- Brian Chilson
- SWING AND A MISS: Trout cake with gulf shrimp, caramelized fennel and red pepper and brown butter grits from Natchez.
One of the first things you see when you walk into Natchez (named for the Mississippi city where chef/owner Alexis Jones' mother grew up) is a print of a painted Tuscan countryside scene. So the vibe is a little bit Dixie and a little bit Old World, which sounds promising. We've been hoping for a place in town that hits that almost-fine dining thing, the extravagant spin on Southern comfort they do so well in New Orleans, a city Jones has cited as an inspiration.
After a recent dinner, sad to report: We're still waiting.
The restaurant is located in the Tower Building downtown in the former home of Your Mama's (it's pretty surreal seeing the old buffet line transformed into a sleek bar). A brief glance at the menu reveals that we're a long way from the old cafeteria-style dive.
For starters we had bison chili ($8) and gnocchi with crab, ricotta and truffle ($10). The chili was solid, if a bit under-salted (this kind of becomes a theme) though the cornbread that came with it was dry (this really becomes a theme).
We had been told that gnocchi was the house specialty, so we were eager to try. They were quite well made, pillowy and flavorful, crisped brown on one side, and it's possible to imagine them going well with the lump crab and the ricotta crumbles. But no sauce! All of these reasonably nice parts had nothing to bring them together and the gnocchi, which might have been excellent swimming in something, were left to their own devices and fell flat.
For entrees, we had the trout brandade on fried polenta ($20) and the duck confit crepe ($16). The crepes had the size and consistency of taco tortillas, with the duck served open-face, and some lettuce greens strewn about. Again, no sauce, a dry rendition that we found particularly lacking given that just down the way at Ashley's, where Jones used to work as a line cook, we'd recently sampled an exquisite and moist version of the same dish, with both crepe (an actual crepe) and duck prepared with meticulous care.
Brandade refers to emulsifying fish in olive oil and can yield silky, creamlike fish that is strongly flavored but delicate. The Natchez version was more like a latke, which is actually up our alley. But the trout, formed into a crisp potato-y patty, was placed on top of a fried-polenta round, and that was that. The result: pale starchy cake on top of pale starchy cake. You guessed it — not enough seasoning, no sauce.
Both entrees lacked any zest or kick. The most interesting thing going on was an unsubtle sweetness to both the duck and the trout, but again, the end result was more desert than dessert.
If you think we're being harsh, keep in mind, appetizers run between $8 and $14, entrees $16 to $20. At half the price the dinner would have been merely forgettable, but if you're hoping for a nice night out, the result is really a shame. A high-end take on country cooking demands taking it up a notch. Take Natchez's bison chili — throw chili on the menu at a place like this and you're imagining something unforgettable. Bison is a nice twist, but this dish was just a standard, somewhat bland ground-meat chili.
A return trip for lunch was much more reasonable, though the meal's best feature — simple, well-made soups — were a bit steep at $6. We also tried the shrimp and grits ($9.50) and a bourbon-glazed pork loin ($9.50). Not bad, though the grits were too gritty and the glaze on the pork veered into pancake-syrup territory. We're belaboring the complaints at this point. Lunch was fine, and it's not the worst option for the downtown business crowd. Still, we're not likely to return anytime soon.
All of these gripes — consider them more a lament than a diss. Lord knows we need more options for dinner downtown. Little Rock could really use a place like what Natchez aspires to be: down-home gourmet, a place with ambitious, worldly food that retains a casual vibe. A fancy take on the familiar.
This formula has led to world-class restaurants in many Southern cities. Maybe that's what South on Main, the restaurant in the Oxford American's new space that's set to open next year, will turn out to be. And hey, maybe Natchez can find its way, but unfortunately it's not quite there.
323 Center St.
Menus change frequently, often with new experiments with Jones' fresh gnocchi.
11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 5:30 p.m. to close Thursday through Saturday.
All major credit cards. Full bar.