IT’S A HOT and steamy Saturday night in August, and I’m doing something I haven’t done in a long while: getting all gussied up to go out to dinner. No shade to Northwest Arkansas, but the fact is, there just aren’t many restaurants that warrant the kind of glow up I’m currently in the middle of. Now don’t get me wrong: We’ve got no shortage of outstanding dining establishments around these parts. But when it comes to those talk-of-the-town spots, the ones that compel you to hustle for reservations months in advance or drop everything if your number comes up on the waitlist … well, those can be tougher to come by.

Until now.

Enter Heirloom at The 1907, the establishment I’m oh-so-carefully contouring and highlighting my mug for this evening. Since the restaurant opened in downtown Rogers (or re-opened rather; more on that in a moment) back in May of this year, I’ve been trying to nab a reservation—no easy task, given the eatery’s already established stellar reputation and hyperlimited capacity, (they seat just 20 diners two to three nights a week).

 

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: When the restaurant began accepting reservations on its online reservation site at 11 a.m. April 15, by 11:05 a.m., Heirloom was booked solid for the entire months of May and June. Ultimately, I got a spot on the “if someone cancels” list, and as luck would have it, my number came up a few weeks ago.

At long last, I wrap up my epic glam session. As I tug on my fanciest cocktail dress—a navy-blue and red empire-waist number, I feel something akin to first-date butterflies in my gut. Clearly my jitteryness is due to sky-high expectations. Will the evening live up to the hype? To my outfit? To the 30 minutes I spent applying false eyelashes? 


Earlier this year, The 1907 opened in downtown Rogers. Spearheaded by Fayetteville architect Bradley Edwards, the renovation transformed the former warehouse into a sleek  30,000-square-foot open-market space, all light wood and white marble, simultaneously minimalist and dramatic. And it’s here, mixed in with the Onyx Coffee Lab HQ, a bakery, a bar, loft apartments and a soon-to-open taqueria that’ll be run by Bentonville mainstay Yeyo’s Mexican Grill, that you find Heirloom.

More specifically, you find Heirloom behind a “secret” doorway on the second floor.

Danielle Ribaudo and Jason Paul

At once connected to and separate from The 1907, Heirloom’s 837-square-foot-space has a warm, glowy sexy-chic vibe to it. Light wood flooring and wall paneling softens the bare white walls. Wallpaper with large leafy roses covers the secret entrance. The kitchen, which is completely open, its jars of spices and seasonings neatly stacked on shelves in full view, is at the front of the restaurant, and because of the intimate size of the space, every diner has a fantastic view of everything that goes on in there.

But even as I take all of this in, what I’m really curious about is how Heirloom at The 1907 stacks up to the old Heirloom. Here’s where I need to mention that Heirloom, while it’s new at The 1907, is not new to downtown Rogers.

A brief history lesson: The restaurant’s first iteration was as Heirloom After Dark, which opened as a pop-up dinner place in 2015 on Second Street. A nighttime counterpart to the space’s daytime cafe, which was run by another chef, Jason Paul’s pop-up dinners were prix fixe and three courses. It was a pretty revolutionary approach for Northwest Arkansas at the time—and a risk, to say the least. But if anyone was going to make it work, it was Jason.

Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, he became interested in cooking when he was just 14 years old and nabbed an internship under chef Alex Stratta of the James Beard Award-winning fine-dining restaurant Mary Elaine’s. At 16, Jason was hired to work at the restaurant full time. In his early 20s, he relocated to Las Vegas, where he worked at another of Stratta’s restaurants, Renoir. From there, among other places, Jason pulled stints in Los Angeles, where he worked as chef de cuisine for chef Matthew Kenney at M.A.K.E., and in Maine, where Jason was the head chef at The Gothic. He relocated to Northwest Arkansas with his partner (both in life and in the restaurant), Danielle Ribaudo, in 2014 to be closer to his dad, who lives in Bella Vista.

Mediterranean, traditional French, high-end plant-based and fully raw vegan food are among the different types of cuisines that Jason has explored during his culinary journey. And his background, experience and culinary prowess all contribute to his unique approach to cooking, an approach that relies heavily on ingredients for inspiration and prioritizes both flavor and presentation. In other words, a dish of food prepared by Jason is going to taste good and look good.

