by Max Brantley
I'll be writing a full review for the Times, to run Dec. 27. But I can tell you I finally got a seat in Ashley's at the Capital Hotel Monday night and the result was the best meal I've had in Little Rock in years, maybe ever. Setting, presentation, service, food and wine were all first-rate. And, in its way, it was a bargain.
I had the $75 tasting menu -- five small courses, each with a small tasting of wine matched to the course. An amuse bouche (freebie starter) was included, along with rolls and after-dinner petit fours. There was hardly a discordant note. The meal was paced perfectly, about an hour and 40 minutes of culinary entertainment in a room on a level with Michelin-starred French restaurants. I don't mean to suggest $75 is cheap, but -- these ingredients, this cooking, this room -- it is a place not just for expense account visitors (and Stephens-related visitors filled a big nearby table). It would cost you a great deal more money in the world's large cities. It's a place that somebody of modest means might consider for a special occasion and walk away feeling like they'd gotten a real experience for the money. I'd much rather go to dinner at the Capital than a Hannah Montana concert.
My wife had the $45 three-course prix fixe menu option. And one glass of wine. With tax and a 20 percent tip, we spent $168. That's not a dinner tab many people will run up regularly, but you can also do it easily in any number of lesser restaurants around town without trying very hard.
The menu really does change, so it was the last day for my particular selection of courses:
Smoked trout with lemon dill potato salad, mustard greens and horse radish vinaigrette --paired with a semi-dry American rose.
Fried oyster risotto with fennel and lemongrass -- served with a crisp white Burgundy.
Black cod and creamed spinach with oxtails and wild burgundy snails -- served with a red Burgundy.
Grilled veal paillard with crispy sweetbreads, Point Reyes Blue cheese and a Meyer lemon marmalade -- served with California cabernet.
Pear creme brulee (a hollowed-out lightly poached pear filled with creme brulee) -- served with Canadian ice wine (and a bonus gulp of Hungarian tokaj.)
It's an evening I plan to repeat.