Celebrating six months

Date Night is back, Johnson is new principal, Planned development for Maumelle, Sandefur promises to be a 'servant leader' plus news and sports headlines

Welcome to Arkansas Newsroom, a bundled newsletter covering news and sports in central Arkansas. For some answers to frequently asked questions, click here.
Subscribe to the site by clicking the button below …

Note to subscribers: An annual or monthly subscription is billed to your debit or credit card as ARKANSAS.SUBSTACK.COM and if you have questions, please email arkansas@substack.com. Thanks for reading and subscribing!

ArkansasNewsroom.com celebrates six-month anniversary

ArkansasNewsroom.com launched on Nov. 30, 2020, and that makes this Sunday the six-month anniversary of the site and weekly newsletter.

By the time you read the next newsletter, we’ll have moved on to month seven.

Along the way, we’ve picked up thousands of readers who are deeply interested in local news, sports and opinion. We’ve published 400 pieces of news, sports and opinion, and, as a matter of fact, this article, published Thursday morning, was the 400th.

The site is updated five to six days a week, depending on the news of the day. Those daily articles are then aggregated into weekly newsletters (30, so far) that go out by email to paid subscribers and others who have signed up for free distribution.

The ArkansasNewsroom.com newsletter comes out on Thursdays. Since the start of the Minor League Baseball season, another weekly newsletter has joined the rotation. The “Baseball on Broadway” email covers the Arkansas Travelers and comes out on Mondays. 

The site and the newsletters have been extremely well received.

ArkansasNewsroom.com’s focus is Maumelle, North Little Rock and north Pulaski County. Because of the ongoing pandemic, we beefed up health coverage with the invaluable Kaiser Health News on Covid-19, along with must-read pieces on seniors and other healthcare issues.

Along the way, we’ve reported from Hot Springs and Melbourne and Mammoth Spring and many stops in and around town. Countless hours spent watching public meetings on Facebook Live and YouTube resulted in coverage of local school boards, city councils and planning commissions. 

Covid has increased the level of difficulty of even very basic reporting, but as vaccinations rise along with the temperatures, hopefully the news gathering will get simpler.

A special thanks to all who have invested in paid subscriptions and everyone else who has signed up and read the site. We also appreciate the social media likes and shares and the newsletter forwards. 

Your community matters, and it should have a local news source that reports community news, sports and opinion. 

State-wide news outlets have no interest or desire to report on planning commission meetings or a carwash coming to Maumelle or high school soccer. But, based on the numbers, the readers are there, and you’re willing to support local reporting by reading and subscribing.

So thank you again for supporting this experiment in local newsgathering.

Paid subscribers should be on the lookout for a survey coming to your email. As we look to fine-tune coverage for summer and fall, we want your feedback about what you want to read. — Jeremy Peppas

Don’t forget

Memorial Day is Monday, and a ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. at the Maumelle Veterans Memorial at Lake Willastein.

The headlines

Sports headlines

  • BASEBALL ON BROADWAYis the new weekly newsletter that spotlights the Arkansas Travelers. It is published on Monday and click the link to give it a read.

Click headlines to read more

Maumelle: Planning Commission to look at additional development for city

  • Editor’s note: After this story was published Tuesday afternoon, Eric Holloway offered up some very fair criticism and, as a result, this story has been revised. At root is the difference between an apartment and a townhome. In my mind, apartment and townhome are two words to describe the same thing: A unit inside a common building that shares four exterior walls and a roof. And the original piece reflects that as the development was described as an "apartment building." Holloway said that wasn't fair to describe a high-end, two-story townhome development where each unit will be 1,320 square feet and will be comparable to Hendrix Village in Conway or the rowhomes in Argenta when completed. And he's right, it isn't fair because if you've been to Conway or North Little Rock, those rowhomes and townhomes are not apartments. They're mostly for sale, not rental properties and have higher-end construction. You can tell that when you're inside one, or just driving by.

The Maumelle Planning Commission is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday night and on the agenda is a proposed five-building complex at the intersection of Carnahan Court and Club Manor Drive.

When this piece was published, the buildings were described as “apartments” but Eric Holloway at Holloway Engineering noted they should be more accurately described as “townhomes” and said the development would be, “basically row houses like Hendrix Village in Conway or some that are” in downtown North Little Rock.

He also said each unit would be 1,320 square feet with two floors. The living room and kitchen on the first floor and two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor.

The developer is Daryl Brock of Daryl Brock Custom Homes of Conway and the proposed development has been dubbed as “Isabell’s Court” and it will cover 1.74 acres with five, two-story buildings, plus parking and each building will feature five units for a total of 25.

The property is zoned as Residential-3, or R-3, and that allows “for the highest resident population in the city” and “may contain structures at a density of up to 35 dwelling units per gross acre.”

