Let's be clear up front: This is an ode to decadence. To artful culinary possibilities opened up by the creative arrangement of excellent ingredients and meticulous attention to detail. For many diners, favorite bites in Arkansas lean on the downhome end of the spectrum — a catfish crust still crackling from grease or the succulent punch of barbecue. And that is all right; to everything a season. But sometimes you might want to put on your fancy dress and treat yourself to something fine.
In recent years, that meant Ashley's, the signature restaurant at the Capital Hotel downtown that helped establish former executive chef Lee Richardson as one of the most talented chefs in the South. Richardson, who arrived at the Capital Hotel in 2006 to reopen Ashley's, drew national acclaim for his work in Little Rock, earning multiple nominations for the James Beard Foundation Awards, the prestigious honors awarded to the nation's top chefs and restaurateurs.
Richardson left in the summer of 2012 and later that year, the Capital brought in Chef Joël (pronounced to rhyme with Noel) Antunes, a native of France who has worked around the world, picking up a 2005 James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work with his namesake restaurant in Atlanta and helping London restaurant Les Saveurs win a Michelin star back in the '90s. Like many Arkansans, some of the best and most memorable meals we've had in the state were at Ashley's, so we've been eager to see what Antunes would bring.
Last May, the restaurant closed for a redesign and reopened in August with a new name, One Eleven. After a few recent visits, we are happy to report that this new incarnation remains the go-to spot for an evening of splurging on fine food in Little Rock; and, while it will remain a special occasion for most diners, has pleasantly reinvented itself with a more modern and relaxed atmosphere.
The biggest change is a redesign of the dining room. No need to put it delicately: If the old Ashley's often had the best food on offer in the state, the ambience was a nearly catastrophic bummer. The stuffy decor — heavy drapes, excessive crown molding, dreary carpet, mirrors everywhere — was an icy caricature of old-fashioned ritzy hotels. The aim was class, the result claustrophobic. One Eleven is now more inviting — there's a sleek zinc bar up front, they've done away with the awkward partition in the middle of the room, there is plenty of light and the emphasis is on tasteful, minimalist design. Like the name One Eleven, the new look is clean if slightly generic. To some extent, they've traded one caricature for another: We are unmistakably at an upscale hotel restaurant, of the chic and contemporary variety rather than the old-money dandy sort. Still, this is unquestionably an improvement, bright and open, an inviting space to relax and indulge in decadent offerings.
More importantly, the food does not disappoint. Ashley's under Richardson perhaps had more of a distinctive style, often employing the Dixie gourmet edge (fancy takes on the familiar) that has become an art form in Richardson's native New Orleans. Antunes has slightly toned down the Southern vibe at One Eleven, though there are still touches here and there (the shrimp and grits ($14) is a nice rendition featuring tangy-creamy grits and tender cubes of spicy sausage). The large menu is varied and cosmopolitan, with influences from Europe, Asia and New American cuisine. It's set up to be friendly to locals out for a nice occasion or tourists passing through the hotel, a kind of greatest hits of high-end choices. Call it around-the-First-World.
The appetizers include a number of showstoppers. In case you're the sort turned off by beets from being subjected to the grubby canned variety as a child, trust us: The organic beetroot salad ($13) is a revelation. Baby beets of various colors were served around burrata, a semisoft Italian cheese made from mozzarella. The lovely citrus dressing popped with robust flavor, accenting the punchy, almost tropical zip of the beets.
The warm octopus salad ($14) was another treasure. Succulent pieces of octopus, roasted almonds, sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts were placed around a delightful almond puree. The arrangement was swimming in a shallot dressing with a citrus kick (less sweet than the dressing for the beet salad; one of Antunes' gifts is a few repeated notes here and there that give the menu a kind of thematic unity, but each effort is distinct).
Various other classic high-end starters are on offer. There are Oysters Rockefeller ($18), the famous New Orleans indulgence. Antunes' version hits the mark with luscious Maine oysters encased in a subtly flavored but exuberantly creamy baked topping. If oysters are an aphrodisiac, this is quite the showcase: It's a heavenly sensory thrill as the outer crisp breaks gently to the tangy and herbal mayonnaise-and-olive-oil filling and finally the oyster within as exclamation point (an order comes with six, perfect for sharing with a big party, as just one is quite rich). The house-smoked salmon with dill dressing ($14) is also excellent — buttery, flavorful, delicate — and is served with pickled cucumbers and espresso mustard. Those might sound a bit strange, but they turn out to be a wonderful combination with the fish: rich, clean and complex. Here we see Antunes at his best: simple flavors but never one-note, subtly sneaking in combinations that sing together. One nit to pick: The brioche toast that came with the salmon was a bit heavy and tended to overpower the delicate fish. Skip the bread or ask for crackers.
