As promised in 21c Museum Hotel Trifecta – The Plan, we visited The Hive in Bentonville Arkansas. Here is the long awaited review… From the moment a waiter at Proof on Main told me about the plans to open a 21c property in Bentonville Arkansas, I was skeptical about reproducing the boutique hotel mini-chain’s signature avant garde atmosphere. That skepticism turned out to be quite healthy. During two recent visits (brunch and dinner) to The Hive restaurant I was distinctly aware of what I will call the Bentonville effect. This is what happens when you try to drop a modern art gallery thinly disguised as a hotel into the national epicenter of discount capitalism and fundamentalist Christianity.
On my first visit, a leering Pan in the process of licking an apple with a tongue of commendable length and a semi-transparent wall in the men’s room (cornerstones of the Louisville property) were conspicuously absent. The non-sexual art was also dumbed down in scope and quantity. The socio-political edginess that underpins most modern art was missing or muted. High-end kitsch in the form of plastic penguins and numerous bee motifs dominates the property’s on-site gallery.
This is not to say, however, that 21c Bentonville is not a pleasant space as well as several notches above all the hotels and most of the restaurants in Northwest Arkansas. And, given that all high-brow art is dominated by the Walton family’s expensive efforts to channel the Medicis in their patronage efforts, 21c constitutes a decidedly risqué counter balance to the celebrated Crystal Bridges Museum.
Two pieces in particular come to mind. The first was a tiger caught in mid-metamorphosis as it desolves into a swarm of bees (or vice versa). The second a (to date) cleverly disguised Pietà masquerading as a black and white photograph. Upon my second visit the tiger, which had been the centerpiece of The Hive’s dining area, was gone and I fear for that tongue-in-cheek (as opposed to tongue-on-apple) Pietà. Much of the rest of the art from my first visit had been replaced by a bunch of color photos of children. On the other hand, a bar fight broke out in the course of our repast, and I have not ever seen one of those in Proof on Main. Is this what performance art looks like in Wal-Mart land?
The food ain’t half bad either, but let me back up. We descended on The Hive to mark my fifty-eighth birthday and the third anniversary of MagoGuide’s launch, so we used the evening as an opportunity to kick-off a whirlwind tour of all the 21c properties and their associated restaurants. Since it was a celebratory affair, we punished the vino even more than usual.
The Hive’s wine list is approachable in size and balanced in terms of offerings. We stuck to the high end and did not suffer from buyers regret. We began and ended the evening with a 2007 Col Solare. This Washington state joint venture between St. Michel and the Tuscan Antinori dynasty was a left bank Bordeaux blend consisting of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Total flavor bomb, dude! It began with a lovely nose of red cherries and roses. Then Flathead cherries and ripe plums exploded onto the palate followed by a slight hint of leather that was distinctly more Prada than Pony Express. The forever finish was a mixed berry tart with a bear fat shortbread crust.
I decided to play oenological Don King and set up a head-to-head tasting between this voluptuous fruit forward seductress from the Evergreen State and the elegant statuesque Italian hetaira of the Antinori brand. It being my birthday, I got my way and soon a bottle of the 2008 Tignanello was being opened tableside. Rated a 94 by Parker and considered one of the best wines of the vintage, the 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc blend yielded an elegant silky super Tuscan. A nose of raspberries and brambles gave way effortlessly to ripe red fruit and spicy jam. The tannins were soft and round, adding to the charm and finesse of this medium bodied wine. The finish produced long and lingering notes of cherry and black licorice followed by hints of tar and smoke. The Tignanello, however, stood no chance against Col Solare, loosing a table vote five to zero.
Chef Matthew McClure, a southern semi-finalist in this year’s James Beard Chef and Restaurant Awards, definitely does not dumb down the art he puts on a plate. He not only produces main course masterpieces but also has an eye for the fine brush strokes of his culinary canvas.
The bread offerings are a good example. We were served four types of bespoke bread over the course of the evening.
The opener was cornbread, ubiquitous in this corner of the world, but The Hive’s is far above average. As a corn bread maven, I like it when a restaurant observes local variations. The Hive’s cornbread made with coarse ground cornmeal, lard, and no sugar was an authentic border state variant. Sweetness is supplied by the sorghum molasses whipped butter, which is basically spreadable comfort food.
The large baguette served as toast points with the veal marrowbones had the artisan bread hallmarks of thick crust and soft latticed crumb. The mild rye served with the hummus was the sleeper of the evening. The smaller baguette accompanying the butcher’s plate was also a very good effort.
