- FANCY HOME COOKING
Monday arrived, the day the Capital Hotel was to reopen its Bar and Grill, and we hoofed it over the minute the lunch hour started to tick. Who could wait to see Warren Stephens' remake of the classy hotel and what its highly touted kitchens would turn out? Not us, veterans of the previous bar restaurant.
(The fancier restaurant — Ashley's — we'll review soon. We want to give the staff time to settle in, the tablecloths time to soften up and ourselves time to give the menu some deep study, if you catch our drift, on the Times tab.)
And so — ta da, here's the verdict: It's great.
It is the same in many ways — particularly in its wood-and-leather-paneled clubby comfort and the iconic table set for backgammon, a favorite pursuit of Stephens' late father Jackson T. Stephens, whose millions made the redo of this historic hotel possible. Mortals are welcome, but you've got to be a Stephens to sit at that table in the back.
It is also different, and better. The bar has its own kitchen now — no more schlepping dishes across the cool marble lobby from Ashley's. There's much more service, not just wait staff but more managers than we could count, whisking away a stray piece of paper here, looking after a customer's special request there.
But the real news is the menu. You can still get a burger or a Cobb salad. But you can also get several significant tastes of the food revolution underway at the hotel through celebrity chefs imported from near (New Orleans) and far (Las Vegas) who've put a distinctive Southern brand on even bar fare.
We were prepared to argue at the outset that the effort was too cute by half, on hearing that a special opener was fried black-eyed peas. Then three of us demolished the bowl. It seems that fresh peas are dusted with corn starch, pepper, salt and herbs and fried. They are not a bit greasy. The cornstarch imparts a nice crispness, but nothing like, say, the concrete crackle of a corn nut. Our only dilemma was in figuring out the proper way to eat a fried pea. We finally decided that this was a bar snack and thus fair game as finger food. Down they went.
The same for some immaculately fried potatoes, served in a silver tumbler and dusted with coarse salt, parsley and truffle bits. Good enough on their own, they came with terminally decadent truffle-scented bearnaise. Oh, man. This dish, for one, is enough calories for a day. And what a good day it makes.
What else did we try? How about a perfectly toasted Cuban sandwich — pork, excellent swiss cheese and homemade (yes, homemade) bread and butter and dill pickles on a thin and crisp French loaf baked fresh on premises. This came with homemade, snappily seasoned chips. To our right, the chef did a playful turn on Arkansas catfish. The pieces were rolled in rice starch and fried. This produced a delightful surface crunch. The cornmeal? It was in a fabulous cornmeal pudding served on the side, along with what appeared to be homemade green tomato pickle and house-made tartar sauce.
Our big bowl of seafood gumbo actually came in a small cast-iron kettle. It was smoking hot. The roux reflected chef Lee Richardson's Louisiana roots. It was dark and smoky. Floating in the broth were chunks of lobster, shrimp and perfectly plumped oysters. I think I'd have liked some bread with this, normally, but after the peas, who cared?
Desserts are all fun flings — a root beer float, red velvet cake and Moon pie. The red velvet cake was the least successful, though there wasn't a thing wrong with the swirl of cream cheese icing atop the small round cake, which was a touch dry. I prefer the layer cake treatment, a better icing-to-cake ratio. Some things are better left to Sims Barbecue. But the Moon pie was a tour de force. Layers of cake and homemade marshmallow are enrobed in a thick and transcendent dark chocolate candy. It was presented on a swirl of caramel sauce. You wouldn't want to sully something that tasted this exquisite with a swig of R.C. Cola.
There's much else worthy of mention on the menu — pork confit (with smoked grapes), hot smoked trout, bratwurst and apples, root vegetable pot pie, fried oysters as a new topping for the standby Cobb salad.
As the football coaches say, they've gone to a whole new level here. With the fruit-essence iced tea comes a wee glass pitcher of simple syrup, so much easier to dissolve than packets of sugar (which remain available). There's an organic martini on the bar menu. There's a “water list,” if we heard the waiter correctly, though eau de tap is also served. We can guess there's quite a fine wine list to go along with vintage ports, a thicket of exotic beer taps and other beverages.
Lunch took a little longer than we might have liked — being hard-working business people and all — but given that it was day one, it was remarkably well-informed and solicitous. The staff was friendly, neither snooty nor obsequious. We liked that.
Capital Bar and Grill
Markham and Louisiana streets
A watering hole with mouth-watering food, swished-up Southern style. Capital idea: Sit by the big windows that look out on Markham with an organic martini and maybe some country pate and pumpkin jam.
Lunch and dinner daily. Opens at 11 a.m., closed between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
A little pricy, with a $12 hamburger, but you can get a “Quick Fix” baked potato or bowl of French onion soup for $4 and $6.