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Matthew Bell readies Oxford American restaurant 

click to enlarge South on Main Matthew Bell image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Matthew Bell

The target date for opening South on Main, the much-anticipated restaurant/bar/venue collaboration between chef Matthew Bell and The Oxford American magazine in SoMa, has come and gone. "It's the old rule with construction," Bell said. "It's always 25 percent longer than you think." Beyond "soon" and "at least by spring," Bell isn't ready to offer a new target.

But Bell — who recently finished a four-year stint at the Capital Hotel, where he spent much of his tenure as sous chef — hasn't been idle. He recently traveled to Nashville on a culinary scouting mission that included a stop at Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, a legendary fried-chicken restaurant that serves cayenne-laden pan-fried chicken so spicy it inspires "brand new cuss words because no existing exclamation is sufficient," as the Oxford American once described.

Look for chicken livers in the style of Nashville hot chicken on the South on Main menu. They'll show up as appetizer and on a more limited "snack" menu Bell will offer after dinner service. Less expected: Bell said he plans to use them as part of a hot chicken liver salad that he describes as a play on a Caesar Salad, built on Romaine lettuce and topped with a creamy dressing that'll mitigate the heat of the chicken.

Like the Oxford American, Bell wants the restaurant to explore "the entire Southern experience." That means taking iconic regional, Southern food and adding his creative touch to it.

Though Bell, 34, grew up in Missoula, Mont., his father is a Georgia native and introduced him to Southern cooking at a young age, and his wife is a North Little Rock native. Bell trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas, before moving to North Little Rock to intern at Ristorante Capeo. After stints at Capeo and Argenta Seafood Co., he took a position at the Capital Hotel, where he got to work alongside the likes of Lee Richardson and Cassidee Dabney, a former sous chef at the Capital who's now at the renowned Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.

Bell's preferred description for the food he cooked at Ashley's and what he plans to serve at South on Main is "refined Southern." But don't mistake "refined" for "upscale" at South on Main. Bell is keen for the food and atmosphere to be approachable.

"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 said.

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