Chef McClure’s cuisine focuses on enhancing traditional favorites with bold but familiar flavor profiles. His food is solidly within the local comfort zone. There is no hint of molecular gastronomy, fusion cuisine, or really any ethnic notes beyond the Mediterranean. His kitchen leans heavily on proteins, amongst which pork has pride of place (this is Razorback country after all). Veggies are relegated to the chorus and back bench, with only one vegetarian appetizer and entre as well as two vegetarian salads on the menu.
Even McClure’s use of culinary technology is cautious and incremental (see the sous-vide bacon and eggs below). None of this, it turns out, is a bad thing since the chef obviously knows his clientele and thus never surprises nor over reaches. MagoGuide found his Bentonville fine dining sweet spot to be quite tasty, although it might get old after repeated meals unless Chef McClure changes his menu with greater frequency than he has heretofore.
Unfortunately The Hive is not completely immune to the Bentonville effect so prevalent in 21c’s art holdings for this property. The veal marrowbones are a case in point. They were served with an Arkansas black apple butter and Szechuan pepper corn sauce that was quite nice, but the bones themselves were small and the flavor/mouthfeel were wimpy compared with the unprotected sex approach to this dish that one finds outside the Bible Belt.
But Chef McClure did not get that James Beard nomination for nothing. There are a non-trivial number of surprises lurking within the WASPy confines of his cuisine (maybe the restaurant is not a bee hive after all, but a wasp nest; now that would be classic 21c humor!). In particular, the shell bean hummus with aleppo pepper was a diamond in the rough. The hummus was almost soupy, served in a small jar, and redolent of cumin. When dunked with the accompanying rye bread, it was the star of the shared plates.
The Butcher’s Plate needs a better description on the menu. If we had not queried our waiter concerning its components, we would have eschewed it in favor of less pedestrian-sounding dishes. Lucky us, we learned that pigs were back on the menu boys. The rustic wild boar pâté had excellent texture and flavor and paired perfectly with the bespoke course ground mustard. The prosciutto was a good try, but a bit soft for my taste. The chicken liver mouse was exemplary, however, showing just how good the humble chicken liver can be. It is my fondest hope that the two pâté treatments on this plate are Chef McClure’s stalking horses for introducing a more adventuresome take on offal as The Hive finds its culinary stride over the next year.
The best appie and my favorite dish of the evening was the (again badly described) 25 minute egg with biscuit, grilled bacon, arugula, and orange marmalade. The sous-vide yokiliscious egg was supplied by Ryan Craig, nephew of the better half of Team Mago. The bacon treatment, first sous-vide and then seared in a pan, is the best I have ever had. This preparation elevates bacon to the level of the Culinary Godhead, and in a kind and just universe it would clinch the James Beard award for Chef McClure. The biscuit was more butter than biscuit and much the better for it.
The Hive burger (pimento cheese, tomato jam, house pickles, and french fries) could use some work. The Bentonville effect cannot be invoked to get around this blotted copybook. It was a decent burger with no obvious flaws, but compared to the bison burger served at Proof on Main, it was pedestrian. In sharp contrast, the accompanying killer fries were expertly seasoned, obviously par cooked, and then finished a la minute. Serve those puppies with the sous-vide bacon and egg and give me a double magnum of Col Solare for my next birthday breakfast and I will personally introduce the cult of Addephagia into Northwest Arkansas (just as soon as I can walk once again). But the fries could not save the burger from mediocrity. The easiest solution would be to simply copy Proof’s buffalo burger (aftreall, the 21c wine ubergrupenfuhrer was at The Hive the night we dined there and the chef waxed rhapsodic at tableside concerning the cooperation between properties). If such a solution ruffles too many kitchen feathers, then I would suggest going with waygu beef or elk (or a mix like the burger at 21c Cincinnati’s Metropole restaurant).
While it is under-represented on the menu, The Hive does a very creditable job with seafood. Pan seared swordfish with cous cous, eggplant, harissa, and fresh coriander was basically a deconstructed cous cous de pesce. The harissa evoked the Sicilian/North African ancestry of the dish, significantly enhancing the dish’s flavor profile, but the heat was too restrained (Bentonville effect). The fresh coriander was a great call, straight out of the culinary literature of Mediterranean antiquity. The swordfish was perfectly cooked.
Another rather surprising kitchen strength was fresh pasta. Beef short rib cavatelli with butternut squash, shiitake, and soybeans was unanimously voted the MagoGuide GSM award (that would be Good Shit Maynard). So if the James Beard Foundation doesn’t come through for you, Chef, we will present you with our GSM certificate, which you can hide behind that tricksy Pietà for as long as it lasts. The cavatelli were competently made and executed while the sauce was meaty and unctuous. The soybeans sounded like too much of a fusion reach, but they could have passed for baby fava beans in the early Italian spring.
