New Year’s Eve at Ashley’s

Disclosure: This is a post that almost didn’t happen. Sometimes when I arrive at a nice restaurant, the idea that people will be eyeballing me and watching me take pictures of food, agonizing over lighting and whether I remembered to turn the macro setting on, makes me a little timid and chills my usual almost rabid desire to write about food. Such was the experience that I had when I sat down to dinner with my parents and Jay at Ashley’s Restaurant at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, and easily the best restaurant in that city.  Before the first course, I mentioned to Jay that I brought my camera but that I didn’t really feel up to taking pictures. Dad thought I said that I had forgotten my camera, eliciting a “bummer” from across the table. Once the second course rolled around, however, I started to wish that I had decided to blog on the meal. When I told dad that I did in fact bring my camera, he urged me to take pictures and to write up the dinner here. “The restaurant will love it!” Whether or not anyone from Ashley’s even sees this post, let alone knows about this blog, doesn’t really matter; what matters and meant the most to me was that my dad was encouraging me to do something that I really enjoy, neighboring and wary diners be damned. Thanks dad, and this one is for you. 🙂

Apertif: Beat of New Orleans
To the great surprise of us all (probably mom especially because she was only going to limit herself to one glass of wine), the meal began with an apertif. Dark raspberry pink in color, reminiscent of kool-aid we drank as a kid, the drink rested at the bottom of a large glass crowded with large cubes of ice. The description was both imposing and intoxicatingly interesting: a new vodka from Absolut with chiles and peppers and muddled beets. The mention of pepper vodka reminded me of a terrible bloody mary that I had at Circa in Dupont Circle, so I was a little apprehensive to try the drink, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised at how sweet the drink was. Sweet, yet balanced, and not peppery at all. Not only did it look like kool aid, but it tasted like kool aid, only without the overly sweet and processed taste.

Caviar with Buckwheat Cakes and Creme Fraiche
Wine Pairing: Champagne~Marc Herbrat, Brut l er Cru, NV, Mareuil Sur-Ay
This course started with a little hiccup at the beginning: our waiter never asked us whether we wanted a wine pairing with our meal (as a side note, I was so thoroughly enjoying my French 75 that I forgot about it!), so we had to sit with our plates waiting on the table as we awaited our wine pairing before diving in. The champagne itself was worth the wait, however, nice and dry that complimented the dish very well.

This was one of the dishes that I did not get a picture of. The plate itself was a rectangular white plate, longer from side to side than from top to bottom. On the far right was a small bowl of the caviar and a small bowl of creme fraiche, with small buckwheat pancakes circling on the left side of the bowl, in the middle of the plate. On the far left, a river of diced chives. The dish itself was so much fun to eat because it was a sort of do-it-yourself meal: take the pancake, spread on some creme fraiche, pile on some caviar, sprinkle a few chives, and then take a bite.

The biggest surprise of the dish was the Arkansas caviar. Incredibly mild, no saltiness, very smooth and pleasant with the rest of the dish. Our waiter informed us that the chef of Ashley’s heard a fisherman/farmer talking about this Arkansas caviar that he was selling, and so the chef decided to buy some. Evidently the paddlefish in the white river can get pretty big! I think I remember dad mumbling something about how he missed the saltiness of salt water caviar, but I thought it was very good. Furthermore, Jay had never tasted caviar before, and he thought this introduction to the ingredient was very good. This was quite the departure from the caviar I’ve had before, which always tended to be at events populated with more old people than people my age, with me scooping caviar out of gold and brass colored tins and dumping it onto thin crackers. This version, however, was nicely updated.

Cauliflower Soup with House Smoked Bacon & White Truffles
Wine Pairing: Puligny-Montrachet ~ Oliver Leflaive, 2006, Burgundy
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This was easily one of my favorite wines of the night: white burgundy. Smooth and refreshing, bright and crisp, a good flavor without being too fruity or too acidic, all in all very well balanced.

The soup itself was poured into the bowl by our waiter after the soup bowl containing the bacon and white truffles was placed at our setting. Aromatic, smooth, and deeply flavored without being too rich, the soup was an elegant balance between the subtle and light cauliflower flavor and the smokey hues of the bacon.

Seared Foie Gras
Wine Pairing: Haut-Montravel ~ Chateau Puy-Servain, Cerrement, 2004, Bergerac

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I smelled trouble with this course right away when I saw our waiter bring out the wine: small glass, rich orange-ish color, intensely sweet smell. In other words, a dessert wine. Although I appreciate a well-paired dessert wine with desserts occasionally (very best: blueberry crunch at Nu, paired with dessert wine), the elevated sweetness of the wine is usually too much for me, especially if the wine is on its own … or paired with something that it shouldn’t be paired with.

This was really the only downfall, con, sour note, etc., of the night. I absolutely love foie gras, and seeing it on the menu made me recount at dinner my memories of my first tasting of foie gras. My parents and husband both know about my love for this ingredient, and dad eagerly pointed it out when we first receive the menu. My head was swimming in anticipation for this course to arrive.

