- LUSH PRESENTATION
We have been part of the hype machine for the restaurants in the refurbished Capital Hotel, beginning with a feature on executive chef Lee Richardson's New Orleans roots, his grand designs to elevate dining in the historic hotel with fresh and inventive use of locally produced ingredients and the credentialed staff he'd assembled to deliver the goods.
Having finally landed a dinner reservation (on a Monday night on which nearly every table was full), we're happy to say we didn't exaggerate a bit.
Ashley's, the hotel's main dining room, is that good. The room was always gorgeous. It's even more lovely, though a bit smaller to allow for kitchen expansion, and even more like a Michelin-starred restaurant in appearance with new plush red banquettes in some parts of the room. You could quibble that the creative cooking might have encouraged a departure from the classic interior to something more fashion forward, but it's not a quibble we'd offer.
The fittings, from abundant fresh flowers to stylish hardware for every specific need, are impeccable. The service is attentive, but not cloying. The wine list, reflecting owner Warren Stephens' interest, is too broad and deep for quick inspection. Pricey premier cru Bordeaux are available, but so are some perfectly drinkable wines in every category under $30 a bottle and affordable wines by the glass. Yes, there's an extensive list of bottled water, but we drew no arched eyebrows when ordering ours from the eco-friendly tap.
We've backed into the main event — food. The temptation is to go purple — a symphony of flavors, drawn from a complement of ingredients and preparations worthy of the instrumentation of a major symphony.
Or you could just say a roster of choice ingredients, some very humble, are put together in surprising ways. Some juxtaposition might surprise you, but not a one put us off. It was a dreamy night of culinary entertainment at a fair price, given the production values.
Our strategy was simple — the five-course tasting menu ($75) for me and a three-course prix fixe menu ($45) for my wife. The tasting menu — tiny portions artfully arranged on giant white plates — comes with a different wine for each course. (Only a couple of swallows, mind you.) The three-course menu essentially provides the dessert course for free, judged against a la carte prices. But it can be an even bigger bargain if you order the priciest choices, as my wife did in ordering lobster twice — both as the stuffing in agnolotti, a feather-light fresh pasta envelope, and then, amusingly, as “cassoulette.” This featured a moist and tender lobster tail (often overcooked in other restaurants) atop the classic slow-cooked large beans, all served in a small-cast iron crock. I'm not sure the best part weren't the chunks of crisped pork belly scattered among the creamy beans. She finished with an individual Southern pecan pie, served warm, with a scoop of ice cream that promised brown butter flavor but tasted mostly plain vanilla.
Dinner begin with a free nibble — an amuse bouche, the French call it. Ours was a dab of smoked trout, mild and not too smoky, on top of arugula.
I was a little sorry about the freebie, because smoked trout also was a component in my first course. But it proved to be a totally different dish, composed of bits of smoked trout but also something the menu called lemon dill potato salad, mustard greens and horseradish vinaigrette. You wouldn't have recognized the fried bits of riced potato in a tart blend with slightly wilted mustard greens as potato salad. But I believe you'd have fought over every last morsel, as my wife and I did. It came with an Australian rose, dry, but not too.
One small mistake. The menu listed the wines to be served with the five-course menu. All but one were substituted, a fact that wasn't announced until after dinner had begun. It wouldn't have changed my mind about trying the presentation, but I should have gotten word at the outset.
Next came fried oyster risotto. If any of the dishes missed the mark, this might have been it, but only barely. The risotto was slightly undercooked, the rice grains a touch chalky. And much as I love both risotto, with mushrooms tossed in, and fried oysters, I don't think a crisp oyster benefits much from a topping of moist rice. And finally, the fennel and lemongrass didn't add value to the dish for me. I drowned my slight disappointment with a glass of white Burgundy.
The fish course was an incongruous pairing of black cod, creamed spinach, oxtails and wild burgundy snails. The fish and its bed of spinach and the snails, in a wine reduction, sat side by side, so I attacked them individually. I'm not sure of the wisdom of having so many things going on at once on the same plate, but what goings on! The fish was a tiny, moist filet with a crackly layer of skin on top. The snails were a chewy vehicle for a sauce worth mopping with the house-made bread. The snails also matched the red Burgundy served alongside.
Grilled veal paillard, a thin filet a mite overcooked, came with crisply fried sweetbreads, a few crumbles of Point Reyes blue cheese and Meyer lemon marmalade, a sweet and sour sauce that cut the richness of the sweetbreads and enhanced the mild veal. This was the most successful combination of the night. It came with a mellow Argentinean cabernet.
The close was a pleasant surprise. Pear creme brulee? How would they do that? A crisp and sweet pear was cored and then filled with creme brulee, the surface torched to the proper heavenly crunch. It was delightful, as were the candied lemon peels scattered alongside. Inniskillin ice wine from Canada was a sweet final accompaniment. By way of apology for the change in wines, the wine server also gave us a comparison taste of Hungarian tokay, a great wine, also sweet, but not nearly so intense as the Canadian wine.
The final five-star restaurant touch was a plate of petit fours for sweet lagniappe.
Taking under two hours from start to finish, it was an evening of special entertainment. It was more memorable than many a big-ticket entertainment event (take Hannah Montana, please) and remarkable in the attention to detail after detail. The two dinners, with one glass of a sparkling Spanish wine for my wife ($8), cost us $167 counting tax and a 20 percent tip. That's expensive, but a value for luxury. It's a tab you could run up while being processed through the grind of three courses at many a big chain restaurant, but, in the end, you would have only eaten, not dined.
Breakfast and lunch at Ashley's are for the power meal crowd, no doubt. Eggs and bacon cost $15, for example, but the eggs and pork products are locally produced, the grits are milled in Arkansas, the bread is house-made and the preserves and sorghum butter are small-batch products. Value for luxury is also the theme on the $25 prix fixe lunch. How about alligator pie with frisee to start, suckling pig with black-eyed peas and collard greens and spicy pumpkin jam for a main course and warmed carrot cake to finish?
Ashley's is a winner. Will the Little Rock audience sustain it? Money, time and even a sense of adventure are required.
Markham and Louisiana
Fancy a fancy breakfast? Get in before 10 and this is your place. For a big event, set a night aside, make a reservation (a must most nights), dress nicely (coats are not required, however) and devote a couple of hours to the five-course tasting menu, a changing $75 delight pairing homey and haute creations with interesting wines. Seafood gets the highest respect here, but so do humble ingredients like mustard greens and pork belly.
Breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., all Monday through Saturday. Breakfast only on Sunday.
Expensive. Credit cards. The fullest bar in town.