EATS & DRINKS
Project 7 Kitchen & Bar
A modern twist on Middle Eastern, European and classic American dishes
By Case Dighero
Photos by Meredith Mashburn
329 N. West Ave., Fayetteville
The next time you’re hungry, and I mean hungry for something completely new and dynamic, go directly to Project 7 just off Dickson Street, and be prepared to fall in love with Fayetteville all over again. It’s true that I have an affinity for my adopted city, a once raucous college town that now is home to a quiet culinary scene that welcomes its share of unique and sexy debuts.
The name alone, Project 7, is mysterious and interesting enough for anyone with a molecule of spontaneity to be curious. And, at first mention, I imagined an industrial warehouse hosting a long, angular bar draped in harsh light, staffed by bartenders with asymmetrical haircuts and black uniforms. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – the ambience and décor are as soft, warm and inviting as your favorite blanket and the staff as unassuming and friendly as your favorite hairstylist. The walls are creamy white, adorned with dark accents and aquamarine-hued light and shadow boxes. Music swirls just beyond the realm of identification, maybe a new-age pop group from the Middle East (if there is such a thing). In truth, the name hails from the lucky number seven that seems to be a recurring numerical sign for the narrative and history of the chef’s family. Regardless, one can only deduce that the success of this endeavor will undoubtedly lead to subsequent eight, nine, 10 and upward projects.
I order an Elderflower Rosemary Martini ($10) that arrives at the table shimmering with condensation and fragrant with fresh lemon and piney rosemary. I sip carefully, lick my lips, and then take a longer, deeper swallow because it’s so good. The cocktail menu is compact but built to impress with an equal number of standards rooted against a slew of completely innovative drinks like the Ki Kang ($9) made with gin, lemon juice, egg white and lavender. I feel at home here, the staff is friendly, the drinks are strong and the guests sitting at a table next to me are all having a good time. At the conclusion of my second drink, the Orange Peach Mule ($8) devised with peach orange blossom vodka, fresh lemon and ginger beer, I feel comfortable enough to interject myself into the conversation I’d been eavesdropping on at the table next to me.
The cadence for the service of food is directed by Iranian-born chef and owner Leila Mahmoodi, who prepares everything to order, which means the mostly shareable plates arrive in a quick, albeit scattered, rhythm. Leila’s food is rustic and wholly inspired by her Middle Eastern lineage, although updated for the Western palate. The food arrives via Leila’s partner and boyfriend, Tyler Hamedi, with wide smiles and smart, heartfelt explanations of each dish. The couple seems to have found that often elusive rhythm that is so hard to capture between kitchen and service staff.
The menu is laid out in three areas – Land, Sea and Garden, with the latter boasting several stand-out items that include Mushroom Toast ($12) presented on local Dirty Apron Bakehouse sourdough and layered with sautéed mushrooms, onions and a super delicious spread made of avocado and chèvre. The Cheese Board ($18) is ideal for splitting with friends, or the table of four sitting next to you, sporting four soft rind and fresh cheeses nestled against clusters of grapes, olives, walnuts and sliced bread. But one of my favorite dishes on the entire menu is the Crispy Crushed Potatoes ($9), small butter potatoes that are boiled, smashed, then fried to yield delicious pillows that are creamy on the inside with a wonderfully crispy exterior that pops with every bite. It should be clear by now that Project 7 is a delectable beacon for vegetarians, since the majority of the items offered are fresh, healthy and vegetarian. Even the Autumn Salad ($12) is done well, with leafy greens tossed with house-made citrus vinaigrette alongside dried cranberries, roasted butternut squash and toasted black walnuts.
One of the great virtues of Project 7 is the diversity of its compact menu, boasting poultry, beef and fresh fish in a manner that seems completely natural and manageable for operators and guests alike. My favorite meatball in Fayetteville doesn’t come from an Italian restaurant; it is Leila’s Pomegranate Meatball ($15) that comes shimmering in a pretty copper skillet. The meatballs themselves are delicate, made with fresh ground beef, brown spices and walnuts that form perfect cylinders dressed in a shiny pomegranate-based sauce that is equal parts sweet and umami. I find myself hunched over, splitting each fork-tender meatball before using warm, buttery pita with my other hand as an alternative edible utensil.
And then there’s the Piroshki($16), a traditional Russian street food that Chef Leila has re-imagined as saffron rice cakes stuffed with spiced ground beef, lentils, barberries, parsley and fresh mozzarella cheese. These golden-hued gems are delicious. For those who prefer seafood, there are two options on the menu, Butter Shrimp ($16) and Cilantro Salmon ($18), that won’t disappoint. The salmon is served sautéed, slathered with a tamarind-cilantro sauce against roasted potatoes.
I have an unbridled sweet tooth that elevates both my overall happiness and blood pressure. And, since I see those opposing points cancelling the other out, I see no reason to ignore these cravings. Project 7 promises to keep my bliss and my hypertension raised for the time being with things likePistachio Baklava and Gelato($8) and, particularly, Pumpkin Not So Cheesecake ($7) devised with pumpkin puree, cream cheese, condensed milk and gelatin, which makes it completely no-bake…but utterly enchanting.
Project 7 is the perfect emblem to represent what’s just beyond the horizon of Fayetteville’s quiet culinary scene – diverse, inclusive, iconoclastic and completely delicious. It’s all the things one of the greatest Arkansas cities has been all along.