Unfortunately, this foie gras dish completely missed the mark. The foie gras itself was superb, perfectly seared with a delicate and only slightly crunchy skin on the outsite with a rich and creamy inside. Its accompaniment, however, was poorly conceived. Decadently sweet gingerbread served as the base for the foie gras, topped with a teeth-rotting-sweet marmelade. I appreciate where the chef was going with this dish and that he attempted to counterbalance the richness of the foie gras with the sweetness of the gingerbread, but the sweet was on such the extreme that there was no way it could be balanced let alone salvaged with any sort of richness, other than cutting out the rich counterpart altogether and just turning the dish into a pure dessert. The wine attempted to compliment the relationship, but this was the kind of matching that was doomed from the beginning, so the wine only highlighted the imperfections and reminded you why you didn’t really like this idea at all. The perfection of the foie gras was depressed by the gingerbread, and eventually I had to stop eating the gingerbread altogether in order to get any sort of enjoyment out of this dish. Needless to say, I did not finish my wine either.

Sablefish with Shortribs, Barolo and Potato Confit
Wine Pairing: Syrah ~ Foxen, William Dore Vineyards, 2005, Santa Ynez Valley

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The syrah accompanying this dish was mild yet flavorful, with a slightly fizzy aftertaste. Jay and I had a small and quiet debate over whether the fizziness was actually intended. Even so, it was a nice wine that although was not as memorable as the white burgundy was nevertheless one of the better wines of the night.

Circled with a richly flavorful red sauce from the short ribs, the presentation of this dish was elegant and balanced. Coming off the previous course, this was a welcome play of lightness from the fish and juicy deepness of the shortribs. The dish was topped with a fried piece of parsley, which although added a nice and otherwise unseen color of green was pretty useless. The sablefish really brought no surprises: it was tasty yet unremarkable, well seasoned but not exceptional. The shortribs, on the other hand, were exceptional. I almost didn’t need a knife to cut the meat, and the more I ate it the more I wished that it had been presented by itself. The sauce circling the plate actually came from the juices of the shortribs, and you couldn’t help but find pleasure in drudging juicy bits of the shortribs through the sauce. The potato confit was also very pleasant and paired well with the shortribs, although I’m not really certain if the pairing was as elegant with the fish.

Wagyu Beef Tenderloin, Diver Scallop and Black Truffle
Wine Pairing: Meritage ~ Rodney Strong Vineyards, Symmetry, 2004 Sonoma

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This wine was pretty unremarkable. I usually love meritages, but this one was pretty average. Decent, not bad, but just average.

I’m never really one to order surf and turf, but this was a welcome introduction to that kind of dish. The scallop was wonderfully cooked and seasoned, light crust on the outside and a gentle texture on the inside. The wagyu beef was likewise cooked to perfection. It’s hard to describe these dishes, other than to tell you to imagine each element being cooked to near ideal.

As you can see from the picture, this dish was topped with generous shavings of black truffle. My dad claimed they were tasteless, and after eating a shaving all on its own, all I could really taste was ash. Maybe this was because it was late in the meal and I had already had a bit to drink. Maybe my taste buds were becoming lethargic themselves after so many different elements and dishes. Taken with a bite of the beef, however, the truffle shavings imparted a smokiness reminiscent of a well seasoned grill.

Apple-Rosemarey Ice Cream Soda
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My only complaint about this dish was that there wasn’t enough. It was just too good to have only this one little small, poorly photographed shooter. I think the use of fresh herbs in sweet dishes is a brilliant idea that unfortunately goes underutilized, and this dish was a great example of the harmony that a fresh herb can have with an otherwise sweet recipe. The ice cream itself contained both apples and rosemary. Rather than dominating the apples with a heavy earthiness, the rosemary was a subtle underline to the natural sweetness of the apples. The cream soda further lightened the dish and made it truly delightful, reminiscent of ice cream sodas you would get as a kid. If I had had my choice, I would have taken a tub of this ice cream home with me to have all to myself.

24 KT Chocolate Torte
Wine Pairing: Port ~ Quinta do Novel, 2003

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One of the greatest complaints I have about fine restaurants is that their desserts often come up short. If a dessert is supposed to be the finishing touch to a great meal and is supposed to leave you with a lasting impression, then many desserts I have tried at nice restaurants have left me with an average impression and served as a sort of let-down after an otherwise exciting and very enjoyable meal. Not to say that the desserts aren’t good, but it’s as if all the imagination only goes into the appetizers and entrees, with desserts serving as only an afterthought.

This dessert really is no exception to the unfortunate general rule that desserts at nice restaurants generally do not live up to the standards of their earlier-course counterparts. Yes, this dessert had some gold on it and was presented nicely, but you can only do so much with a chocolate cake or a chocolate tort or chocolate tart before it becomes a lot like the other ones you have had. Again, I’m NOT saying that this was bad, only that I would have chosen a different ending. I guess that when you have pre fix menus like this one, you have to choose a dessert that will appeal to most people, and generally most people like chocolate. My mom, however, can’t eat chocolate at night if she wants to go to bed later, and my friend Joanna doesn’t even like chocolate. Although the torte was pleasant and rich, after a few bites I realized I had seen this movie before and decided it wasn’t worth finishing. Personally, I would have taken a huge bowl of the apple-rosemary ice cream over this dessert. Even though gold may look pretty, it doesn’t add to the flavor, and really the edible gold leaf was the only remarkable thing about this dessert.

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