Not too long after the launch of  Heirloom After Dark, the lunch cafe closed, allowing Jason and Danielle to take over the space completely. With that, the next version, affectionately dubbed Heirloom 2.0, was born. Between Jason’s innovative tasting menus—think roasted delicata squash with white bean puree, spiced tahini, pancetta and confit tomato, followed by lamb leg with smoked ricotta gnudi, rainbow chard, harissa bread crumbs and lamb broth—and Danielle’s gracious front-of-the-house service, Northwest Arkansas was hooked. It wasn’t long before the eatery was the hottest ticket in town.

Again, lest you think I’m exaggerating, in fall 2016, when the building’s owners decided to use the space for their own business ventures, forcing Heirloom 2.0 to close its doors, the restaurant was booked out for up to a year.


So how does the relocated, reopened Heirloom compare to the past Heirlooms? I’m about to find out.

The Smiths are playing when Danielle sets down our first course—slices of soft housemade oat bread, oh-so-fluffy and slightly sweet. We slather it with housemade butter and inhale it.

Still basking in the glow of Danielle’s warm smile and friendly greeting, I take a sip of my delightful mocktail—a blackberry, lemon, mint spritzer. Looking around the room, I’m delighted to see that my fellow diners are equally well turned out. I watch Jason (who’s so close I can see the whites of his eyes) deftly plate food. I’m struck by the similarities to the old place: the meticulously curated 4.5-hour playlist and the tightly run operation (there are three other employees, but at this point, the restaurant doesn’t go live unless both Danielle and Jason are there).

It all feels so incredibly familiar, I think. So … Heirloomy.

But with each successive course—seven courses instead of the three served at 2.0—the restaurant’s evolution becomes more and more apparent.

The second course is a plate of “snacks”: a riff on chips and dip and cheese and crackers. The “chips and dip” are a revelation. A perfectly crisped “potato chip” serves as a vehicle for delicate dollops of smoked creme fraiche, candied shallots and fresh dill. For its part, the “cheese and crackers”—glistening summer tomatoes atop whipped housemade chevre cheese, all nestled in baby tartlet shells—are equally delightful.

Turns out, the baby tartlets were a warm-up for the next course: a plate of juicy, sparkly Arkansas tomatoes and peaches served atop buttermilk dressing and more dollops of that heavenly chevre cheese. As cliché as this is going to sound, it tastes like summertime on a plate. There’s just no other way to describe it.

Before I eat this next one, I pause to appreciate how beautiful this dish of food is. It’s chilled Alaskan halibut, local fingerling potato salad, celery aguachile with raw summer veggies (radishes and summer squash) and dried olive flakes. It’s the perfect example of Jason’s passion for creating art on the plate. After a quick photo sesh, I devour it. The buttery fish melts in my mouth, and the potato salad is the perfect tangy foil.

Next is a whimsical blast from Heirloom’s past and one of Jason’s signature dishes: charcoal tempura veggies served with smoked paprika mayo. Tonight, it’s carrots that have been transformed into this clever take on fried tempura. I had been secretly hoping this one would make a comeback! It’s every bit as tasty as I remembered.

For its part, the final savory dish drives home once and for all that while some things are the same, this new Heirloom is on a whole ’nother level. It’s a risotto made from sunflower seeds (you read that right, sunflower seeds!) and topped with scallops and oyster king mushrooms. Jason stops by and divulges a few of the dish’s secrets. Tomato puree and peppers are what give this risotto its bright kick, he tells me, and the reason he took the time to cut those delicate cross hatches into the tops of the scallops is to allow the butter to really sink in. “Plus, it makes ’em pretty,” he adds.

Throughout the meal, Danielle stops by to give my dinner date guidance and advice on wine selections for different courses. Knowing how carefully she curates the restaurant’s wine offerings, I tell him he’d do well to take her advice. The pairings she recommends are spot-on, he reports. His favorite pairing of the night was the Willamette Valley pinot noir that Danielle recommended to accompany the risotto, he tells me.

The meal ends with a silky panna cotta topped with glistening blackberry syrup, peach ice and dehydrated meringue pieces. Again, the dish is beautiful to behold. It’s so elegant and lovely that I simply can’t bring myself to take Danielle’s advice to mix up all the layers. Between the silkiness of the panna cotta, the brightness of the peach ice and the airy crispness of the meringue, it tastes every bit as good as it looks.

The evening has come to a close. My verdict? This was a meal that absolutely lived up to my expectations and was totally worth the wait. And it’s one that was absolutely worth getting all glammed up for. I’m already looking forward to our next reservation. I’m thinking sequins for round two!