The other item of note in the Planning Commission agenda is additional homes coming to Country Club of Arkansas.

This development is XXIV-C, or 24-C, and is part of the long-standing plan for the property. The 24-C area is adjacent to 24-B and is the eastern extension of Corondelet Lane.

Addition of 51 lots to Country Club of Arkansas. Cypress Bay Development is the developer and it would 51 lots to Country Club of Arkansas.

Both proposals are represented by Holloway Engineering and the meeting will be held in Council Chambers at City Hall.

For the complete agenda, click here.

Leave a comment

Johnson named principal at Maumelle Charter High School

Katie Johnson was named the principal at Maumelle Charter High School on Tuesday.

In a letter to parents, Academic Plus CEO Rob McGill said Johnson, who has been serving as interim principal since April, had the interim tag removed “after much deliberation and consideration.” McGill added that the position had “a large pool of highly qualified candidates” and that interviews had been going for the past week.

McGill added that Johnson was principal “effective immediately.”

In addition to being the interim principal, Johnson was the school’s assistant principal and previously was the high school counselor for two years and also taught English at the school for six years.

The position became open after Kimberly Willis resigned.

Johnson is a graduate of Conway St. Joseph and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Central Arkansas.

Before joining the Academic Plus system, Johnson worked at UCA in the offices of vice president for student services/dean of students and the office of financial aid. 

In his letter, McGill said that Johnson’s “knowledge and experience” at Maumelle Charter, “coupled with her university experience has prepared her well to lead” the school.

Johnson previously said her purpose in education, “is to help students realize their potential and inspire growth and change to make our world a better place for the next generation.” 

While McGill added, “She has a great understanding of what needs to be done to move the school forward to meet the vision of becoming the ‘Highest performing college preparatory school in the nation’." 

Date Night is back and Cypress Social is the spot

A certain amount of relief comes with being vaccinated.

You get to do more, without fear. It isn’t quite like the Before Times when you could do what you wanted when you wanted, but you can go to a game and sit in the sun, spend time with friends and family and go get some food that isn’t from a drive-thru or packed in a styrofoam container.

Dining out again also means that date night, with your spouse or with someone new, is also back, and there’s no lack of options in central Arkansas, from some very tasty chicken tenders to fine-dining in an old catfish house to an unexpected delight in Lonoke.

Remember, these observations are from a single visit by two people. A proper restaurant review should mean at least three visits to get a better handle on the menu and if the dining experience is consistent from meal to meal. Your experience may vary.

Let’s start with the old Cock of the Walk, just off Maumelle Boulevard and on the North Little Rock side of the city limits.

Purchased by restaurateur and generally great human Jim Keet, the former catfish house was transformed into Cypress Social last year. Keet, who has a long history of operating restaurant chains and is currently running the Taziki’s franchises in Arkansas, also dabbles in fine dining. On the Little Rock side of the river is Petit and Keet. 

If you haven’t been, you should go. Higher-end prices but for extremely good food make it appropriate for date night or for a special occasion, like your anniversary or birthday or whatnot.

Keet took that formula and applied it to Cypress Social, and while the address is still the same, any trace of that old catfish house is gone. The building has been transformed into something almost approaching grand with inside and outside dining options.

On a recent Saturday visit, we were able to get a table, without a reservation, outside. The early evening was warm but not unpleasant, and the food was nearly perfect.

We started with Fried Green Tomatoes as an appetizer. The menu says they came with peppadew cheese spread, blackened shrimp and remoulade.

That was followed by a cup of Red Beans and Rice. The beans were cooked with ham hocks and andouille. They were served with a small mound of white rice and what was called “Cypress cornbread,” essentially a good but not great corn muffin. 

We split both and agreed that the tomatoes were crispy, the shrimp were tasty, and we would very much order the starter again, but the Red Beans and Rice were subtly seasoned and needed just a little more punch.

Entrees were a Duroc Pork Chop and Shrimp and Grits.

The pork chop came bone-in, was served “tomahawk-style” and drew audible gasps from a nearby table when it came out. It looked terrific and tasted better. I encouraged my companion to gnaw on the bone, caveman-style but she politely, and correctly, declined. The greens accompanying the pork were flavorful, especially as they co-mingled with the pork juices.

The Shrimp and Grits were a bit different from previous versions I’ve had. The shrimp were big and came with a terrific “New Orleans style” BBQ sauce. The grits had been formed into triangles then deep-fried to give them crispy corners.

Dessert looked enticing, and the prices were right at $8, but we passed, as we were both very full. We also didn’t order drinks. The tab was about $80 before tip.

Service was terrific.

We aren’t giving stars or a grade, but Cypress Social is the real deal, and if you’re looking for a date night spot or a place to celebrate a special occasion, then go. You won’t regret it.

