First Look: The Preacher’s Son was Worth the Wait in Bentonville

After years of anticipation, the oldest church in Bentonville blossoms like a winter-white poinsettia gifted right before Christmas.  It opens anew as The Preacher’s Son.

We last covered this revitalization and restaurant project back in 2015.  The plan then was to call this century-old, Gothic revival-style gem “The Belfry,” and open for business later that year.  But in line with the first rule of remodeling: take the estimated completion date and add a year or more to calculate the actual date; basically, they have completed the project right on time.

I met with executive chef, Arkansas native, and actual preacher’s son, Matt Cooper, on one of his last calm Saturdays before welcoming in the public.  He showed me around the building and cooked through many menu items in anticipation of his trial runs and soft openings happening now.

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First we entered the main floor, and before I could stop the dramatic gasp from escaping my lips, it tumbled right out.  I can’t tell you a single source for my surprise, rather, the overall ethereal quality of the space was unexpected, and simply took my breath away.

Afternoon light beaming in through the art glass window installations by George Dombeck bathed everything in a glow.

Entering you feel lighter, perhaps even a bit enlightened.

As my eyes soaked up every possible shade of honey, the green of fresh-picked olives, and tones of virgin wood; even the upholstery shimmered, and the apse housing the bar glistened gold.

He showed me the small but functional kitchen where his cooks were prepping like they’d already planted their feet in station ready for service.

And he showed me an installation of bells counting in the hundreds created by one of the architects.  They hang low and plentiful, in the original bell tower, that ironically never housed even one bell before now.

The octagonal form of the dining room draws your eye up to the cupola with original king post preserved and reinforced by modern means above.  And truly, the only thing that brought my attention back to the task at hand were the beautiful plates now coming out of the kitchen.

We start with the Burrata & Beet Salad and Elderberry Cured Salmon.  Both dishes struck me visually first – edible stained glass.

Rich in tone, but light in flavor the beets are served in a tangled nest of raw matchsticks dressed in toasted sesame and yuzu vinegar.  The fresh crunch and subtle notes of citrus, nut and pine compliment the generous salty clouds you tear away from the globe of pepper-stained burrata above.

Layered over top a salad of paper thin fennel, citrus, arugula, and a touch of dill pollen, the cured salmon shines, silky and just slightly translucent.  Tasting the unique tannic tease of elderberry, I instantly remembered the chef previewed this to enthusiastic reception two years ago at The Friends of James Beard Dinner at Crystal Bridges.  He tells me, “I’ve missed feeding people!  It means everything to me to connect with my community through cooking.  So it’s been a long couple of years waiting for this day.  But we’re here now!  Could it be more beautiful?”

We both scan the room, and the short answer is:  no.  It couldn’t.

Next came the Heirloom Carrot Gnocchi with brown butter, whipped fromage blanc, and carrot reduction.  As I moved through the vegetarian but incredibly satisfying dish, I loved the small touches of honeycomb and crunchy mushroom salt most of all.

We feast as the chef tells me about his family.  His father, grandfather and great grandfather were all ministers.  In fact, his father delivered his first sermon just across the street from the restaurant.  Needless to say, him fitting in to this position & joining up with the Ropeswing Group for this venture was a no-brainer.

Though he’s also lived in other states, Chef Cooper has called nearly every part of Arkansas home at one time or another.  Wherever he’s gone, he tells me, his favorite thing is developing relationships with local purveyors and getting his hands dirty.  He loves taking part in plantings, harvests, and anything a local farmer, gardener or artisan might need to benefit them both in business and in life.  And he says, it will all come full circle in the restaurant.

The Shaved Brussels arrive to the table dressed in lemon & pecorino, bordered by Gorgonzola dolce buttermilk mousse, and littered with jewels of pomegranate.  It’s as rich as a salad could be, and a perfect accompanying dish to the giant crunchy Schnitzel on the menu.

I forgot to ask if the choice of fish was intentionally playful in the dish featuring pan-roasted Sole.  Regardless, it’s delicious.  Folded around citrusy gremolata which escapes and toasts to a slightly crisp chew in brown butter, the delicate fish is served atop winter squash and roasted cauliflower puree with wild mushrooms.

The Ancient Grain Salad might be one of the more adventurous offerings.  Quinoa, millet and sorghum mound in a wreath on the plate littered with fresh hearts of palm and castelvetrano olives.  Roasted grape vinaigrette keeps to the middle instead of the often requested “on the side” and offers a beautiful pop of plum on the plate.  Ricotta salata tops it all.

And the grand finale, of course, was the big braised fall-off-the-bone Pork Shank with celeriac-laced mashed potatoes, braising jus, and pickled fennel.

After that, I needed a cuddle and a corner to curl up in for a little snooze, but the only thing close to that offered to me was a tour of the basement bar – the second space in the building.

Venturing down to the cellar from the lightness above in The Preacher’s Son is an experience in and of itself.  Though rooted and heavy, the feeling inside The Undercroft is still that of comfort, just the opposite form.  The darkness blankets you at first, until you adjust to the cooler air and faint light from flickering candles.  The design is essentially a deep underground Ozark cavern… normally only explored by dedicated spelunking enthusiasts… filled with glimmering minerals and crystals… refined.  The bar top wrapped in metal chills your palms when you rest your drink on it, so it’s good that many of the cocktails on offer below will be deep and warm and rich.

As the entrance is a prohibition-inspired door that says “Coat Closet” on it, The Undercroft is Bentonville’s new speakeasy.  I’m told, admittedly, “It will be the worst kept secret with the best cocktails!”

So keep your ear to the ground for the official opening date because it’s coming up soon.  I predict reservations will go faster than the Tickle-Me-Elmos did around this time in ’96.

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First Look: The Preacher’s Son was Worth the Wait in Bentonville