This summer K and I took a sweet little vacation to Napa Valley and San Francisco, conveniently spending the hottest week of the summer in California, battling 60 degree temperatures with long sleeve shirts and happiness. As some of you have noticed, flying out of Memphis isn’t always the most cost-effective, so despite my desire to fire up the Fly Local Memphis (what???) blog, we booked our flights out of the Rock. This meant that our travel days were a little more intense, but it had an awfully good side effect at the end of our trip.
Coming home, we left San Francisco pretty early in the morning and connected in Dallas with an extremely short layover, so we missed all the traditional meal times. On the flight from Dallas to Little Rock, K and I had this exchange:
T: We should go to Ashley’s when we get to Little Rock, before we drive home to Memphis. Ha ha ha.
T: I was kind of joking (due to the fact that the Cali trip was an eat fest), but yes we should.
What made me think of Ashley’s, having never been there? One, their performance at Cochon was off the hook. Two, a friend of mine once told me a story about how she made special trips to Ashley’s and their sister, the Capital Grill, every time she goes to the lake. Stories like that stick with me. Thanks J!
So, we picked up our bags, got in the car and headed over to the hotel for a nice early dinner before our final leg of the journey. A food intermission in a traveling tale if you will.
Have a Seat
We were early, so they put us in the best corner spot.
The whole place is just beautifully put together.
Ok, so on to the menu. Here’s the deal, you have a couple of choices. You can get the three course pre-fix ($52) in which you choose your courses from the menu, a seven course chef’s tasting, the intense (three hour minimum) degustation, or the farm to table for two three courser. Three courses sounded like plenty to us, and our server casually dropped in that we could skip dessert and order double starters, which looked awesome. We took her advice. Admittedly, we later ordered dessert separately, but that’s neither here nor there.
Here’s what came out first.
A tiny little spring roll amuse bouche.
Then K and I got our first starter courses.
First out for me was seared piece foie gras on top of some buckwheat pancakes with some blackberries, a delicious sauce and some greens. It was amazing. What a collection of flavors with the tart fruit, the rich foie, and the pancakes to give a nice base.
Either the kitchen staff at Ashley’s is super friendly, or I look like a good eater, because the kitchen sent out a couple of extra dishes for us to try out in the middle of our planned menu. This was a good thing.
This crispy frog leg with corn mash, Benton’s bacon, and pickled peaches was one of the most delicious things I have ever had. Note that feeling was a common experience during this dinner. The corn was combined with just some lime and salt, and it was so fresh. The dish was tiny but perfect. If they have it, find a way to get your hands on one of these.
Next out was a cast iron skillet with turnip greens and boudin. Are you kidding me? It was like, “hey, Thomas, what are two of your favorite things in the world? Oh, we’ll just pair them up for you.” Pretty awesome.
So, after those tasty extras, we got back to our regularly scheduled courses (that is a decadent statement, I realize).
K got their deconstructed BLT Salad. Crispy brioche, heirloom tomatoes, greens, aioli, and bacon vinegrette. Who doesn’t like a BLT? I’ll tell you what, this was a good one. Nothing like delicious summer tomatoes. Nothing.
This is Diamond Ranch quail with raisins, mint, soubise, and cippolini onion. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but it was awesome, just like the rest.
Now that we’re a number of plates in, let me just start laying it out there. The folks at Ashley’s create excellently paired dishes and then they execute with extreme precision. Hard to imagine that these ingredients and dishes could be any better than these were.
I love when a meal comes with a story, so here goes my version of the one that I learned at Ashley’s. K and I were sitting next to family that must be regulars, and the chef came out to tell them about the salmon dish they were serving. The dish came topped with onion rings in homage to one of the restaurants other regular customers. This customer would always ask if they had any onion rings, so the chefs try to add them in to dishes every now and then.
When I heard the story, I couldn’t help but order it. This was Columbia River salmon served with english peas, bacon, greens, and onion rings. The onion rings were the story, but the salmon was the masterpiece. It was cooked just right, to the point that it was almost falling apart along the grain. Amazing. Here’s to you, Columbia River.
In a strange turn of events, it was me that got the salmon, and K ordered up the Berkshire.
This beauty had these great slices of pork tenderloin, those nice pieces of belly, watercress, fennel, some hash browns with a quail egg on top. I was able to sneak a few bites of this, and it was all awesome. K and I felt good when the folks at the table next to us ordered the same main courses that we did. When the regulars copy your order, that’s a good sign.
OK. Even the desserts came in a three course set up. This was a couple bites of a delicious berry mouse. Yum!
Here’s the dessert that we really ordered due to my new found obsession with buttermilk ice cream. Along with the ice cream came a blueberry upside down cake. If you aren’t on the buttermilk ice cream train, now’s the time that you get your tickets. Trust me.
The coup de resistance came in the form of a couple of berry macarons.
Getting in the Kitchen
During dinner sous chef Matthew Bell came out to chat with us and the rest of the diners. I love it when the chef comes out and chats with the people in the dining room. I think it is a great way to build connection with the customers. We talked a bit about Memphis and some mutual friends, and he told us to come back to check out the kitchen when we were finished with dinner.
If you don’t know the deal, the Capital Hotel originally opened in 1877, but it underwent a major renovation about 7 years ago and reopened in 2007. During the renovation, they put an insane kitchen downstairs for Ashley’s.
The kitchen is bigger than my house, and it is ready to roar. They cook all the food for the restaurant and the hotel. Check out that beautiful French Molteni equipment. I was extremely impressed with the induction cooktop and the 800 degree hot slab on there. It was awesome. I’ll share a couple more shots from around the kitchen, but to show them all would be to add another 15 photos…
Here’s their charcutterie setup. They make it all in house.
While Matt showed us around, he taught us the secret to the perfect pork-rind, which I promptly forgot (if I need to get my fix I’ll go back or go to one of Andy and Michael’s places). If you remember, these were the base for one of the best bites at Cochon.
Restaurants Don’t Make Food – People Do
One of the things that I’ve always tried to do with this blog is to remind you guys (and myself) that the food we get out doesn’t just magically happen. It takes people with serious talent and training to make it possible. The amazing dinner that I just walked you through doesn’t happen without an awesome team to make it happen.
Here’s the team that put together our dinner. Jeffery Owen, Matthew Bell, Aaron Llamon, and Zach Pulman were super welcoming and friendly, and the meal that they put together for K and I was truly incredible. We had an excellent server, and the rest of the folks that missed the photo-op were top notch as well. These guys are extremely skilled and Little Rock is lucky to have such an awesome team.
Again, we literally got of the airplane from our trip to California, which was full of amazing meals at places like Mustards, Bouchon, Boulevard, Slanted Door, and Incanto, and I can safely say that Ashley’s is right there with any of them (Memphis’ best is too!). So, get in your car sometime soon and take a weekend trip to Little Rock, stay at the Capital, and go see my buddy Matt and his team at Ashley’s. You won’t regret it. See you there!
You want to go to there: