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We read food blogs. We follow foodies' Facebook streams. We listen to Little Rock Foodcast, the informative podcast from local foodie Steve Shuler. And we usually love the restaurants the foodies rave about. Except Natchez.
We went there twice not too long after it opened in November 2012 and just didn't think the quality of the food or the ambience matched the prices. Neither lunch nor dinner was a good experience for us. So we didn't go back.
Yet folks with whom we almost always agree continued to tout Natchez as among the city's best. So for the first time in about two years we went back to Natchez — for lunch and for dinner, on the same day. And this time we got it — in a major way.
Natchez is owned and run by chef Alexis Jones, one of at least three young Arkansas restaurateurs who schooled under chef Lee Richardson at Ashley's at the Capital Hotel. We were thrilled and a little surprised to see Jones at the helm of the kitchen at both lunch and dinner. (That's not the norm at many restaurants, though it might seem like it should be.) And we're sure her front-line presence is one reason why our food was so good.
Our lunch started with two cups of soup ($5 for a cup; $7 for a bowl): rabbit arugula and chicken with wild rice. The former featured a large nest of shredded rabbit in a very lightly flavored broth; conversely, the chicken broth was much richer, and the use of dark meat added additional flavor.
Our mains were the Hot Brown sandwich ($10) and the lamb gnocchi ($14). The classic sandwich that hails from the historic Brown Hotel in Louisville gets an upscale treatment at Natchez with large hunks of tender dark-meat turkey from Hillcrest Artisan Meats, several strips of premium bacon and a Mornay sauce that tasted more like a classic bechamel, all piled on Leidenheimer bread, the hallmark of New Orleans po-boys. The ingredients worked well together, but we thought the sauce was a bit bland. The accompanying simple salad featured tender greens, a light vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan.
We could find zero fault with the lamb gnocchi, one of our favorite dishes of the year. It was pure brilliance — tasty, tender, succulent shards of lamb shoulder teamed with soft potato gnocchi. The creamed kale added a nice gooiness; the grilled onion provided a strong flavor profile and a bit of sweetness. Shaved Parmesan was a nice touch, too. This dish is amazing.
Never go to Natchez and not get dessert. Pastry chef Zara Abbasi Wilkerson is a wizard, and you'll be wooed by her many delights lined up on the counter at Natchez. We fell for the Nutella pie, which was thick and creamy with a chocolate/nut bottom crust that would have been fabulous on its own. Like all desserts, the pie is $7; we remember desserts being $9 when we were there a long while back, one of the turnoffs for us at the time.
Dinner started with brisket rillette ($14), delightfully greasy, extremely tender beef served with very buttery mashed potato cakes. We also chose the pork belly poutine ($15) from the starters section as a main course; it was fabulous in quality and ample in quantity. Even though the ingredients were different, it reminded us of our lamb gnocchi in its treatment — same bowl, same great combination of flavors, only this time it was crispy potatoes and tender pork bound by tangy Fontina cheese. It was outstanding.
There is a daily lunch and dinner special at $12 and $20, respectively. Our dining companion greatly enjoyed her seafood gumbo, though the roux looked a little light for our tastes and, frankly, a $20 bowl of gumbo should include large lumps of lobster (this one doesn't).
The lamb in the lamb tortellini ($23) was succulent and the accompanying root vegetables were cooked perfectly.
This time we opted for peanut butter pie for dessert and declared it even creamier, richer and better than the Nutella pie. It has rocketed to the upper echelon of our "favorite desserts in Little Rock" list.
We ate often at the cafeteria that once occupied the Natchez space starting about two decades ago, and the atmosphere didn't feel so different when we last were at Natchez. But since then the long western wall has been repainted in turquoise and deep orange. Art that reflects France, New Orleans and other exotic locales spices up the space, as does a sofa, rug and cool art in the small waiting area. We still think more floor coverings and tablecloths would soften things and cut down on the echo factor.
Given the quality of food and service — we had knowledgeable and friendly waitresses — those minor decor complaints are certainly not deal-breakers. Now that we've been back to Natchez, we finally understand the buzz among the foodies.
The lunch and dinner menus at Natchez are fairly similar, but prices are much lower at lunch, so if you want to get a first taste of the restaurant, lunch might be the meal for you.