Let me preface this whole thing by saying I grew up in Saline County. I don’t own it much, but it is there. I have tried hard on my personal time to help Saline County make progress in the local food scene. It is sadly always one step forward and two steps back with anything that ever happens good in Saline County.
Let’s take recently opened Agave Grill in Benton for example.
They make some great moves, hire in a strong up and coming chef to come in, develop the menu, hire workers, and run the kitchen. It was a good move, like any up and coming chef products could be cross utilized better and labor costs take some time to get under control. But a chef driven restaurant in Benton, a town where everyone else lowballs a restaurant going low end and freezer to fryer everything, is exactly what is needed to make a splash in an under developed food scene.
The problem is as soon as Agave got the opening out of the way and had the menu set they let the executive go while still calling it a chef driven restaurant. So we gave it a few weeks and went back. The results are what you would expect from a chef driven restaurant with no chef.
Walking in the food had already taking a sharp nose dive from opening, barely resembling what we first saw. The food was highly under-seasoned, vastly wrong ingredients were used in some dishes, other dishes just completely omitted key ingredients, and everything was very clearly held over and reheated from the day before. It is simple things like a beef roast taco coming out with ground beef, tamales that neither looked nor tasted like tamales, rice that was so overcooked and mushy you could throw it in a jar and call it baby food, and congealed cheese dip due to not using enough cream. The photo at the top of the page is what the rice, taco, and beans should look like. The final result is just a hot mess.
We are not even going to talk about the bar situation at Agave, which was one of the more laughable experiences in recent memory.
It is easy to beat up on Agave, and believe me they need a little beating up on, but this has been the case across Saline Co. The owner of Agave himself made the comment “You just don’t understand Saline County, no one really wants to pay for nice dishes,” which is completely not the truth. Why do so many Saline County folks come to Little Rock instead of eating in their own towns if that is the case?
Saline County wants good food. Right now it is restaurant owners realizing they can take advantage of an underdeveloped food scene and make a quick buck out of calling food premium, when in reality they are cutting corners worse than ever to increase margins.
That is not to say some people are not trying, Bistro in Bryant seems to be doing a good job cooking quality food while they fly under the radar, same with Sullivan’s Diner in Benton. Unfortunately the spaces that generate enough attention to pull people from the chains are also the same that fall far short bringing the whole food community down and scaring off would be restaurateurs.
The only way to push the Saline County food scene forward is to stop places like Agave from happening and continuously holding restaurants to higher standards and showing a desire for better food. Otherwise people are going to continue to use Saline County for a quick buck with splashy catch phrases like “chef driven restaurant” only to slip the rug out from everyone when no one is looking in the name of higher margins.
I care about the Saline County food scene, I really do. I think Bryant for example is a great place for an up and coming chef to go make a name, if only from a purely statistical reason. Until someone can come in and do Saline County right though and set a trend for paying for better food that tries a bit harder, Saline County is going to continue to not have nice things.