Pasture raised chicken with chickpeas, spinach, and butternut squash (which seemed to be on the push list) was another dish that expanded the gastronomic envelope ever so cautiously on a familiar local protein to good effect. The exceptional yard bird (it never hurts to start with great ingredients) was provided courtesy of nephew Ryan whose farm is called Adam’s Acres on Clear Creek (see Markets of Northwest Arkansas). The dish was built on Mediterranean flavors (again). The chickpeas were particularly noteworthy, soaking up the chicken juices and providing a starchy thickening for the sauce at the same time. The chicken was nicely cooked; the breast was moist and flavorful. But why serve chicken breast at all? I have been cooking with Ryan’s wonderful birdses for months now and I was very sorry that there was no dish that featured only dark meat. Once again, The Hive was suffering from the Bentonville effect.
The wait staff at both of our meals had assured us that the grilled pork chop was the kitchen’s plat de résistance. A ginormous chunk of porkage—once again supplied by farmer Ryan—was served up along with saffron cabbage, prunes, and oats. The heirloom pork was perfectly cooked, decadently fat, and sumptuously succulent (one suspects the involvement of the sous-vide tank). The prunes were a delicious touch, although they could have been plumped with grappa or marc. This was another casualty of the Bentonville effect invoked this time, according to our waiter, in the name of sparing underage diners from the sins of their elders (who were evidently too busy trading haymakers in the bar to look after their children).
Sides tended to be lack or luster. Brussels sprouts with butternut squash and aleppo peppers were the former. Both sprouts and squash were overcooked and bland, needing salt, heat, and acid. The luster was supplied by black eyed peas with house cured ham and pepper jelly. They seemed fresh, could they have been? If so they should have been served with snaps, as anyone from this neck of the woods knows. The turnip greens at the bottom of the black eyed peas were spectacular as was their pot likker, which really boosted the peas as it blended wonderfully with the pepper jelly.
Dessert took the form of chocolate mousse pie with whipped cream. The mousse was great, but the crust was seriously flawed in that the bottom was soft and undercooked. Also, applying the whipped cream with a heavy hand did not do any favors for the dish but tended to dilute the flavor of the chocolate mousse. This was a case where less would have been more. Why detract from a competently executed chocolate mousse (itself a rarity in most local fine dining establishments) with a bespoke crust that would have tasted better purchased from a nearby Wal-Mart and then drown it in whipped cream?
Service throughout was generally cordial and pleasant. Our waiter was very knowledgable about all the dishes on the menu and a great resource in determining their exact construction and composition. We never got a second order of toasted baguette, but our waiter did reserve us the last two pieces of chocolate mousse pie.
Although the wines were excellent, there were some glitches with the service. The Hive’s wine glasses are basically jumped up jelly jars, so when I ordered two of the most expensive wines on the list I asked our waiter if he had any larger glasses. He asked me if I was making a joke. I said no and explained politely that these big babies needed room to evolve in a glass. Our waiter dully checked with the bar but returned to tell the sad tale that The Hive only has one type of wine glass.
I mentioned this oversight to the chef when he made his rounds, but he was somewhat non-plussed and launched into a labored explanation concerning the 21c procurement process and how he hoped some day to have different glasses for red and white wine. Note to 21c Bentonville management: come up with some Ridell crystal for the whales or diners will start bringing their own to your enduring embarrassment (added bonus: these thin and delicate vessels will have far less utility as missiles in the event of future bar fights).
Also, while the Col Solare was served at a perfect drinking temperature, the Tignanello was cellar temperature even after decanting (they do have decanters at The Hive but you gotta ask for ‘em). They keep an exceptionally cool cellar at The Hive, which could well retard the evolution of an age worthy wine like Tignanello. It certainly hurt the Super Tuscan in its square off with the Wonderful Washingtonian, but in MagoGuide’s humble opinion that even if warmer the Tignanello still would not have been very close.
There were a couple incidents that left me feeling that The Hive needs to work on its customer communications. The special was gone by the time we sat down at 7 PM (obviously a variant of the Bentonville effect, but something that could have been anticipated). Finally, there was a High on the Hog banquet for some thirty lucky people involving Italian and American trained chefs who provided a butchering demo followed by a multi-course, multi-paired wine symposion served in a glassed-in executive dining pavilion (although I did notice that the porcine elite were forced to swill their wines in the same shabby glasses as the plebes who pushed their little noses up against the glass for a look at the festivities within.) Why didn’t we know? They send out e-mail blasts was the only answer we could get out of the chef. Being that close to that much porkage made me want to call the hogs in a bid to gain entry for Team Mago. Perhaps this conspicuous pig fest laid on for the foodie one percent was the reason for the disturbance at the bar?