The corner of West Markham and South Louisiana in Little Rock is a shrine to that intangible amenity known as Southern hospitality. The rest of Little Rock is Southern, to be sure. But it’s not always The South.
True, the city has fried chicken and cornbread, the occasional drawl, the heat. But Little Rock isn’t the land of seersucker, of Antebellum mansions, of Kudzu and sipping sweet tea on the porch. It’s a much-more-reserved heritage.
That is, of course, until you step into the Capital Hotel.
Since 1872, the doorway of the Capital has been darkened by the comings and goings of men who understand the necessity of linen pants and business lunches paired with cocktails. From the moment you turn into the shade of the hotel’s portico, through its glass-paneled front doors and into the cool marble lobby, there’s no escaping the South. The history hits you immediately.
But the history hasn’t always worn so well. The ’60s and ’70s saw the building fall into disrepair, not to be resurrected until 1983. The Capital saw another revamp in 2007, and with it came the rebirth of Ashley’s, the fine-dining arm of the most luxurious hotel in town.
At the restaurant, fine dining came with wall-to-wall carpet, tables heavy with linens and even heavier red drapes. Even in 2007, it had the feel of a restaurant that had been around for a very, very long time. It was the place you’d take the grandparents for Sunday brunch on Mother’s Day. The food was consistently good, but consistently consistent. In the vein of most Southern traditions, nothing much changed.
So it was to much surprise that the Capital Hotel announced in spring 2014 that Ashley’s would be no more. In a few short months, the restaurant shook off the ghost and emerged as the sleeker, younger One Eleven at the Capital.
Since August, a flashy, zinc-topped bar has greeted diners. Shrimp and grits and cowboy-sized steaks are served up in modern white porcelain dishware. And not everyone is wearing a jacket. At least not at noon on a recent Tuesday afternoon.
During lunch, One Eleven’s dining room is already packed to the point that a reservation might have been wise. Bare wood floors and tables reflect the new, more-casual feel, but servers are still waiting to pull out chairs for the ladies. Gentlemen are welcomed in business-casual attire. Dark jeans aren’t given a second look by staff, though a slight tension between old-school Ashley’s diners and the younger clientele is apparent.
That’s right, no jacket. And no two-hour wine lunch, either. A bright shrimp Cobb salad with an impossibly fragile soft-boiled quail egg, an oversized crab-cake entree and three of executive chef Joël Antunes’ daily special “Express Lunches” are swept onto the table in less than 20 minutes. For $16, those willing to trust the chef’s taste can dig into small portions of soup, starter, cheese, bread, main and dessert. The portion sizes are somewhere between an amuse-bouche and a full appetizer. Enough to savor, not enough to stretch a belt, with each mini course presented in its own tiny serving dish on a long white tray. It has the feel of an upscale French bento box. Or the most gourmet Lunchable you’ll ever try.
On our visit, the tray’s starter, a scoop of addictively salty and fresh smoked salmon tartare, was a standout that left each of us wondering what the charge would be for a second helping. The roasted quail, with carefully divided leg portions on a bed of perfectly cooked lentils, was almost comically difficult to scoop out of its tiny porcelain container. But once our giant hands cooperated, the delicate dark meat proved to be surprisingly tender.
The dining room takes a turn for the formal at dinner, as white tablecloths shroud the tables and jackets really ought to be worn. Entree prices reflect the wipe-the-crumbs-off-the-table service. This is a hotel restaurant, after all. And the best in the city. That there are $59 steaks, grilled lobster served with spicy ginger-spring-onion butter and a spongy chocolate soufflé with rich vanilla Chantilly cream on the menu should come as no surprise.
What does come as an unexpected pleasure are the personal twists French import Antunes has put on the menu. Though the desserts may say otherwise, this is not a French restaurant. No cassoulet here (not that we’d mind if there were). Instead, Antunes focuses on simple, fresh preparations and seafood dishes like roast halibut, Alaskan sea bass, diver scallops, stone-crab claws and house-smoked salmon. The game dishes take on a more Southern-French hybrid, with plates like prime beef Rossini with foie gras and roast duck breast with gnocchi sharing menu space with venison ravioli and Berkshire pork with chorizo. You can only steer so far away from Southern cuisine in Arkansas’ capital city, after all.
But One Eleven is possibly at its most Southern after 6 p.m., nowhere near the dining room. Up the lobby’s grand staircase and through the second-floor lounge, a nearly hidden patio sits just above the front portico. There, a few fans, couches and palms accentuate a view that’s straight out of New Orleans. As you sip a Four Roses bourbon, neat, ordered from a One Eleven waiter who brings it from the bar below, and lord over the view of a downtown streetcar carting tourists up and down Markham, you’re truly as in The South as you’ll ever be in Little Rock.
111 W. Markham St.
Seared diver scallops with sundried tomatoes; yellowfin tuna tartare with citrus dressing; Berkshire pork with orecchiette, chorizo and baby spinach; chocolate soufflé with vanilla Chantilly cream
Try Sunday brunch or weekday breakfast for a more family-welcome feel
Breakfast entrees $8-$16; lunch entrees $11-$19; dinner entrees $22-$59
Recommended; taken online at oneelevenatthecapital.com