by David Ramsey
The Capital Hotel’s new executive chef, Joël Antunes, plans to bring some international flair to Ashley’s and the Capital Bar and Grill, but is committed to maintaining the local (and Southern) flavors that have made them city favorites.
“Little Rock is not going to change for me,” Antunes told us in an interview at Ashley’s before the holidays. “I have to change for Little Rock.”
That’s music to the ears of locals worried that Antunes might put too heavy of a French accent on the popular restaurants. Antunes has a stellar reputation and background (James Beard award, Michelin star) grounded in classic French cooking, but his turn at the Oak Room in New York’s storied Plaza Hotel ended in disaster, reportedly in part because of a refusal to offer more American dishes.
“I’m going to continue and learn the local influence because it’s very important,” Antunes said, adding that he had learned from the mistakes of the Oak Room. “My goal is to keep the strong influence of food from Arkansas and from Louisiana.” He said that he was eager to continue to make use of local farmers.
That’s not to say that we won’t also benefit from Antunes’s cosmopolitan expertise — including influences from Asia, where Antunes has done stints in Tokyo, Bangkok and Singapore. “It’s very nice if I can bring a little touch from Japan, from the south of France,” he said. “I think the world is smaller and smaller because people travel everywhere. I can bring my little twists and find a niche for our customers and bring happiness to the people.”
Keeping the core — Southern-tinged gourmet — intact while adding some diversity of style and influence sounds pretty great.
It will be another month or so before we know for sure. Antunes said that we can expect to start seeing his revisions to the menu in February, and additions will continue to trickle in as he trains his staff.
What do we have to look forward to? “Japanese-style himache with citrus dressing, crawfish from New Orleans, Provencal salad with baby artichokes and tuna confit, some nice ceviche and tuna tartare. And of course we are in Arkansas, we need to have nice pieces of meat. I’m going to make a nice cote de boeuf, I’m going to make a beef filet with potato gnocchi and truffle sauce.”
And some desserts in the works: Kit-kat with peanut butter, crispy rice with marshmallow, crepe soufflé with passion-fruit caramel.
“I have to learn the customer and after a few months I can see exactly the direction I have to take,” Antunes said.
Antunes also said that he is interested in coming up with a “special treat for lunch that is very good value for the money” at Ashley’s. “I don’t want this restaurant only for special occasions. I’d like to see the restaurant busy every day like [the Capital Bar].” That’s welcome news indeed and while he was diplomatic about the Ashley’s décor (“the room is beautiful, maybe we’re going to tweak little things”), here’s hoping that the arrival of a world-class chef encourages the folks at Capital to loosen up the needlessly stuffy-hotel vibe at Ashley’s.