And sorry PETA, but we had to try the foie gras ($16). It was perfectly seared, each bite the sort of luxury that almost feels otherworldly — exquisitely lush and fatty, yet somehow also light. It's a melt-in-your-mouth distillation of gamey flavor.
Many of Antunes' entrees are served with an array of fresh vegetables and a sauce beneath — a simple arrangement that yields rich flavors and surprising complexities. Take the seared diver scallops ($26) we sampled on a recent visit. The scallops were perfectly cooked, with the most gentle resistance to the bite (it's always a boon to find a place that does scallops right — is there any food with such a clearer line between divine and disaster?). They were served with pillowy gnocchi, zesty sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini, artichoke hearts and lima beans. What really sent the dish over the moon was the tomato-based sauce, made with chicken stock, brown sugar and anchovies — aromatic and sweet, with a jarring and punchy bite. The pulse of the savory flavors was a wonderful surprise, and enriched the vegetables so that familiar flavors felt fresh and new.
Antunes' knack for coaxing interesting flavors out of simply prepared vegetables was likewise on display in the roast chicken breast confit ($16) we sampled for lunch. The sweet, juicy pop of a shallot (almost fruity), fully immersed in the fatty sauce was unforgettable. Do we have praise songs for shallots? We should, apparently. Antunes is a kind of wizard in this way, finding maximal possibility in the familiar and avenues for adventure in simplicity.
In every dish, little treasures abound, and the attentive diner enjoys some culinary detective work: Was that an apricot? Were those truffle flakes? Was that a little flower of fennel? The plating is immaculate and playful. What a treat, for example, to find every tiny mushroom arranged stem up around the roast halibut with potato gnocci ($29), a delicious and perfectly executed arrangement over an earthy broth, with a miniature pitcher of velvety red-wine-butter sauce to pour on top.
Not every entree we sampled was a home run. The Berkshire pork with orecchiette pasta and chorizo ($23) and the roast duck breast with figs and gnocchi romaine ($26) were both quite good, but the meat was a bit chewy and the brown sauces were well made but not memorable. Still, the vegetables were a perfectly selected medley.
The service at One Eleven is now crisper and more efficient and professional than it had been at the tail end of Ashley's before Antunes arrived. We had a few niggling critiques, of the sort only noticeable at an upscale place — occasional bumbling and a disappointing lack of familiarity with the details of the dishes among a number of servers. To be clear, the service was friendly and attentive but well short of dazzling, which does matter to some diners when they're spending for a big night out. One of the hallmarks of high-end dining in bigger cities — the sorts of places that One Eleven should aim to compete with — is a breezy professionalism among the servers that primes their customers' palates with knowledge of the menu and imparts a feeling of smooth confidence. This element (while not an outright problem) remains a work in progress at One Eleven.
Management at One Eleven hopes that the restaurant's new incarnation will attract casual diners and be more than a special-occasion destination. For most Little Rock residents, color us skeptical, particularly if you're interested in the restaurant's excellent and encyclopedic wine list or its exquisite rotation of dessert options (we can't stop raving about a recent sampling of blueberry tart with honey thyme ice cream), since a night out for two is probably going to be in the range of $200 after drinks and tip. The lunch menu does offer a couple of very good deals; the "express lunch" ($16) pulls together small portions of soup, starter, main course, cheese, bread and dessert served at once; the "3 cocottes" special ($13) offers a three-course sampling of three dishes (the latter was the source of the only dud we've experienced at One Eleven: The crab quiche opener was fine, but the fried vermicelli noodles that followed were dull, and the broiled sea bass closer was overwhelmed by an overly sweet sauce). Still, both the atmosphere and the price tag are likely going to be on the high end for the everyday downtown lunch crowd.
All that said, the prices at One Eleven are by no means outrageous; if anything, they're more reasonable than similar restaurants in other cities. The key is food that feels worth the extravagance, and Antunes delivers. At a previous stop in New York, he was criticized for overly busy food, too heavily French-accented. Whatever the merits of those complaints, he won't be accused of that in Little Rock. He has gone elegant, simple and familiar. And as it turns out, One Eleven fills a needed niche in the rapidly improving Little Rock dining scene: subtle refinement so well executed that it feels spirited and new.