A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.
We have been part of the hype machine for the restaurants in the refurbished Capital Hotel, beginning with a feature on executive chef Lee Richardson's New Orleans roots, his grand designs to elevate dining in the historic hotel with fresh and inventive use of locally produced ingredients and the credentialed staff he'd assembled to deliver the goods.
Having finally landed a dinner reservation (on a Monday night on which nearly every table was full), we're happy to say we didn't exaggerate a bit.
Ashley's, the hotel's main dining room, is that good. The room was always gorgeous. It's even more lovely, though a bit smaller to allow for kitchen expansion, and even more like a Michelin-starred restaurant in appearance with new plush red banquettes in some parts of the room. You could quibble that the creative cooking might have encouraged a departure from the classic interior to something more fashion forward, but it's not a quibble we'd offer.
The fittings, from abundant fresh flowers to stylish hardware for every specific need, are impeccable. The service is attentive, but not cloying. The wine list, reflecting owner Warren Stephens' interest, is too broad and deep for quick inspection. Pricey premier cru Bordeaux are available, but so are some perfectly drinkable wines in every category under $30 a bottle and affordable wines by the glass. Yes, there's an extensive list of bottled water, but we drew no arched eyebrows when ordering ours from the eco-friendly tap.
We've backed into the main event — food. The temptation is to go purple — a symphony of flavors, drawn from a complement of ingredients and preparations worthy of the instrumentation of a major symphony.
Or you could just say a roster of choice ingredients, some very humble, are put together in surprising ways. Some juxtaposition might surprise you, but not a one put us off. It was a dreamy night of culinary entertainment at a fair price, given the production values.
Our strategy was simple — the five-course tasting menu ($75) for me and a three-course prix fixe menu ($45) for my wife. The tasting menu — tiny portions artfully arranged on giant white plates — comes with a different wine for each course. (Only a couple of swallows, mind you.) The three-course menu essentially provides the dessert course for free, judged against a la carte prices. But it can be an even bigger bargain if you order the priciest choices, as my wife did in ordering lobster twice — both as the stuffing in agnolotti, a feather-light fresh pasta envelope, and then, amusingly, as “cassoulette.” This featured a moist and tender lobster tail (often overcooked in other restaurants) atop the classic slow-cooked large beans, all served in a small-cast iron crock. I'm not sure the best part weren't the chunks of crisped pork belly scattered among the creamy beans. She finished with an individual Southern pecan pie, served warm, with a scoop of ice cream that promised brown butter flavor but tasted mostly plain vanilla.
Dinner begin with a free nibble — an amuse bouche, the French call it. Ours was a dab of smoked trout, mild and not too smoky, on top of arugula.
I was a little sorry about the freebie, because smoked trout also was a component in my first course. But it proved to be a totally different dish, composed of bits of smoked trout but also something the menu called lemon dill potato salad, mustard greens and horseradish vinaigrette. You wouldn't have recognized the fried bits of riced potato in a tart blend with slightly wilted mustard greens as potato salad. But I believe you'd have fought over every last morsel, as my wife and I did. It came with an Australian rose, dry, but not too.