This may sound odd, but I've got a lot of sympathy for Ashley's at the Capital Hotel. It's never easy to be the top dog, and around Little Rock it doesn't get any bigger than the restaurant that can boast a line of chefs who have both won and been nominated for some of the country's top food prizes. The departure of chef Lee Richardson last year sent our local food community into a tizzy, leading to speculation about whether Ashley's upscale Southern menu could survive the loss of his guidance and vision. The subsequent hiring of Beard-award winning and Michelin-starred Joël Antunès raised questions once again, with locals being only slightly soothed by news that the new chef would attempt to keep the menu local while putting his signature on things. Lost in all this talk was an important question: how's the food?
Chef Antunès has yet to make any sweeping changes to the Ashley's menu, but when the opportunity to join fellow food writer Kevin Shalin and his wife Sara for a meal arose, I couldn't wait to get my fancy duds on and see if all the hype would pan out. Ashley's offers two options for dinner dining, a three course, $52 prix fixe menu and a $99 tasting menu that spans five courses. We opted for the three course meal, but were pleased that Ashley's offers a couple of the exclusive dishes from the five course tasting as possible choices for the the smaller meal as well. After some discussion, two of our party decided to spring for the $24 wine pairing to go along with their meal, and while I stuck with iced tea (not being a fan of wine), I must say that it was some pretty fantastic tea.
It was hard to pick from the menu options, because the descriptions are all quite tantalizing. I finally settled on the risotto and was treated to a bowl of creamy rice topped with thick curls of Parmesan cheese and a generous pile of shaved black truffles. From the smooth texture of the rice to the earthy flavors of the truffles and cheese, this was one of the most simple and satisfying dishes I've ever eaten. No one flavor dominated, but all came together to make each bite a delightful mix of taste and texture that stayed consistently good from the first bite to the last. Of all the first course dishes we tasted (including a tasty quail dish and a nice play on shrimp and grits), the only other dish I felt came close to this risotto was a plate of crisp-fried veal sweetbreads with braised apples and bacon lardons that we substituted from the five course meal. The sweetbreads were meltingly tender and complemented well by the tart apples and smoky bacon.
For the main course, I knew right away what I was going to order: the seared duck breast with lentils and duck confit. Duck, as Kevin so accurately put it, is a "high-risk, high-reward" dish — when it's good, it's incredible, but it's often overcooked, dry, and basically inedible. When the attractive dish of sliced duck hit our table, the signs were good: the duck was medium-rare in the center with a dark, crisp-looking skin attached. I eagerly took the first bite...and success. The meat was juicy and tender, with a taste that was mild at first but with a richness that came through almost immediately. The skin, which is one of the most important elements, was uniformly crisp without being the least bit tough. The lentils, which could have been an afterthought, were excellent, richly flavored by the thin shreds of fat-cooked duck confit and a perfect counter-weight to the breast. The rest of the table were impressed with their various steaks, plates of monkfish, and arctic char, but all agreed that this duck was something memorable.
In fact, our meal only had two disappointments: an amuse bouche that tasted like mushroom-flavored gingerbread was dismissed by our table as dry and inedible and our desserts were pretty unimpressive. But between those lackluster bookends were some of the greatest dishes I've had the privilege to sample in Little Rock, with the duck being one of the best things I've eaten anywhere. The whole experience left me eager to see what Chef Antunès has up his sleeve for Ashley's, and I look forward to my next meal in that quiet, stately dining room.