Restaurant Transitions: 2 eateries leaving River Market hall; Sufficient Grounds closed; Cantina Cinco de Mayo to open

Posted: February 22, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Matthew McClure of The Hive in Bentonville is once again a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist, for “Best Chef: South,” for the fifth year in a row.

Omar Kassees, who with his brother Sam have been operating Mason's Grill and Rivershore Eatery, respectively, in the River Market Ottenheimer Market Hall, 400 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock, say they're shutting both places down soon, possibly within the week, citing "the ongoing harassments of the city of Little Rock and the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau."

The restaurateurs have been feuding with the city, the bureau and its Market Hall management throughout their 10-year tenure in the hall, listing among their grievances unfulfilled marketing promises; shut-offs of the Market Hall air conditioning system over the past several summers "so the city can save money"; and "blue-wave decals covering our windows" that they claim have done damage to his business.

But, says Omar Kassees, "the straw that broke the camel's back was the recent basement sewage leak that we had on multiple occasions [that] the city and the LRCVB refused to fix." He claims it created an unsavory odor and contaminated items they had in storage, and says it is causing other Market Hall businesses to also weigh closing.

Diana Long, the Convention and Visitors Bureau's director of River Market operations, categorically denies all of Kassees' allegations and earlier this week told Arkansas Online that the Kassees' tenure is coming to an end because of nonpayment of rent multiple times during the term of their lease. Omar Kassees, meanwhile, says he and his brother are looking to move their businesses.

Meanwhile, John Graham of Old Mill Bread & Flour Co. says he has no plans to pull his kiosk operation out of the River Market over that or any other problem. And he confirms that as of Feb. 1 he closed on the purchase of EJ's Eats & Drinks, 523 Center St., Little Rock, which he is now operating.

Next door to EJ's, 521 Center, in what had most recently been Jerky's Spicy Chicken and More, co-owner Jose Jesus Valadez now says he's looking at Wednesday or Thursday for the opening of the Cantina Cinco de Mayo. It will join Little Rock outlets of the mini-chain on Rahling Circle and on Stagecoach Road; there are also locations in Bryant and Benton. Valdez says he's moving the equipment in on Sunday from an outlet he's closing in Carlisle. In addition to the same menu as the other restaurants in the chain, this will have a full bar (a mixed-drink license has been applied for and is pending). Hours, still tentative, will be 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. The phone number is (501) 400-8194.

Sufficient Grounds Cafe, on the first floor of downtown Little Rock's Union Plaza Building, 124 W. Capitol Ave., has closed. Co-owners Eric, Kim and Christian Tinner posted this on the business' door: "We have been proud and blessed to have served our friends for 15 years," they wrote, saying the announcement came with "the heaviest of hearts." The business, originally a branch office of a popular Hillcrest restaurant that has since closed, moved into the location, previously a bank space, in February 2004. Starting March 1, the Tinners will essentially move Sufficient Grounds' morning business across the street to their Sports Page, 414 S. Louisiana St., which will open at 7 a.m. to serve the coffee and breakfast "you know and love." That phone number is (501) 372-1642.

Chef-owner Ira Mittelman reports he's expecting construction to be complete the first week of March at Ira's, 311 Main St., Little Rock, and he's looking at a tentative opening date of April 1. He expects to be open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch Monday-Friday, to open his bar at 4 p.m. and serve dinner starting at 5 Monday-Saturday. His liquor license and a phone number are pending. He'll share valet parking with the other four restaurants already open on that block and presumably with his next-door neighbor, A.W. Lin's, which is still in progress.

When we reported last month that the west Little Rock outlet of Chili's Grill & Bar would be moving from the Village at Pleasant Valley, 10700 N. Rodney Parham Road, to the intersection of Markham Street and Chenal Parkway, there was some speculation that it would be going into the former Luby's Cafeteria space. We're working to confirm it, but that's apparently what's happening -- the cafeteria, we're told, will be torn down and the chain restaurant will sprout in its place, with a tentative opening date, according to a corporate spokesman, in October or November.

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For the fifth straight year, Matthew McClure, executive chef of The Hive in Bentonville, is a semifinalist for an annual James Beard Foundation Award in the "Best Chef: South" category, which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. McClure will once again be competing against 19 other chefs from New Orleans (seven) and Lafayette, La.; Miami (three), St. Petersburg, Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Fla.; Auburn, Orange Beach and Homewood, Ala.; Oxford, Miss.; and San Juan (two). An independent volunteer panel from across the country will select five finalists, to be named March 14 during an event in Philadelphia, and eventually winners in each category.

And he's not the only James Beard Award semifinalist with Arkansas connections. Mountain View native Cassidee Dabney, executive chef of The Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, in eastern Tennessee, is up for "Best Chef: Southeast." She's a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont; worked at Four Seasons hotel restaurants in Hawaii, Atlanta, Boston and Jackson Hole, Wyo., and for about a year and a half was sous chef and executive sous chef at Blackberry Farm, before becoming part of the team that opened the Capital Hotel and its award-winning restaurant, Ashley's (now One Eleven at the Capital). She was Lee Richardson's sous chef there for four years before returning to Blackberry Farm as executive chef in 2015. The Barn, meanwhile, won three James Beard Foundation Awards in three years, most recently the 2015 award for Outstanding Service (beating out finalists from New Orleans, San Francisco, New York and Chicago). Former Executive Chef Joseph Lenn was the "Best Chef, Southeast" winner in 2013, and Andy Chabot, director of food and beverage and lead sommelier, won for Outstanding Wine Program in 2014.

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Our recent report that the Atlanta-based Huddle House chain had signed a franchise agreement to open a restaurant in Conway at a site to be determined turns out to be part of the chain's bigger push into Arkansas, with a subsequent announcement last week that there's also a pending outlet in Jonesboro, the location -- as in Conway -- still to be determined. Carl Jenkins, the chain's director of real estate, says there's a partner "on tap" and site selection in and around the northeast Arkansas city is in progress. The chain, which currently has four Arkansas locations, in White Hall, Clinton, Monticello and Osceola, is now looking to spread across the entire state, "one region at a time," Jenkins says. How fast will depend on the "pace of our franchise partners" and the determining factor for locations will depend on places that "line up with our concept," reflected in the motto, "Any Meal, Any Time," and which includes round-the-clock breakfast and "Southern hospitality and big portions at fair prices." Jenkins says that matches his chain up closer to IHOP and Denny's than Waffle House. He can't say definitely when and/or whether a Huddle House will show up in central Arkansas.

And Brice Evans, a teacher at Little Rock Central High School and Crystal Certain, a teacher at Conway High School, are among the baker's dozen educators in Arkansas and Oklahoma who will receive free pizza for a year as Hideaway Pizza's 2018 Teacher Appizziation Award winners. The 13 teachers emerged from a pool of 798 online nominations submitted for current pre-K-12 public and private schoolteachers in the Tulsa-based pizza chain's two-state coverage area. They'll actually each receive a $600 Hideaway Pizza gift card to use however they choose; it's enough to buy a small, single-topping pizza every week for 52 weeks.

Has a restaurant opened -- or closed -- near you in the last week or so? Does your favorite eatery have a new menu? Is there a new chef in charge? Drop us a line. Call (501) 399-3667 or (501) 378-3513, or send a note to Restaurants, Weekend Section, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, Ark. 72203. Send email to:

eharrison@arkansasonline.com

Mountain View native Cassidee Dabney, former sous chef of Ashley’s at the Capital (in this 2008 photo) and now executive chef at The Barn at Blackberr...

Weekend on 02/22/2018