Opening an eatery is always a risky business. Doing so during the age of COVID-19 doubly so. But JTJ Restaurants pushed ahead, utilizing the unexpected extra time of early pandemic shutdowns to curate a more complete and ready facility, carved into a new niche - restaurants where social distancing is part of the plan.
I recently spoke with Jim Keet about the new eatery a few blocks off Maumelle Boulevard, on the challenges and merits brought with opening now.
"We can seat up to 280 people in the restaurant, inside and outside. (With the pandemic) we've been able to abide by all of the social distancing guidelines and still have a very beautiful restaurant that doesn't look empty. Brent Lenners, our operating partner and general manager at Petit and Keet, did such an outstanding job there. We have him as our operating partner at Cypress Social. His wife, Tyler Lenners, (is) our general manage, and we moved our chef, Steve Binotti, to the new location."
Rob Armstrong is the bar manager for Cypress Social, while sommalier Susie Long will curate the extensive wine list.
Over the years, both Maumelle and North Little Rock expanded, and the once quiet Maumelle Boulevard became a bustling main thoroughfare. Til now, the woods around the old restaurant have been a buffer from the noise and action. Keet says his company plans to keep it this way.
"We bought the property adjacent to us so that we would be able to light the trees and the forest across the lake at night, so when you come down to this road, we're the only business from where the city street ends and where this drive begins. So it retains its iconic nature as a destination restaurant. We were very careful to preserve that."
While Cypress Social preserves the location of its predecessor, this facility is all new.
"Originally, we intended to get our construction company out here and redo a portion of the building, and turn the rest of it int an event center, but with that extra half year, we specifically decided to do something that would not only be great for North Little Rock but for all of Central Arkansas. We have deconstructed the building from the roof to the ground. Literally every stick of wood, every floor joists, ceiling joists, windows, all the HVAC, electrical, plumbing, the equipment in the kitchen, the entire restaurant is brand spanking new and it has turned out beautifully."
Keet say the building maintains some attributes of the past, as does its surroundings. The pond remains, but now there's a beautiful fountain in the middle.
The large porch gives quite a lot of space for outdoor entertaining, while inside a collection of rooms allows for private parties to congregate, each with windows overlooking the water feature. With 8000 square feet to work with, it shouldn't be hard to enjoy a socially distanced destination dining experience here.
Chef Steve Binotti's menu focuses on dishes particular to Mississippi and Louisiana, with notes common to Southern fare but reinterpreted to be gorgeous. The concept behind each and every item on the menu focuses on the four ideas, which Keet enumerates as "unique, beautiful, delicious and replicable." As such, the menu went through several test runs with staff, eventually being honed down to a straightforward, specifically varied menu that offers a sous vide filet alongside shrimp and grits, a Duroc pork chop paralleled with a smoked half chicken, a seafood-heavy Redfish Pontchartrain and even a meatless dish of creamy collard greens, cheesy corn fritters and yellow squash relish - a dish that calls thought to Arkansas's own summer plate.
A common thread found in many dishes at Cypress Social is peppedew cheese. It's a concoction similar to pimento cheese but with tangy, bright South African peppedew peppers - a combination that has become popular this past decade across the South.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I did not personally visit the restaurant. I am recovering from surgery and am not up to leaving the house at this point. My partner and longtime photographer, Grav Weldon, made two visits t the restaurant for photography, and a pickup order was made at a later time. I interviewed Jim Keet over the phone for this storu.
Mr. Weldon and I did try several dishes from the restaurant. And here are my thoughts.
Our early favorite on the menu was Delta Style Hot Tamales, six properly wrapped and tied beef-filled masa tamales served with chili sauce. From the presentation to the flavor, these are spot-on Arkansas tamales, and Grav's favorite of the menu. They're served with saltine crackers - as they should be. My suggestion is to unwrap each three tamale bundle and cover with the chili sauce before eating with a fork - the tamales do tend to fall apart on pickup but are perfect for a fork.
