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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Meet chef Alexis Jones and check out her Natchez Restaurant

Posted By on Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 2:35 PM

Chef Alexis Jones
  • Chef Alexis Jones
Natchez is one of the latest restaurants to open its doors to the patrons of downtown Little Rock. Natchez derives its name from the Mississippi city in which chef/owner Alexis Jones’ mother was raised. It’s been only about two weeks since Natchez became fully operational, but it’s already receiving quite a warm welcome with the downtown crowd, particularly with the voracious appetites of the mid-day lunch mob. As we reported recently, chef Jones’ vision for Natchez is an ever-evolving menu of classically prepared, southern-inspired dishes with contemporary French and Mediterranean influences. Jones is committed to using local ingredients and sustainable practices, but is painstakingly particular about impeccable taste and the use of the freshest ingredients available. I had the opportunity to learn a little more about Alexis and her culinary background. Her personality is as bright and vibrant as her cooking, and I’m fairly certain that most who sample her food will be impressed with what this first-time executive chef and restaurant owner is dishing up. I also had the opportunity to sample a handful of items from the small, focused menu. Jones may be a fresh-faced restaurateur, but she is no stranger in the kitchen. She has been cutting her teeth behind stovetops across the country, and her experience is evident in each bite.

“I have loved to cook my entire life,” says Jones. While in college at Ole Miss, she worked as a server, hostess, and assistant garde manger. While she originally planned on attending culinary school after graduation, life took her to Washington, DC, where she worked at The Mansion on O Street as the manager of the restaurant and hotel. Here she began learning the ropes from the cooking staff and assisted with menu development for the bustling restaurant. After realizing her passion for cooking, she decided to ship off to Chicago to attend culinary school.

In regards to her time in The Windy City, Jones relates, “This was an extraordinary experience for me. We had opportunities to help at every large culinary event and the availability to stage in any kitchen in the city. The food scene was unbelievable. I had about 600 restaurants within a mile of my apartment. I think I could have stayed in Chicago forever but I also wanted to get back to the South.”

Pork loin grillades, white grits
  • Pork loin grillades, white grits
Jones moved to Little Rock in 2011 where she was offered a position as a line cook at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel. In working with chef Lee Richardson, Jones describes a magnificent learning opportunity in which she was “given a lot of creative freedom,” helping develop the lunch menu, working with the banquet events, and formulating the amuse bouche. She also had the opportunity to work with chef David Thomas (now Chef de Cuisine at the acclaimed South Beach restaurant, The Bazaar by the renowned Jose Andres) and describes Thomas as “the most professional and enlightened chef I’ve ever met.”

Growing up outside of Jackson, MS, Jones tells of traveling to New Orleans as often as possible. Her philosophy in cooking and respect for southern food was built around her admiration for celebrated chefs such as John Besh, Paul Prudhomme, and Susan Spicer. Dishes commonly found on tables in New Orleans made regular appearances in her family’s kitchen, and Jones attributes much of her passion for cooking to a heritage studded with exceptional home cooks.

Since opening shop in the historic Catlett Tower Building, Natchez has been slowly building a reputation for artfully-prepared dishes, both technically remarkable and surprisingly imaginative. The space is moderately upscale, with a casual elegance, lacking the stuffiness one might expect from a white-linen/shirt-and-tie affair. It’s comfortable and unpretentious, the perfect playground for Alexis Jones to impart her personality on a plate.

I sampled a good deal of the current menu on a recent visit. Jones constructs a revolving daily lunch menu and plans on regularly restructuring the dinner options as well to fit the seasonal availabilities of her ingredients. Here’s a bit of what’s going on right now…

First off, if you only get one thing out of what I’m telling you right now, it should be this: get the gnocchi…it is simply stunning. I’ve never had a gnocchi dish that rivals this show-stopping version created by Chef Jones. Using Yukon Gold potatoes, she creates the most silky, tender, almost-creamy gnocchi these lips have ever wrapped themselves around. Then she sautés them in a bolognese of ground bison, ground pork, chunks of bacon, and ground veal. The layers of flavor that come from this harmonious mixture of proteins is like nothing else you’ve tasted. But there’s more…she adds a dollop of her light, velvety-soft housemade ricotta, stirs in a mixture of tender browned carrots, tomatoes, and onions with a bit of heavy cream, and finishes the whole thing with a fried egg. When I cut into the egg, and the bright golden yolk cascades down the layers of meat, vegetables, and ricotta, I was so happy I nearly welled up with tears. The taste…oh my, it darn near brought me to my knees. One of the best dishes I’ve eaten in Little Rock.

Gnocchi, bolognese, fried egg
  • Gnocchi, bolognese, fried egg
The parade of fantastic food did not stop there however. Next came a thickly-sliced pork loin grillades. I’m not typically too keen on pork loin, in fact I generally avoid them on menus, as I find that doing one right, one that’s flavorful and not too dry, is not something that’s exactly commonplace in the restaurant business. But Natchez in doing it exceptionally well, combining the pork with complimentary flavors that work to naturally enhance the flavors of the white meat. The loin gets sautéed in reduced apple cider, with thyme and a touch of maple. This is paired with tender, stone-ground white grits soaking in cream and cheese. It’s altogether a dish that made me believe in pork loin again.

A lovely piece of cornmeal crusted trout pontchartrain came next. Pontchartrain is a classic southern sauce typically used to flavor fish and other seafood dishes. It’s made from a mix of brown butter, flour, stock, white wine, a little cream and lemon. The end result is a surprisingly light, flavorful sauce that, while buttery and rich, allows the fish to keep its voice on the plate without completely overwhelming it. One side of the trout, the skin on, is crispy while the opposite is succulent and tender with an ultra-fine layer of cornmeal crusting. The dish in finished with a mélange of toothsome but tender deep, red beets, caramelized onion, bright squash, shitake mushroom and jumbo lump crabmeat. It’s another sparkling dish that reflects Jones’ skill and talent for creating dishes with layers of flavor and texture, despite its elegantly rustic nature.

Baked Alaska
  • Baked Alaska
Dessert did not disappoint either, bringing to life some of the southern family recipes for which Jones holds a certain fondness. First came a simple cherries jubilee, with smooth, creamy vanilla ice cream, topped with black cherries sautéed in a simple syrup of butter, sugar, and brandy. It was a perfect finish to a fairly substantial meal. Lastly came Jones’ take on “baked Alaska.” Here she starts with a genoise sponge cake, an Italian specialty that is dense and almost chewy. The unconventional cake choice for this dish is what really sets it apart, making it a truly inspired move on Jones’ part. It’s resting in a base of creamy ice cream which has been allowed to nearly completely melt, and topped with a toasted Italian meringue.

It’s clear to me that, while young and still making a name for herself, chef Alexis Jones is immensely talented with a keen sense of purpose and restraint in her dishes. It’s all too common to tout your menu as “reinvented,” but actually translating that on the plate is not an easy feat to accomplish. You don’t see “savory quail bread pudding” or “coconut curry chicken salad” on many traditionally southern menus. But in this case, Jones is showing us a less commonly seen side of regional cooking and doing it with remarkable skill, all the while giving diners the pleasure of tasting a bit of her passion for the traditional and much-loved classics of her youth.

Natchez Restaurant
4th and Center St.
Little Rock
501-372-1167
natchezrestaurant.com

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