Where's the love for Ashley's? 

It's no surprise that the readers of the Times chose ZaZa as the best new restaurant in our reader's poll. It's trendy, both in its gourmet, local-foods-attuned sensibility and modern decor. But in a boho, flip-flops-welcome kind of way that bridges the gap between the Heights crowd and the great-unwashed rest of us. Plus, it's really tasty.

Nor does it come as a shock that chains, those well-oiled machines of consistency, landed in our runners-up slots.

But where's the love for Ashley's? All the culinary crown jewel of the Stephens family's $24 million renovation of the Capital Hotel did in its first year back in business was earn universally gushing local reviews, a write-up in Gourmet that deigned it the savior of Arkansas cuisine's national reputation and a James Beard Award nomination (the Pulitzer of the culinary world) for its chef two years running.

We'd never accuse our readers of being rubes who don't “get” haute cuisine, but Lee Richardson, the Capital's bright young chef, might be excused if he did.

He doesn't, though. The New Orleans native, who came to Little Rock after a stint in his hometown at  John Besh's Restaurant August, approaches food, on the plate and in conversation, with a pointed humility. His menu, he says, comes from “flavors that are familiar and regionally traditional.” Even with more elegant items, he says he tries to maintain an “almost rustic foundation that people can relate to.”

Take for instance, the sweetbreads, a first course on the lunch menu, which “Silence of the Lambs” fans remember as a euphemism for thymus glands — in this case, of a cow. They come “buttermilk fried” on a greens-and-cornmeal cake, with a garnish of black-eyed peas and a pepper-jelly vinaigrette. It's something your grandma might've made by accident. Like just about everything I've sampled at Ashley's, it's stunningly delicious.

But a menu with a humble base does not necessarily translate into a restaurant of the people. I dined on the sweetbreads on a recent rainy Tuesday, with a companion, but otherwise alone in Ashley's ornate dining room. That's not unusual. Lunch, which was designed to be the hook that brought folks back for dinner or other events, is a “disappointment” in terms of the crowd it's drawing, according to Richardson. He says the numbers for breakfast and dinner are more robust, but still uneven, particularly at dinner.

Like most managers confronted with dismal numbers these days, he blames the economy, in part, for his woe. But he's also open to the theory that he's overseeing a restaurant misunderstood.

“There seems to be an idea that we're exquisitely expensive,” he said.

Not for nothing: The central offering, a three-course, fixed-price meal, is $25 at lunch, $45 at dinner.

A false perception clouds the reality, Richardson maintains.

“It seems to me is that people look at it and say, ‘$45? Nuh uh.' What happens is they go somewhere else, where the steak is going to be $34 and if they have a salad it's another $6 or $7 and if they have dessert it's another $6 or $7, and now we're over $50.

I think that when it's all said and done, the bottom line on the ticket is not something people aren't ready for.”

Perhaps more saliently, Richardson points to what he terms a “general aura of exclusiveness” that exists in the public perception with regard to the Capital Hotel.



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