I adored the Peppedew Cheese and Everything Crackers. Peppedew peppers have in the past decade spread into the provenance of the pimento, particularly for the piquant, rather tangy finish. Here, they're amply considered, and do well on these sturdy, crisp crackers.
While the sous vide filet was appealing, and the Duroc Pork Chop caught Grav's eye, we ended up selecting a couple of fish dishes from the entrees. The classic catfish fillets, Mississippi-grown and covered by a thick, crusty batter, were substantially thick and flaky. These almost oversized fillets are bigger than those I am used to reeling in. The two fillets are more than ample for a dinner, and they're matched with a substantial portion of red leaf cabbage coleslaw, just sweet enough for counterpoint. Offering the coleslaw in its own ramekin alleviates the common problem of soggy catfish, and was well thought-out. The hush puppies were surprisingly herby, almost green inside, and not so sweet. The dish is served Mississippi-style with tartar sauce instead of Arkansas-style green tomato relish, but the tartar sauce works with the catfish batter. Keet says the batter is a 40-year secret.
I was very interested in the Redfish Potchartrain, and this dish left me very intrigued. Variations I have enjoyed in New Orleans have utilized roux-based or tomato-based sauces; here, Chef Steve's gluten-free variant incorporates the trinity of celery, bell pepper and onion with an addition of mushrooms to the base of the pour-over sauce, tossed and laden with chunks of crab and half a dozen medium shrimp. The redfish itself is lightly Creole seasoned and pleasantly light compared to its thick savory coat. It's served on a bed of rice, though the rice itself seems almost an afterthought.
We also selected from the Handhelds menu the Alligator Sausage. I was surprised to see the Leidenheimer roll provided was a pistollette instead of a chunk of French bread, but it worked really well to keep the sausage from sliding out, so kudos to that cool thought. The mildly spicy sausage is braised in beer before being housed in the roll with caramelized onion and a Creole-style mustard (a nice choice) under a blanket of white cheddar cheese. Next time, we think we'll order it sans cheese; the sausage and mustard work so well with the signature bread.
I was dazzled most by the Southern Sorbet Sundae. I love experiencing many flavors, and these three tiny scoops were just perfect - both for the end of a meal and for sharing. Strawberry cream, blueberry lavendar, and pineapple pink sorbets were served with and almond roll confection, marinated strawberries and a tiny meringue on top allowed for a very delightful conclusion. Bonus - the dessert is both gluten free and dairy free.
The eatery also offers dozens of wines by the bottle, a goodly selection of draft beer, and ten humorously named cocktails. The signature Peachy Keet from Petit and Keet is offered here, as well as the Cypress 75, a mix of sparkling lemon water and Molly's Blood Orange gin. The Heavens to Betsy!, seen here, brings a summer flavor with watermelon, line and peach bitters in El Dorado 3 year rum, served with a chunk of watermelon.
One of the seasonal frozen cocktails currently offered is the Shooter McGavin, served in a glass in a themed koozie, an answer to the traditionally non-alcoholic Arnold Palmer, with Deep Eddy Lemon vodka and Deep Eddy Sweet Tea vodka, enhanced with lemon honey.
There is on the drinks menu a beverage called a Hissy Fit, with Rancho Alegre Tequila, Pierre Fernand curaco lime, dragonfruit and a jalapeno syrup, I'm not brave enough to try.
And then there's the frighteningly named Pain is a Good Thing, made with Devil's River Bourbon with notes of lime served with corn shoots. If the name didn't get you curious, perhaps the photo will.
Opening at this time with an uncertain future for the restaurant business is a bit of a bet. But careful thought in layout and design, along with ample outdoor dining possibilities, may enhance what Cypress Social is bringing to the somewhat hampered restaurant scene in Pulaski County. With marvelous dishes and a keen eye for detail, Cypress Social is a destination that deserves your visit - even if, for now, you choose pickup or delivery.
For more information, check out the Cypress Social website, or visit at 7103 Cock of the Walk Lane in North Little Rock. The phone number is (501) 916-2670. The restaurant is open Monday through Thursday, 4-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4-11 p.m., and closed Sundays.
More photos, below.