Winner, winner, chicken dinner

Not every date has to be fine dining. Sometimes you want something fast, something good and something affordable.

Let me suggest Raising Cane’s. No, seriously, Raising Cane’s.

The menu at Raising Cane’s is pretty simple: chicken fingers. You get them in various amounts with crinkle fries, coleslaw and a sesame-seeded piece of garlic toast. Some really good dipping sauce comes with the chicken. A sandwich option is also available.

It is roughly $20 for two people to get dinner, and the drive-thru during Covid has been speedy and accurate. We made our first inside visit during a shopping excursion in Little Rock.

While the food is good after being packed into styrofoam and toted back home, dine-in is clearly superior. The crinkle fries and chicken are very crispy and hot. You can order the lemonade, have a few sips, then slip in some iced tea to make an Arnold Palmer.

Then, after dinner, celebrate your wife’s joy when she finds the $144 Vince Camuto dress at Ross for $14.99.

Leave a comment

Lonoke’s Grumpy Rabbit is best new restaurant in Arkansas

Look at Lonoke for fine dining. No, seriously. Lonoke. Fine. Dining.

We had heard about the Grumpy Rabbit that opened this year in downtown Lonoke, and it has an impressive pedigree.

Executive chef is James Hale. He was formerly the sous chef at Andre’s Hillcrest and Spaule Restaurant in Little Rock. Then Hale opened Acadia in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood and was a James Beard nominee in 2008. The James Beard Award is cooking’s highest honor.

After Acadia closed in 2015, Hale then became executive chef at the Capital Bar and Grill in the Capital Hotel. He was lured to Lonoke by Gina Cox Wiertelak and her husband Jim.

Lonoke is Gina Wiertelak’s hometown, where she was a high school basketball star and the gym at Lonoke High School is named for her. She took her basketball talents to Memphis State University, married Jim, then set up shop in Shelby County, where he was chief operating officer for Sedgwick Claims Management and she was president of the University of Memphis Fast Break Club.

Still involved in her hometown, the Wiertelaks made the decision to move back to Lonoke and own and operate the Grumpy Rabbit. 

It was a good choice, at least for Lonoke and the local dining scene.

The Grumpy Rabbit hasn’t been open a year and has already managed to become a destination restaurant, even in the middle of a global health crisis.

Occupying a two-story space at 105 W. Front St., Grumpy Rabbit is a long and skinny space with tables and chairs and a long banquette at the front of the house. The ground level then transitions to a bar and more tables and chairs before exiting the building to a patio dining area. Upstairs there’s more seating, plus a party room and additional outdoor seating.

The only clue to the basketball background of the owner is a state title banner hanging discreetly on the wall on the way to the restrooms.

The interior was designed by Lonoke’s Natalie Biles of Shine Interior Design Studio and was a family project since her husband, Ryan, was the architect.

The design is fun and funky and doesn’t feel like you are in an agricultural town of 4,000, 20 minutes from Little Rock. It feels like, in the very best way, that you’ve been dropped into one of John Currence’s very fine eating joints in Oxford, Mississippi or Sean Brock’s Husk in Nashville, Tennessee.

The food is also that caliber good.

On our visit, we made a reservation on OpenTable, but it wouldn’t have been a problem to get a table walking up.

We started with “The Board,” which is Grumpy Rabbit’s version of charcuterie, with sausage, a grilled chunk of bologna, sliced baguette, pickled vegetables, an extremely good savory cheesecake with tomato relish and bacon egg salad. 

As for taste, the pickled and purple whole carrot was intriguing, but we could have skipped the egg salad. 

Truthfully, just a couple of those mini, savory cheesecakes would have been sufficient. Maybe it is the pandemic and eating out of styrofoam, but that first taste was, for now, the best bite of 2021.

Entrees are straightforward, with a choice in each main protein plus a vaguely vegetarian mac and cheese. We went with the Braised Chicken Thighs and a Ribeye.

The chicken came with a creamy leek orzo pasta, while the steak was paired with some well-made french fries.

Each also came with a whole, roasted carrot, playing on the rabbit theme.

Dessert was a delicious single-layer carrot cake with approximately one pound of cream cheese frosting, candied pecans and a bourbon caramel sauce.

We passed on bar offerings, though the cocktails that went to other tables looked extremely appealing.

Service was good. It got a little chaotic as the restaurant started to fill up though, but our server powered through.

The tab was in the $90 range, sans alcohol, for the three-course meal.

Again, passing on stars or grades, but the Grumpy Rabbit is the best new restaurant in Arkansas, and maybe the South. 

So, I’m so sorry, hop on over when you get the chance.

Moore on Maumelle: My Take 

Neal Moore is taking the week off.

Paid subscriptions make this newsletter possible

Subscribe if you like, pay if you can