One of the Little Rock food scene’s biggest renovation projects of 2016 is well underway at The Root Café, the beloved locavore bistro on South Main St. For several years, Jack and Corri Sundell have developed almost a cult following at their tiny spot through a quirky atmosphere, ultra-friendly service and a fierce devotion to Arkansas protein and produce. Of course, the biggest thing that has hindered The Root’s growth is its diminutive size. The restaurant can barely squeeze in 20 people inside and must rely on favorable weather to seat an equal number outside. But after winning two national contests good for a total of $175,000, the Sundells are more than doubling The Root’s square footage in an expansion slated for completion this year.
The extra space in the dining room and kitchen is not yet open to the public (sorry, no pictures), but that isn’t stopping The Root from preparing for its new venture. The added space will allow the Sundells to offer dinner service in addition to its well-received breakfast and lunch menus. That dinner will be helmed by chef Jonathan Arrington, who was trained in Chicago and worked in Minneapolis before coming closer to home here in Little Rock. And The Root is already putting Arrington to the test with semi-monthly dinner events, one of which I had the privilege of attending as the Sundell’s guest.
For those of you who already love The Root, let me assure you that nothing I tried on the dinner menu will change your mind. Indeed, this five-course meal seemed like the most natural evolution possible. The menu, instead of simply listing a description of each dish, made sure to point out the source of each and every local component on the plate. The farmers’ market salad first course had six local producers credited and served notice that nothing would stop The Root’s celebration of local fruits and vegetables. And the second course also paid homage to vegetarians and their diets with a white gazpacho that resembled a chilled, creamy soup but with absolutely no dairy in it. The Root has long been one of Little Rock’s best choices for vegetarians, and there’s every reason to believe that trend will carry on into its new dinner.
Of course, The Root has always taken care to tend to its meat eaters. Our third course was the best of the night, with a Falling Sky Farm chicken thigh spiced with jerk seasoning and served with rice, figs, mushrooms and a chocolate habanero sauce. This was a superb plate that let chef Arrington show off a little of his range in handling local products. And the final savory course, a slow-cooked short rib from Simon Farms in Conway, was offset perfectly with a smoky potato salad that smacked from a hint of horseradish and vinegar. We finished the evening with a very capable peach pound cake and thyme ice cream. Honestly, I’m not a dessert guy, but this finale still left me pretty happy.
As part of its preparations for the renovated restaurant, The Root is holding two dinner events each month. The second Friday of each month is a ticketed event, with multiple courses planned out ahead of time. On the fourth Friday, The Root opens its doors for a dinner with table service, letting diners select their meals from an abbreviated menu. If you’re already a fan of The Root, these dinners are a no-brainer. This is what happens when a restaurant entrenched in its philosophy of local food gets a chance to spread its wings a little. There is still work to do, but it’s abundantly clear that The Root is pointed in the right direction for the big changes ahead.