With a dining room that transitions from a sunny and cheerful front area to a more intimate interior dominated by a stone fireplace, Capers has always provided the atmosphere of a relaxed country lodge, a place for rustic cooking and good wine. And while the menu boasts some creative and tasty dishes, we've always felt that the restaurant has squandered some of that great atmosphere by being too concerned with earning a reputation as a high-end fine dining establishment, with a staff that mistakes stiff formality for good service. It's this identity crisis between the familiar and the formal that's always made Capers an enigmatic place to eat, but there's no denying that the kitchen knows its business, and that's what keeps us coming back.
It's not often that an appetizer is our favorite dish at a restaurant, but the House Chips ($5.95) are so perfect that they're worth the trip alone. Instead of the usual corn chips and cheese dip, Capers slices red potatoes paper-thin on an electric slicer, blanches them to remove the starch, and then fries them to a crisp and almost translucent golden brown. Each crisp chip is light and airy, and although this is a fried item, there isn't the slightest hint of greasiness in touch or in mouth-feel. Accompanying the chips is a warm and creamy blue cheese fondue with just the right amount of sharpness and bite to pair with the salty chips. Say what you will about French fries, but for us, these are the best fried potatoes in town.
To counter the decadence of chips and cheese, we also ordered the Arkansas's Best Salad ($6.95), a wonderful mix of fresh greens, Arkansas tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, crumbled feta and a balsamic vinaigrette that struck just the right balance between sweet and tangy. There's nothing we love more this time of year than Arkansas tomatoes with just a slight sprinkle of salt, and the play of salty feta with the sweet tomatoes, crisp greens and creamy mozzarella made this salad substantial and refreshing all at once.
Our entrees, while tasty, all suffered from the same problems: excellent proteins and sides with sauces that just didn't quite make it. For the pork tenderloin ($18.95), the bacon-wrapped and fork-tender medallions of pork were braised nicely and grilled just long enough to impart a wonderful smoky flavor — which was almost completely buried under an intense and too-sweet pearl onion jam. In theory, the jam should have been the perfect complement to the pork, but this sauce was over-reduced and far too strong for the delicate flavor of the tenderloin. It was a quick fix to scrape most of the jam to the side, but we found the sauce jarring nonetheless. The garlic mashed potatoes served on the side were creamy and rich, with just enough pieces of potato present to give good texture.
While the pearl onion jam on our tenderloin was too much, the wine butter sauce on the Shrimp Charleston ($16.95) suffered from the opposite problem: It was weak and watery, with an odd sweetness to it that clashed with the jumbo shrimp and creamy grits. Some short work with the peppershaker set everything right, though, and soon we found ourselves marveling at the velvety texture and subtle flavor of the large portion of grits loaded with shiitake mushrooms and caramelized onions. The shrimp that topped the dish were large and plentiful, cooked to just the right balance of firmness without being tough or rubbery. Everything about this dish says "comfort food" right down to the last spoonful.
At this point, we were almost too full to attempt dessert, but we pushed forward after seeing a Chocolate Creme Brulee ($5.25) on the menu. This dish, present on nearly every dessert menu in town, is one we always try because its prevalence allows for so many comparisons. The version at Capers is one of the best we've tried, with a smooth, bittersweet chocolate base covered by a still slightly warm layer of caramelized sugar. The play on texture between the smooth chocolate and the crunchy sugar hit a nice balance, and the sweetness of the sugar layer added a good depth of flavor to the chocolate. This is such a common dessert that it can be hard to stand out from the crowd, but Capers manages to do so with style.
It can be hard for a restaurant to establish a unique personality, especially in a mid-sized town with a crowded dining scene like Little Rock, and Capers struggles at times to do so. The quality of ingredients and interesting menu items are certainly where they need to be, while some of the finishing touches and server staff still possess a touch of stiffness that makes both food and staff a bit shaky and unsure at times. For the things that they do well, though — like those potato chips — there isn't a place in town doing it any better, and for that, at least, Capers deserves a lot of credit.