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Thursday, July 25, 2013

An early taste of South on Main

Posted By on Thu, Jul 25, 2013 at 7:00 AM

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I imagine that chef Matt Bell has grown tired of the question, "Hey, when is South on Main opening?" But can you blame the dining public? Sure, many of us originally thought we might be seeing the place open its doors in the early part of 2013, shortly after Matt stepped down from his fill-in role as executive chef at Ashley's. Rumors of its opening date have been floating around for months now, but none have panned out. People are understandably excited. Matt Bell is one of Arkansas's most prestigious chefs, and many were reaffirmed of his potential as he carried the torch flawlessly at The Capital Hotel. Truth be told, I've only been fortunate enough to feast on Bell's offerings once up to this point at a dinner at Ashley's just prior to his leaving. I left quite impressed and confident that Bell was destined to bring something special to the Little Rock dining scene.

While the confirmed opening date is still a bit nebulous, you can be sure that “very soon” is a fairly safe bet. Their social media accounts have been more active as of late, featuring pictures of food and the new dining space.

Recently, Kevin Shalin (of The Mighty Rib) and I were invited by Bell to stop by South on Main and have a looksie at the new space. And lucky for us, the kitchen was firing up some excellent eats which we were fortunate to sample.

Speaking with Bell, he describes some of the construction setbacks and a lot of red tape that's pushed back the opening of South on Main. But he's committed to opening when the timing is right, when he's got all his ducks in a row, the staff adequately trained and prepared to deal with the madness that surrounds restaurant openings. Bell understands that some of his groupies are frustrated that his place is not yet opened, he's more concerned that they’ll will be ready to run on all cylinders when that day finally comes.

(L to R) Schaaf, Lowman, Bell
  • (L to R) Schaaf, Lowman, Bell


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Walking into the restaurant, I was struck by the beautiful renovations and furnishings at South on Main. Most of the wonderful aesthetics of the place can be attributed to Matt's wife, Amy Kelley Bell. Amy tells us that in preserving some of the original decor, she felt inspired to create a space reminiscent of a French bistro with a bit of Southern flare. It's casual but classy. Plenty of dark woods, relics from the old South propped up on numerous shelves, beautiful colored-tile floors, original brick walls, and white paneled ceilings. She's done a terrific job. South on Main is spacious; they plan on being able to seat around 90 guests when including the bar area. The performance stage is the centerpiece of the main dining area, and bands are already anxious to get their music heard here.

Matt described the menu as "adult food without Ashley's price or pretense." Essentially, he's promising a high level of cooking at an affordable, accessible price. Dinner menus will change about 7-8 times a year, but lunch menus promise to be a bit more static. The South Main neighborhood has already become the epicenter for locavores with restaurants, markets, and shops such as The Root, Loblolly, Bernice Gardens farmers market, and Boulevard Bread. Matt hopes to continue that theme by sourcing as much of his product locally as is feasible.

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We were able to sit back in the kitchen and watch Bell and his crew at work. Here, Matt Bell is joined by sous chef, Phillip Schaaf, and pastry chef Matthew Lowman. All three of these gentlemen know their craft well. We sat at a large wooden countertop and were treated to one of the best meals I've had in Little Rock.

We started with a sampler that consisted a few toasted slices of Boulevard's 8-grain bread, pickled green tomatoes, pickled green beans, and sweet pickles. This was accompanied by a chicken liver mousse and a house made peach-fig mustard. Every element was exquisitely done. The mousse was rich, creamy, and smooth with a mild liver flavor. The richness of the mousse was tempered by the bright, sweet pickled vegetables. The mustard was phenomenal. This was pastry chef Lowman's doing. He incorporates Laughing Stock Farms fig, Barnhill Orchard sweet peachs, reduced ale, whole grain mustard, and tops this with bright pink pickled onion. Kevin ate his way through the appetizer with grace and dignity; I devoured it ravenously.

Next we were presented with a light, fresh salad of grilled romaine, bits of pork belly, and soft boiled egg. You put a runny egg on anything and you've already won me over, but this salad was really something to shout about. Lightly dressed, cold and crisp romaine was lightly charred on the grill. You scoop up some of the runny egg yolk into the lettuce, with a touch of fatty pork, and it's surely a salad to be reckoned with.

***Lots more pictures after the jump***

Catfish, corn, avocado
  • chicken and summer vegetable pot
The two main courses were served. The first, a lightly sautéed catfish on a bed of grilled corn, avocado, and tarragon. Truthfully, I'm not the biggest proponent of catfish, but chef Bell and crew have made me a believer. This was delicate, fall-apart tender, and buttery. The catfish is locally raised at Mississippi farm, Pride of the Pond. Spectacular dish, one sure to enchant many an Arkansan. Next we were served a crispy sautéed chicken thigh accompanied by the chef's so-called "summer vegetable pot." The "pot" is a mix of seasonal vegetables—in this case squash, onions, and black-eyed peas—simmered in a rich, flavorful chicken broth. When the savory broth is spooned over the tender, locally raised chicken complete with crispy golden skin, the results are stunning—a dish sure to become a local favorite.

Lastly, dessert arrived. Pastry chef Lowman has a soft spot for nostalgic treats. He’s recreating a number of our childhood favorites and presenting them with a newfound quality and dignity. We were served his version of a Snickers bar. To say it tasted exactly like a Snickers bar would be not entirely true, but all the elements are there, and the flavors are quite recognizable. His candy bar, however, uses high quality dark chocolate sprinkled with a touch of sea salt, handmade peanut butter nougat, and housemade caramel. It’s a blissful experience altogether, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his grown-up candy bars become a cult sensation. He’s also doing a version of Butterfinger bar and oatmeal cream pie.

Chef Bell has managed to accomplish a rare thing. Extraordinary food, beautifully designed and decorated dining space in a setting that is accessible to practically everyone. This may be the most important restaurant to open in Little Rock for years. The wait will be worth it. Keep an eye on their social media (Twitter and Facebook) They'll be rolling out a few preview events (happy hours, concerts, etc.) that will allow you to wrap your lips around some of Bell's food before the official opening.

South on Mains lunch menu
  • South on Main's lunch menu

Catfish, avocado, grilled corn
  • Catfish, avocado, grilled corn

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Housemade Snickers bar
  • Housemade "Snickers" bar

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The bar
  • The bar

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