Sunday, August 18, 2013

Natchez finds its groove

Posted By on Sun, Aug 18, 2013 at 12:46 PM

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Food writing is opinionated writing, and is subject to many things: the whims and tastes of the author, the service and execution on a given night at whatever establishment is being judged — even things like the weather can influence the way a meal is perceived. For Chef Alexis Jones and her Natchez Restaurant in downtown's Tower Building, the reviews from this publication have been mixed. My colleague Daniel Walker took a trip to the eatery last November, soon after it opened, and came back with the impression that Little Rock was getting something quite good from Mississippi native Jones' menu. A subsequent dining review by another staff writer in December 2012 couldn't have been more different, citing seasoning issues and dry dishes in giving Natchez a pretty rough time of it. Because of two reviews in such a short time, I put off visiting Natchez for awhile — there's just too much going on in Little Rock to visit places that other writers have already covered.

But here we are, getting on over half a year since we've talked about Natchez, and it finally felt like time to give the place a try for myself and see if my own opinion would swing to the good or the bad. I spent the afternoon with some friends at the Arkansas Arts Center's "Treasures of Kenwood House" exhibit (which I highly recommend), and since the restaurant is just a short drive from the museum and we were all hungry, we deemed it the perfect place for some dinner. As an ulterior motive, our good friend Zara Abbasi Wilkerson has just taken a job as Natchez's pastry chef, so we wanted to totally make her nervous by coming in on a night we knew she'd be in the kitchen.

Natchez has a menu that regularly changes, so I'll start with a fair warning that the dishes I discuss might not always be available when you visit. I'll also start by saying that the meal I experienced at the Tower Building eatery was among one of the best I've had, not only in Little Rock, but maybe ever. From start to finish, our dinner party was treated to fresh ingredients, good technique, and friendly service that maintained our table quite well despite the restaurant's being short a bartender. Our cocktail-loving companions got started with some whiskey sours they pronounced delicious, and I was happy to find North Coast Brewing's Scrimshaw Pilsner right at the top of their beer list. As a nice surprise, the kitchen sent out a plate of toasted bread with a jar of salmon rillettes for a starter, a wonderful beginning to a great meal.

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Generally being a fan of classic pork rillettes over their salmon counterpart, I was skeptical of this starter...until I took the first bite. Mild-flavored smoked salmon preserved in unctuous fat that spread across the toast like butter, but maintained enough meaty texture to give each bite some weight. Our table passed the jar of fish from person to person, each reaction the same: a first bite, a closing of the eyes to savor, and then wide-eyed amazement at how good this fish really was. A second round and we were already eying the quickly diminishing jar with a sense of regret that soon we would be done with this fantastic fish.

Salads came next, and while there's not usually much to say about salad, my spinach salad with walnuts, goat cheese, and Laughing Stock Farms grape tomatoes made for a perfect palate cleanser after the rich rillettes. If you all haven't had the pleasure of Laughing Stock's produce, be sure to catch them at one of our farmers markets — these tiny little tomatoes were bursting with a sweet, heady flavor that really made our salad something special. The light dressing didn't overpower the flavor of the spinach, and the cheese and walnut mixture added some nice textural elements as well as a great deal of depth to support the bright sweetness of the tomatoes.

As we moved on to our entrees, we were already feeling pretty good about the restaurant. For my dish, I chose a dish of chicken livers served over pork belly with pepper jelly, kale, and a bed of Natchez's famed gnocchi, which lived up to every wonderful thing I'd heard about the pillowy-soft pasta. The livers were dredged in a spicy breading and fried crisp, but it was the underlying play of spicy peppers, rich pork belly, and those gnocchi that really made the dish into something special. After a fantastic chicken liver experience a week before at South on Main, I found myself debating on which dish was better, and I have to say (with apologies to Matt Bell) that Natchez gets the edge — mostly because I'm a sucker for pork belly and spice.

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The other dishes we ordered were also quite successful: there was my wife's pork with purple hull peas and lardons served over grits, a perfect high-end comfort food dish that combined fall-apart tender pork, sweet fresh peas, and some of the smoothest, fluffiest grits I've ever had the pleasure to sample. A dish of huge Gulf shrimp served over fine-grained farro with coconut curry was decided by the table to be the best shrimp dish in Little Rock, owing mostly to the incredible freshness of the shrimp that Chef Jones has flown in daily. A final dish of tile fish over lentils with grapes was quite surprising, with the sweetness of the grapes providing an unlikely, yet perfect pairing to the sweet, flaky white fish.

And of course, since we were there to support the new pastry chef, we ordered several desserts. A Moroccan Rice Pudding was a clever play on the Southern staple with a flavor profile that reminded us of chai, while a Pineapples Foster with pistachio brittle was a nice combination of caramelized flavors. An Apple Galette with caramel sauce was equally pleasing, but the consensus pick for best dessert on the table was a Triple Chocolate Torte that featured a roasted walnut caramel sauce and some of the thickest, most luscious whipped cream I've ever tasted. Moist, smooth flavors made each bite of this torte a pleasure, from the slight bitterness of the chocolate and roasted nuts to the light sweetness of the cream topping — it's a dessert that would have been worth a trip to Natchez alone.

My final verdict? I can't speak to our reviewer's previous bad experience at Natchez, but it appears that the restaurant has settled into a nice groove since that review was written. From start to finish, our party found the food to be outstanding, the service to be good, and the atmosphere to be a nice mix between laid-back and sophisticated. Natchez is located at 4th and Center downtown, next to Bray Gourmet in the Tower Building, and if you haven't tried it — or haven't tried it in awhile — I highly recommend giving the place a shot for lunch or dinner.

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