their element over dinner the night before, the small kitchen that overlooks the dining room a flurry of arms and ingredients. But beneath the steady ostinato of the kitchen was a steady air of calming intimacy. The restaurant is a small space, only a handful of tables, but there’s an immediate familiarity to it, like it’s your best friend’s apartment, homey without being at home. The ceiling features thick ropes woven across it and hanging plants. From the outside, looking through the massive floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s like peering into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, at some lofted terrace hidden among the vines.
To hear Weisi tell it, Bar Cleeta was an accident. She and Trae had shuttered their Los Angeles restaurant and come back to Northwest Arkansas looking for a change of pace, the ability to focus on a single concept and to execute it at a level that Arkansas had never seen. That concept was Neff, a fine-dining restaurant they hoped would bring a touch of New York’s fine-dining scene, a world that they had both worked in, to Arkansas.
It was while waiting to open Neff and while hosting pop-up dinners in the months after they returned to Arkansas that they first found the space that would be Bar Cleeta. It was light and airy, defined by almost endless windows on two sides, allowing the room’s gold accents to sparkle like a cave of wonders.
“We just looked at each other and said, Someone should put in a wine bar there,” Weisi told me. Over time, as their restaurant plans hit the inevitable roadblocks of the restaurant world, they realized the someone who should be opening a wine bar was them. Neff, they decided, could wait, and Bar Cleeta was born. (Diners have no reason to worry, though; restaurant Neff is still in the works.)
Trae, a trained chef, would handle the food, focusing on small plates and cheese and charcuterie boards, while Weisi would lean on her background with wine and service to create the bar’s signature wine list. Together, they crafted what Weisi hoped would feel at once both contemporary and cosmopolitan, while still being organic to Arkansas. Though the bar’s atmosphere and food are tangentially Southern at best (the only clue, a small photo of Trae’s grandmother, hangs by the door), Weisi wanted her guests to feel like they were part of the Bar Cleeta extended family. “We want you to feel like you belong here,” she’d told me as she sat down at my table. I was finishing off dessert, a chocolate mousse with lemon and mint, a combination that seemed so wrong, I couldn’t not order it (it was, of course, delicious). “It doesn’t matter where you came from, why you’re here,” she said “You’re here, and we’re going to treat you like family while you’re with us.” That the dining room is centered around two large communal tables and that almost every plate on the menu is shareable is no accident. Bar Cleeta is a bar that’s designed to pull us out of our modern isolation, even if it’s just for the length of a meal.
THE MENU AT Bar Cleeta is small, so much so that even a small group of friends could order almost every one of the small plates. My server recommended at least two per person. The menu seems built on the eternal pursuit of freshness. Each plate is seemingly so fresh, so of the moment, that it is less a combination of ingredients and more a snapshot of time framed on a plate.
Frequently, raw ingredients are the star. Slices of big-eye tuna arrive with avocado and cream, each element arranged on the plate like a Joan Miro painting. Another dish is simply a handful of raw radishes nestled in a bowl of freshly house-made butter, each one crunching with a lightninglike snap of pepper and the immediate richness of cream as you eat them. An asparagus “tartare” was my personal favorite of the night, each stalk, chopped as it was into bite-sized portions, so fresh and ripe that you could almost taste the different shades of green. The menu’s most overtly Southern nod comes in the form of brisket made of six-day-aged Wagyu beef, a sleeker more haute couture counterpoint to its traditional Texas cousin.
But of course, Bar Cleeta is a bar—a wine bar, even—and though the menu is full of gems, its wine list might be where Bar Cleeta shines brightest. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my dear friend Maggie Walters is a server at Bar Cleeta.)
“There’s so much great wine in the world,” Weisi told me. “So why do so many people only drink the same few grapes?”
“Why don’t we have a by-the-glass chardonnay?” she then asked, smirking like she’d just done something inflammatory. “People will come in and just ask for a glass of whatever chardonnay we have, and that’s where we get to have that conversation of, Well, we do things a little differently here.” What does she recommend to those drinkers instead? A glass of schereube, an obscure German variety that mimics chardonnay’s natural minority and zest. Weisi sought to mirror the freshness of Bar Cleeta’s menu in its wine list, organizing a collection of wines that, as a whole, are light and balanced, eschewing heavier wines for those that support the lightness of Trae’s dishes.
BACK AT THE crawfish boil, the Bar Cleeta staff is in-between chess matches. They’re discussing radishes. They’ll soon go out of season and will need to be replaced with something new. I ask Jordan Ferris, Trae’s sous chef, about the idea of radishes on the menu in the first place. He tells me between sips of beer that Trae just found them at the local farmers market and thought they were good, a common theme for much of the produce at Bar Cleeta. I admit that I didn’t think I’d ever seen whole radishes served at a restaurant before, let alone eaten and enjoyed them so much, and he smiles. “We’re just trying to give people something that they don’t know they need yet.”
At that, a call rings out announcing that another pot of crawfish is ready to be eaten, and the Mars-colored crustaceans are dumped onto a waiting table. The staff disperses, some of them to get more beer, some to the pool and others to eat. For now, they’re going their separate ways, only to be back together tomorrow.