Little Rock’s hot spot in a historic hotel
Little Rock’s venerable Capital Hotel now has a fresh, contemporary restaurant that aims to wow guests with bold French-Arkansas cuisine. One Eleven at the Capital feels more relaxed than its predecessor, which featured long flowing red velvets and gold damasks. The restaurant, which has long been the ideal place for political royalty in this city, has grown up and taken a younger, more relaxed vibe. It’s open and airy — a true testament to the wonders of white paint — with pops of warm, rustic woods.
Capital Hotel has long been a stately mainstay of the city, with its original tile façade and quiet, simple demeanor showcased in its Roman columns, mirrors and touches of gold and burgundy. There’s no noisy front desk, just a smartly dressed staff in a variety of suits when it’s cool, shirt cuffs when it’s hot, ready to take your keys and whisk your car away while you dine.
The Little Rock restaurant is off the lobby to the left, where a long, zinc-topped bar and a dazzling wine display are ensconced in a recessed section, all decked in dazzling white. You are welcomed to chef Joel Antune’s stunning showcase with a warm smile and a soft tone by an attendant. The rooms is mostly white with accents of soft grays and browns and it’s filled with abstract artwork, proper French porcelain, wicker baskets full of artisan bread, dark bare wood tables atop equally bare wood floors. The lauded subterranean private dining room, housed in a wine cellar, is still intact and you can book the table for 10 or the booth for two.
Chef Antunes, a James Beard Award winner known for his tenures in London, New York and Atlanta, came to the hotel in 2014. Antunes met (and exceeded) the challenge of fusing French cuisine with local Arkansas produce in a kitchen known as one of the birthplaces of the Arkavore (Arkansas-locavore) movement.
The fare incorporates Antune’s love of strong, unabashed flavors. Rather than following other chefs and trends, Antune’s clean and undiluted inspirations arrive at the table contained in pots and small bowls, spots of color blossoming on the neutral setting. Simple notes and tones strike hard but resound well, such as the pairing of peppery but mild housemade wild boar sausage with mustardy, stringent cornichons (tiny strong dill pickles), or miniscule venison ravioli and mushroom slices soaked in a dark tannin-enhanced broth. His Colorado lamb, served with root vegetables and rosemary, is known as “sop-worthy,” a local term for “darn good.”
Antunes is unashamed of flavors milder palates might avoid. His organic beetroot salad with burrata cheese is light but firm, its presentation flowerlike. Sometimes his hummus is traditional with chickpeas, other times with soybeans, a famed Arkansas crop. His simple melon salad is made only with syrupy, peak-of-ripeness cantaloupe and a single small spoonful of powerful, slightly-sweet lemon sorbet. Heirloom tomato salads are conjured from nearby gardens are a beautiful, soulful expression of red-laced pastels and the occasional native Bradley County pink.
Come lunchtime, opt for a three-course meal (all courses are served at once in a bento box-like container) or a six-part express lunch. Breakfasts are traditional affairs, with an emphasis on Southern grits and cured meats. And then there are a slew of tempting desserts — the chocolate soufflé, the blueberry tart, the Parisian chocolate cake. Apples also play a big part in dessert here (Arkansas was once known as the Apple State). The Pom Pom Pom (applesauce, apple crisp, apple sorbet) is a favorite, as is the seasonal apple and mascarpone tart served with a tiny dollop of apple butter, toffee and coffee.