The term “farm-to-table” has been well worn out by now, used by just about every restaurant that buys any fruit or vegetable from a local producer. For a while, it was the hot trend in the industry, so naturally way too many restaurants used it, and the description virtually lost all meaning after a while. While a few restaurants (here in Little Rock I’m thinking places like South on Main and The Root) have really earned the moniker “farm-to-table,” most places got their use out of it and discarded it without ever changing their menu up all that much.
At Wunderhaus Restaurant in Conway, farm-to-table is back like it’s 2007 again. Every server and hostess who greeted us made sure we knew that the restaurant is definitely farm-to-table, so much so that I was wondering whether I was being pranked after a while. But after a few plates arrived, it was clear that Wunderhaus meant every word of it. This is a restaurant that stridently earns the use of the phrase and wears it like a medal of honor on its chest.
Wunderhaus started as The Wunderbus food truck by brother-and-sister team Jacqueline Smith and August Forester. The pair soon took their German-inspired fare to Conway for a permanent location on Locust Street in what was already becoming a revived downtown area. The yearling restaurant stands in direct opposition to the cliché of a small-city Arkansas restaurant; there’s no cheese dip or catfish or pizza or burgers to be found on the dinner menu. On paper, Wunderhaus shouldn’t be succeeding in a county that still doesn’t allow alcohol sales for take-home consumption.
But it is succeeding, and there is little doubt why. Wunderhaus Restaurant is as authentic as it comes. The dining room is a physical manifestation of Smith’s whimsical-yet-practical perspective, with gorgeously rendered dark wood accented by heaps of natural light and Bohemian styling. And about that farm-to-table business. Where the term has generally prompted my eyes to roll, Wunderhaus showed just how beautiful it can be when a restaurant really, truly takes local sourcing seriously. The Queen Bee, a rather simple salad, dances on the palate with expertly roasted Arkansas black apples and a delightful blueberry-honey vinaigrette. Maria Theresa, a lovely Austrian crepe dish, uses a locally grown spinach pesto and farm-raised chicken to stay light and flavorful against what could have been a too-heavy brown butter béchamel. Even the playfully named Hummus Where the Heart Is impressed with its balanced citrus flavors.
I simply can’t say enough good things about the Fig Leaf-Wrapped Salmon special, which goes down as the best salmon I’ve eaten that wasn’t on the Pacific Ocean. And yet the first-of-the-season zephyr squash on the side, in its simplicity and humility, may have been even better. There was nothing special about the preparation; just a little salt and pepper and olive oil. But again, that passion for fresh, local produce is what elevated a basic element into something truly spectacular. My wife’s vegan meal, made just for her by a very accommodating kitchen staff, featured a local sweet potato with cherry tomatoes, squash and a purple asparagus that could have stood alone as its own plate.
The German word “wunder” is naturally where our word “wonder” comes from, but that’s not the true meaning of the word. “Wunder” as a verb is “marvel.” As a noun, it can mean “miracle.” While I’m not ready to confer sainthood status on a restaurant yet, I am certainly ready to marvel. Wunderhaus Restaurant has served up my favorite meal so far this year, and one of the best I’ve ever eaten in Arkansas. Yes, you have to drive to Conway to get there, but that’s insignificant when you’re staring in amazement at a meal made with this level of care and love. For me, this is a restaurant that has reignited the joy and wonder of food. That is just about the highest compliment I can give.