Locals will tell you that there's always been a tavern in the heart of Wilson, AR. It's had many names and many proprietors, but the little dining spot right on the town square has been going on and off for more than 100 years. The Wilson Cafe operating in that building today carries the tradition on -- and yes, it's STILL called The Tavern.
And in what was once Wilson Tavern (and many other things), a restaurant now operates as the Wilson Cafe. What's beyond the doors of this cottage is a surprisingly updated menu with a locavore commitment, thanks to Chef Joe Cartwright. As always, locals pack the place out Tuesday through Saturday for lunch or brunch -- but now they're joined by others who come from Memphis, Jonesboro and even further away. And dinner?
Well, I'll have to get back there for dinner.
The main room is large, but there are also other rooms -- a private front room with a large table and chandelier and a lounge towards the back with its own entrance. I would later learn that while the cafe currently does not sell alcohol, this area is set up to do just that.
Along one wall, there was a full station of glassware. Another -- a wait station and a line of paintings by local artist Norwood Creech. Our waitress was already prepared with menus for us and brought to our table beverages -- including clear strong tea.
Chef Joe's specials for the day included a catfish po'boy, a smoked turkey and provolone sandwich, sweet potato pie and sweet potato soup -- the last of which one of my dining companions chose for a starter. The mug-bourne concoction arrived at the table first, hot and fragrant and reminiscent of Sunday after Christmas, a steamy concoction of pureed sweet potato nurtured with nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices. The slivers of sweet potato skin on top were just an indication of its contents -- but the scent told more of the story.
Our lunches arrived. One of my companions had chosen the catfish po'boy and it arrived accompanied by parmesan fries. The thick cornmeal-coated planks of catfish and chunky slices of tomato were pasted to their golden rolls gorgeously.
But honestly, I had far more interest in my meal, delivered all at once -- the Thursday special of pan seared Mississippi catfish, served alongside two sides -- my choices, roasted root vegetables and the Nice Little Salad. The fragrance of delicately balanced spicing on the warm plate emanated quickly across the table, tantalizing. I had to try this dish of fish before I tackled the cool salad to the side.
The roasted vegetables, rather than being the overused blend of squash and zucchini familiar to so many places, were a combination of roasted but still firm and slightly crusty sweet potatoes, carrots and squash (in this case, likely a butternut or acorn, I did not discern which), roasted together with red and green bell peppers and onions to a light char. They were marvelous.
The plate was complete with ramekins of a textured remoulade high on garlic and a peppery -- and I do mean black peppery -- finely cut coleslaw. There was also a white roll, sadly the only thing not exceptional here.
Over our lunches, we talked with John Faulkner with the Lawrence Group, which hopes to revitalize and refocus Wilson. I'm sure I'll have plenty to tell you about this in the future -- but of course, I'm just talking about the Wilson Cafe today. He did share with us the story of how Chef Joe Cartwright, formerly of The Elegant Farmer in Memphis, came to the place. Turns out, John would call about to different restaurants in Memphis looking for a suitable candidate willing to pull up roots and set up shop in a tiny burg... and Chef Mac Edwards answered the phone. He suggested asking Cartwright, a young man who's spent a good portion of his life in the Arkansas Delta, as an option. Cartwright agreed, moved to Wilson and on December 20th served up the first menu at his version of the Wilson Cafe.
It matched that real sweet cream dabbed over the chocolate chess pie... which, I must admit, is now amongst my favorite in the chess pie category. Its deep unabashedly dark flavor was solid and unyielding, the flavors of old fashioned cocoa and sugar and butter strong. Its flavor reminded me of the French practice of pairing fresh baguette with bitter chocolate... and, if I had not been in polite company and busy flapping my gums about preservation and restoration, I would have inhaled it.
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And for more on the Wilson redevelopment, check out this New York Times article by Kim Severson.