I don’t do a lot of restaurant reviews, but I had to share an experience from last week. There’s a fairly new cafeteria, or fast-casual, or some kinda restaurant in the Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield building on 7th and Gaines in Little Rock, and it’s pretty amazing.
I was there for a meeting with Chef Jason Knapp about an unrelated business project. If his name sounds familiar, it should; Knapp’s lofty résumé hails from the Governor’s Mansion to the culinary school and Big Rock Bistro at Pulaski Technical College, then Executive Chef of Aramark’s dining program at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
It was likely at his last two appointments that Knapp got a good sense of what cafeterias need: fast, quality food that can serve a mass of hungry folks when they all show up at the same time. (Note: Much of his work at UCA involved cooking for special functions and executive meetings, giving him the best of both worlds of this type of foodservice experience.) At his new venture in the BCBS building, managed by Compass Group USA, he was given the opportunity to take cafeteria-style efficiency a step further and implement his passions for fresh, scratch-made food, using local ingredients as much as possible.
The spacious serving area has several large sections, including grill, deli, pizza, soups, entrees and a tossed-to-order salad bar. And the whole place was super fresh and hygienic too; I think I noticed (and felt) air curtains installed at the entrance to separate the outside air from the inside. Just walking around looking at each station, one thing became immediately apparent: None of this stuff came from a box. There’s a swarm of young chefs buzzing around each station and in the open-to-view back kitchen, and each one of them has a hand in creating real food. Each freshly prepared item is pleasantly offered in French-style blue enameled cast iron, offering a bistro-meets-home feel.
I asked the chef what I could eat, having to be gluten-free and all. Usually, in a cafeteria-style operation, I would get glazed looks because they often don’t even know what’s in the food. Knapp immediately rattled off at least three entrees that were safe. He knew every single ingredient because he planned them himself, on a menu that changes daily.
The Shepherd’s Pie was calling my name, with its billowing, toasted peaks of mashed potatoes over fresh vegetables and tender, flavorful ground beef. The sides, however, were the show-stealer. I chose the beet salad with feta cheese and the roasted broccoli, both healthy and beautiful enough to not look it. My meal, with a drink (I chose the cucumber-infused water), came to about eight bucks. Not bad.
That seems to be the idea at Green Leaf, healthy food that you’d crave even if it wasn’t. I ran into a friend who works at Blue Cross, and she said the company was moving in the direction of promoting health in all areas for their own employees, and the restaurant was just one part of that equation.
Luckily, it’s open to the public, too. Check it out (weekly menu here) and you won’t think of cafeteria food the same way again.
Green Leaf Grill
601 S. Gaines St. (7th and Gaines, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield building)
Breakfast grill hours 7:30 – 9:30 a.m.
Lunch 10:45 a.m. – 2 p.m.