Perhaps more now than at any point in its history, Little Rock has a large number of talented chefs putting out high quality food throughout the city. From downtown to midtown, west Little Rock to North Little Rock, it’s more common than ever to find hard-working, knowledgeable and intelligent culinary professionals pushing the city’s food scene forward. Picking just one as this year’s best was daunting; indeed, my picks for runners up at the end of this column are all wonderful in their own right. But the one chef who continuously amazed and inspired me this past year was Table 28’s Scott Rains, the Little Rock Foodcast’s best chef for 2014.
Rains started Table 28 in 2013 at Vesuvio’s former location in the then-Best Western hotel off of Rodney Parham. The Arkansas native returned home from cooking in California to be closer to his family. When the hotel’s owner heard he was back, Rains was offered the chance to start his own restaurant in Little Rock. And over the last 18 months, that restaurant, Table 28, has put out what I would call some of the best food in the city.
Rains in 2014 was a tinkerer. Over several visits this year, I don’t think I ever saw the same menu twice. Many dishes were introduced and then rotated out. Others were updated to make reflect changes in seasonal tastes. That’s nothing new for the best chefs in the city. What stood out to me, however, was the way that the quality never once dropped. The winter menu was just as excellent as the menus for the other three seasons. In fact, over several visits to Table 28 in 2014, I can’t think of a single bite that was bad or even mediocre. Everything I tasted was at least very good. I can’t say that about any other chef this year. Maintaining that level of quality with such consistency is highly difficult. Rains makes it look easy.
What makes that consistent quality even more impressive was the level of creativity found throughout the menu. Another well-known chef in Little Rock told me Rains is “a very forward-thinking chef,” and I certainly agree. By now, you’ve probably heard of his Tongue and Cheek and Quail Lollipops, both delightful items that put new spins on pot roast and buffalo wings, respectively. But there are many other examples of his innovation. Pairing foie gras with a decadent gravy-topped biscuit. Coaxing a creamy, risotto-like consistency out of nutty farro. Using bacon and pecans to transform Brussels sprouts into one of the best side items in Little Rock. These are all shining indicators of Rains’ ability to create and improvise, and that list doesn’t even include his Calamari “Snitzel,” my pick for dish of the year. Put that plate down in front of almost anybody, and they’ll tell you it’s a wiener schnitzel. That’s as far as the mimicry goes, for the astounding flavor profile of squid, lemon, sage and brown butter will make you forget all about veal, pork or chicken. I’ve never tasted anything like it.
If his creativity and consistency doesn’t sway your opinion, I offer my own anecdote. Earlier this year, Rains and several other chefs cooked for the Food and Wine Festival at Wildwood Park for the Arts (the festival sponsored the Little Rock Foodcast for a month). With less than 24 hours to go until the festival, a few restaurants suddenly dropped out, and festival organizers were panicked that there wouldn’t be enough food for the event. Rains overheard what happened and offered to fill the gaps himself, and he delivered in a big way. The other restaurants at the festival offered 2-4 dishes, most of which were good. Rains and his team prepared a dozen menu items. Every single one of these plates was excellent (the ceviche in particular was outstanding), and the line for Table 28’s buffet stayed long the entire night. It was something Rains was never asked to do. He saw a need and took care of it. It was, for me, a night that showed everything Rains is about. Creativity, excellence and consistency, yes, but also work ethic, kindness and generosity. Even without that night at Wildwood, Rains would be my pick for best chef of 2014. His food was, overall, the best I had this year. But the way he stepped up to help people in need showed that greatness in a chef shouldn’t be limited to the work done in the kitchen.
Second runner up: Matt Bell (South on Main)
Third runner up: Justin Patterson (The Southern Gourmasian)
Note: The window for the Little Rock Foodcast’s “Best of 2014” period is Dec. 15, 2013-Dec. 14, 2014.
Other Little Rock Foodcast “Best of 2014” honors:
Best new restaurant – Kemuri
Best restaurateur – Tomas Böhm (The Pantry, The Pantry Crest)
Best restaurant – Friday