Matthew Bell, sous chef at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel, will open the restaurant and bar South on Main in the Oxford American magazine’s venue of the same name at 1300 Main St. Bell will own the restaurant and bar and pay rent to the Oxford American, which will program the venue with an array of arts and culture. Barring construction delays, Bell and Oxford American publisher Warwick Sabin point to February as a target for opening.
Bell said he plans to follow the magazine’s lead in exploring the South with his menu.
“You don’t have to put a ton of research into knowing what food you’re going to do when you have something like the Oxford American that’s laid the groundwork. Not just its food issue, but also with the idea of looking at the whole South and realizing that it’s not all fried chicken and banjos. I want to take a look at the entire Southern experience and Southern culture.”
A native of Missoula, Mont., Bell, 33, trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas, before moving to North Little Rock, his wife’s hometown, to intern at Ristorante Capeo. After spending time at Capeo and Argenta Seafood Co., Bell moved to the Capital Hotel, where he’s remained for the last four years. Since chef Lee Richardson left the hotel in June, Bell has run the kitchen in Ashley’s, setting lunch and dinner menus.
Bell and Sabin have long been friends. After the Oxford American announced that it had leased the South Main space, Bell invited Sabin to dinner to pitch him on his ideas for the restaurant component. “After about five minutes of talking, we knew we were exactly on the same page.”
“Refined Southern” is how Bell describes the South on Main menu.
“We named our LLC Home to Table because we want to take that vision of what people do at home and refine it and offer it in a casual setting with great service and really showcase that the South has always done so much with so little, whether it be whole animal butchery or whole vegetables.”
He expects the price points to be around $8 to $15 for lunch and $15 to $25 for dinner. Lunch will be served every weekday, and dinner will be offered Tuesday through Saturday. Bell said he and Sabin agree that programming on the stage will follow dinner service, though he said he could imagine some exceptions. He anticipates serving dinner until 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. Seating will likely accomodate 80 to 100. Bell said he's excited about the space's expansive patio, used as a refuge for smokers during Juanita's time in the building. A small garden, overseen by a local gardening organization, is one idea.
Like the magazine's new editor, Bell had his Southern bona fides at the ready. His father grew up in Savannah, Ga. "I guarantee you I was the only kid who grew up in Montana who grew up eating grits," he said, laughing. As he got to know his wife's family in Arkansas, he said he really fell for Southern food culture. "I found it amazing that they have these recipes that they just pass down in these handwritten books, and they have these arguments: 'Nelly's pecan pie was way better than Aunt Frita's pecan pie.' You don't find that sort of tradition in Montana or California, where a lot my family is from."
Working at Ashley's, Bell said he's learned about Southern cooking from Lee Richardson and other Capital sous chefs such as Cassidee Dabney, who's now at the renowned Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. Through Ashley's connection to the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi (both are owned by the Stephens family), he's also gotten broader exposure to Southern cuisine through time spent with top Southern chefs like Chris Hastings, of Hot and Hot Fish in Birmingham, and Frank Brightsen, of Brightsen's in New Orleans.
Bell said he's fixed on becoming a community anchor for the neighborhoods served by South Main businesses. While he'll focus on Southern fare broadly, simply by being in Arkansas, he'll serve food familiar to Arkansans.
"I've heard chef’s in town say that Arkansas doesn’t have a food culture. I think maybe the Arkansas food culture hasn’t translated nationally, but if you live here you definitely know there is a food culture and heritage. If you look at Tennessee to the Low Country, there’s this very diverse landscape and food style. But we have that really packed into one state from the Ozarks to South Arkansas and then over to the Delta and then up to Jonesboro — it’s kind of a microcosm of the whole South."
He said he expects some items on the menu to stay the same, but he's found success at the hotel by keeping dishes familiar but changing them with the season.
"For example, as we get out of the great tomato and pepper season, we go away from shrimp and grits and get into shrimp with pintos and cornbread and pepper jelly. People might’ve loved that shrimp and grits, but they get that it’s still 'the shrimp.' "
He said cooking seasonally is something that's long been part of Southern cooking.
"In the summer if you can capitalize on canning, preserving and pickling, then when you lose your season before you get into your winter vegetables, you can do things with pickled vegetables. That’s something that will be really important to me.
"I love the idea of charcuterie plates, but I more love the idea of a Southern pickle plate. Rather than salumes and shaved stuff, maybe you’ll see pickled pigs feet and pickles and jams and jellies. Stuff that people can identify with, and they’re like, 'That chow-chow is just like my grandmother made it.' "