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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.
Again, not for nothing: Like other Stephens investments (particularly the ultra-private Alotian Golf Club in Roland), the hotel seems to embrace exclusivity. See, for example, in the “Questions and Answers” section of the hotel's website, “What sets you apart from other hotels in Little Rock?
“As a hotel featuring 130 years of character complemented by the comfort and efficiency of a modern luxury hotel, the Capital stands apart from virtually every hotel in the U.S.”
Just entering the lobby, through which you have to walk to get to Ashley's, can be intimidating. Several doormen always seem to be lingering outside the hotel, under those shiny white columns and their gold filigrees, bustling around a luxury car. A strip of carpet runs from the edge of the curb into the lobby.
Alternately, those who don't mind the exclusive air often work downtown and live out west. Once they make that 20-minute drive home, they're not coming back. And those luxury condos that were supposed to change the complexion of downtown? Out-of-towners seem to own the bulk.
Being in the thick of the arts district doesn't help the restaurant much either. Concerts and shows typically start at 7 p.m., and who wants to eat at 5:30 p.m.?
In this financial climate, Richardson is realistic about his chances to stand out: “Given the context of the economy, getting peoples attention is like throwing rocks at a passing boxcar.” But, he acknowledges, “We're going to have to create events and situations that will bring people in that may not normally come.” Such as, he suggests, the restaurant's annual farm-to-table dinner in early summer, which benefits the Certified Arkansas Farmer's Market and attracts a more slow-foods set than normal.
Bad times come and bad times go, or maybe they don't. But there's a popular belief that, as long as the wealthy Stephens family wants a five-star restaurant attached to their hotel, it can struggle forever.
That's an idea that Richardson refutes.
“I don't know that we're not certain yet that we can expect to have the plug pulled on us in bad times, but if we find ourselves doing terrible in good times, the Stephenses have no intention of financing failure. Everyone's concerned with what the future holds and how the current situation plays out and we're watching very closely.”
Even on my budget, increasingly more Chicken Little every day, I could see eating lunch at Ashley's at least once every month. That level of food, at $25, is a steal.
But for those who aren't willing to sacrifice a big night on the town for a fancy lunch or don't have the patience or the time for the hour or so a three-course meal takes, the Capital Hotel Bar, which Richardson also oversees, offers less elegant, but similarly delicious fare — and on the cheap. The menu, which is available from 11 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m. seven days a week, spans the soup/salad/sandwich gamut and, more recently, features an expanding array of daily specials. Red beans and rice, per New Orleans tradition, comes on Monday. Thursday is pork pulled sandwich, and Friday features fish and chips. Richardson says he's soon to add fried chicken and one other weekday staple.
As at Ashley's, everything in the bar is housemade. You haven't lived until you've tried the bar's rich pulled-pork sandwich, with made-from-scratch bun and slaw and bread and butter pickles on the side. And at $8, you won't find a better deal for the quality downtown. Cheaper still: A half sandwich, cup of soup and glass of tea for $7.