“This used to be the fun destination for people to come and have a good time,” said marketing director Chuck Magill. “Now it’s a place that people might just think of for an anniversary or other special occasion.”
Food trends have changed, and the elegant — yet rather stuffy — dining room of Ashley’s has become a symbol of a past that is swiftly being replaced by restaurants that are more casual — and as Magill put it, “more fun.”
There have been months of deliberation, as the Ashley’s team has debated the many ways they could revamp the restaurant’s image without lowering its impeccable standards.
The planning for this new vision began with the hiring of James Beard award-winning chef Joël Antunes, a world-traveling French chef who has found a home in Arkansas, which he says reminds him of his home in Southern France. Antunes is a quiet man most at home in the kitchen, but he lights up when describing his food, and after tasting it last night at a special food writer event, I can certainly understand why he’s so excited about the new menu.
The event last night was like a who’s who of Central Arkansas foodies, and I had fun catching up with Eat Arkansas alumnus and author Kat Robinson, photographer Grav Weldon, Fancy Pants Foodie blogger Christie Ison, Little Rock Foodcast’s Steve Shuler, and Arkansas Cooks’ Mary Twedt among others. But apart from the camaraderie and sparkling conversation, there was something else to be excited about: the food.
Each dish we tried was well-executed and showed an attention to detail and craft that was among the best I’ve ever seen. Of particular note was a dish of seared scallops with potato gnocchi, artichokes, and sundried tomatoes, which featured scallops that the hotel brings in still alive to avoid the decrease in quality that comes from getting the shellfish frozen. The scallop was tender and sweet, seared just to the point where the natural sugars caramelized, and the tart, savory tomatoes made for a perfect counter-balance to the delicate morsel of shellfish. This dish was followed by what I consider the highlight of the night: a braised Berkshire pork cheek with truffle that was meltingly tender and deeply satisfying. Antunes’ dishes are simple, but that makes their excellence that much more impressive, because each ingredient must speak for itself or the whole structure will fall apart.
Dessert was also memorable, and Antunes’ history as a pastry chef was apparent in each dish. A raspberry cheesecake with coconut sorbet was the perfect balance of fruit, tangy mascarpone cheese, and sweet, cold sorbet. The chocolate lovers in the room swooned over a decadent chocolate souffle with vanilla chantilly, served warm with a crispy outer shell that gave way to a creamy, molten middle that was tempered by the cool vanilla cream. As a preview of things to come, this gave us all high hopes for the future of Ashley’s under Antunes’ guidance, which is sure to continue and grow Ashley’s reputation as the go-to restaurant in Little Rock for excellent food.
Ashley’s will close on May 2 for remodeling of both the dining room and the kitchen, a project that Magill said should take around two months, and result in a restaurant that will bear a new name (although no one would tell us what that name would be). In addition to updating the decor and feel of the dining area, the remodel will also turn the kitchen into a more efficient work space, while adding new banquet and bakery facilities that will expand what the restaurant is able to offer. It’s sad that we’ll be without one of our premier restaurants for a few weeks, but if last night’s dinner is any indication of what is to come, I can assure you all that it will be worth the wait.