There was the announcement, the anticipation ... and then the waiting, which stretched across renovation issues, contractor speed issues and even (unfounded) rumors that Chef Matthew Bell didn't even have a menu in place for his Oxford American-associated restaurant South on Main. Then there were the labels: Southern, New Southern, farm-to-table, roots cooking — a veritable swarm of buzzwords that fueled debates both online and in the real world. With all the hype and hyperventilating reaching a fever pitch, the doors of the place finally opened to the public and only one question remained, the only one that ever really mattered: How's the food?
The first thing to be noted about the South on Main menu is that it tries to walk a fine line between the upscale small-portion/big-plate restaurants of the world and the heartier, stick-to-your-ribs type of grub that some of the earthier ingredients like grits and chicken livers might indicate. For the most part, the restaurant achieves this balance, with portion sizes that are perhaps smaller (and pricier) than the local greasy spoons but pack enough punch with intense flavors and good combinations of protein and vegetables that it's easy to leave stuffed without breaking the bank. In the wrong chef's hands, this could lead to a hodge-podge of overpriced, vaguely Southern-flavored, and entirely too-precious cuisine; in Matt Bell's hands, the result is dishes that impress by their simple ingredients coming together to form complex layers of flavor.
Our first trip to South on Main came just days after the doors first opened, and the new was still on everything, including the service. Management seemed to realize that their brand new kitchen and dining room staff might still need some practice, and kindly sent our table (and several others nearby) a bowl of Boiled Peanuts ($3) as an apology for service that was slow, but friendly. The peanuts themselves were a spicy treat, soft and hot — and quite a shock to members of our party who had never had them before and were not expecting their roasted chestnut-like consistency. Still, the bowl was quickly emptied as we all decided that the boiled peanut was a treat we had overlooked in the past.
When our entrees arrived, the star of the table was the Hot Chicken Liver Salad ($5 half, $9 full), an interesting take on the classic wedge salad that paired cold iceberg lettuce with spicy-battered chicken livers, house dressing, blue cheese crumbles, and bacon. Mild and sweet, the livers were an excellent rich base for the sharp cheese and crunchy lettuce, while the bacon added a smokiness to the salad that made the entire dish one pleasurable bite after another. Our dining companions who were not as interested in livers went for the Catfish Hoppin' John ($12), a dish of lightly seared catfish served with tasso, pickled tomatoes, and fried okra. There isn't any catfish quite like this in Little Rock — first, because it's not battered and fried or blackened, and second because it isn't overcooked to bland dryness. Instead, the moist fillet retains its natural meatiness, a theme that carries over to the field peas in the hoppin' john — they, too, still have some freshness and give to them. The tomatoes add a nice tangy kick to the fish, while the tasso brings a level of spicy richness to the plate.
If lunch was a light affair of salads and fish, dinner proved to be a much weightier, if more uneven, affair. Our first appetizer, the Pickled Shrimp ($12) was lovely to look at, with large gulf shrimp accompanied by salad of basil, arugula and cucumber, but unfortunately did little to stand out in terms of flavor, although we had no fault with the freshness of the ingredients. The second appetizer choice, Trotter with Rice Grits and Chow Chow ($8), made up for everything the shrimp lacked with a tender, unctuous heap of slow-cooked pork resting on a bed of creamy rice grits and topped by a pickled pepper chow chow that brought a nice high note to an otherwise deep dish. This is a dish listed under "appetizers," but one that we could have eaten for our main course — it's that good, and we consider it to be one of the best dishes we've ever had in the city.
Dinner entrees proved to follow a similar course as the apps. The Seared Pork Chop with Grilled Cabbage, Turnips and Crispy Egg ($17) was seared just a little too long, which left the meat quite a bit drier than we like. The rest of the plate was magnificent, though: buttery grilled cabbage that soaked up the yolk of an egg fried so perfectly that we could scarce believe that a single egg could have such a crispy bottom and yet maintain a creamy, runny yolk. The turnips, too, were a surprise. We've always been somewhat unenthusiastic about the root vegetable, but these were cubed small and so tender and savory that we ate them with gusto. It was a pleasing plate overall, and one that could reach perfection with just a slight adjustment in the cooking time of the pork.
Where South on Main proved itself to be more than capable of cooking meat was with the Grilled Ribeye with Potato Mash and Onion Rings ($22). A tender, decadent eye of ribeye was ordered rare by our table and came out exactly right with a caramelized sear on the exterior and a lovely, rosy center that was meltingly tender. The mashed potatoes were luscious and creamy, and while the onion rings atop the dish seemed to almost be too much, the first bite of the sweet, crunchy onions had us wishing we could just order a pile of them on the side. There are larger steaks in Little Rock, and there are certainly ones more expensive, but diners would be hard-pressed to find one of this quality in flavor and preparation.
We ended our dinner with the night's doughnut, two glazed balls of fried dough topped with sweetened creme fraiche and chocolate chips. The cake doughnuts were tasty, and the thick creme fraiche was quite a delight, though we found ourselves wishing that the dish had come out hot, especially since the idea of a "doughnut" had us in mind of a hot from the fryer ring of screaming-hot dough. Still, this dessert was a fine ending to a wonderful meal that places South on Main firmly into the category of elite Little Rock restaurants. After all the wait, the worry, the bandying about of labels, the realization that yes, Little Rock, there is a menu, we can now answer that most important question in the affirmative: The food is good.
South on Main
1304 Main St.
11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
All major CC, full bar.