One early Monday morning Grav and I arrived around 6am to tackle the last part of my breakfast assignment -- a behind-the-scenes look at breakfast at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel. I’d been chatting a bit via email with Chef Matt McClure, the man in charge of breakfast at the hotel. He set about showing us around the many kitchens of the Capital Hotel.
See, there’s more than one. There’s five -- the big ones for Ashley’s and Capital Bar and Grill, a smaller pastry kitchen, a couple of satellite kitchens. And it’s fitting there are so many spaces for the chefs to work, since there’s so much going on in the hotel.
It’s not just about room service or this and that. Staffing and servicing two major Little Rock restaurants is a big deal.
When we arrived, we got to see some of the process that goes into the creation of the beef brisket. Everything in the beef brisket is just amazing. It starts off with the corned beef brisket. Ashley’s and CBG have their brisket shipped in from a Creekmore Farms in Kansas. The raw briskets are cured in-house with a sugar-salt brine. It’s rather fantastic.
One of the sous chefs was working on the vegetables -- potatoes and onions finely diced and placed in a skillet. As we watched the potatoes were spiced and sautéed over heat on the magnificent gigantic red-and-bronze range and oven that sprawls across the body of space in the center of the main kitchen. Another worked on a clarified butter. A third was checking poached eggs in a special temperature-controlled centrifuge.
As we watched, another sous chef combined cooked and finely diced corned beef brisket with rutabegas, yellow and orange carrots and cabbage, digging in with gloved hands to make sure everything was well and thoroughly combined. A short time later those sautéed potatoes and onions were added and integrated with equal care.
All the time, Chef Matt went on and told us all about breakfast at Ashley’s. He shared with me a lot about what he and Chef Lee Richardson are hoping to achieve through the restaurant’s earliest meal of the day. “This is not re-inventing the wheel, it’s recreating the way things used to be,” he told me as he shared some of that fantastic Santa Lucia coffee. “Breakfast is growing for us. On the average morning we see fifty to a hundred people, plus suite service (room service). Definitely seeing some growth there.”
“A lot of places are. Breakfast is the new hot thing,” I shared.
“It is. We’re going back , looking at what people want for breakfast and how breakfast was served to previous generations. And we’re interpreting it here with as much locally grown produce and locally harvested meat as we can.”
All this time Grav was taking photos of things like the egg bar (the area where omelets are assembled), fresh breads baked in-house and a few of the plates that went out to diners that particular Monday morning.
Matt and I shared some sources for locally produced items and some background about our Arkansas ties. He became rather excited when I asked just how local Ashley’s came to the whole locavore idea. “I have to show you something!” he said, leading us to the back and the gigantic walk-in fridge at the rear of the property. There we viewed all sorts of bins of apples, greens, big containers of juice, lots of meats and eggs and whathaveyou.
“Our bacon, we make in-house, right here. It’s pecan wood smoked,” Chef Matt started. “It starts with the Kobe beef of pork bellies -- Berkshire pork bellies brought in from a co-op in southern Missouri. We cure them with sugar, salt and spices in our walk-in cooler.” He walked us through the process -- the brining, the smoker that’s housed in the kitchen of Capital Bar and Grill, the specialty closet in Ashley’s kitchen where all sorts of meats dry age for up to a year, the finished bacon. It’s thick and smoky and smells of good wood and salt, and it’s one of the restaurant’s most popular items.
That smoking cabinet keeps food at a certain temperature and humidity at all times. When we arrived back from our tour through the belly of the Capital Hotel through the kitchen at Capital Bar and Grill and back into Ashley’s, Chef Matt opened that closet. There was this almost imperceptible raising of heads across the kitchen; the fabulous scent of aging meat stirred up something primal in the staff, and even though just about everyone in there likely experiences that scent on a regular basis it was strong enough to produce a reaction. I would gather to bet that some salivation was happening at that point in time all across the room. It was certainly going for me.
Those meats aren’t just used for Ashley’s breakfasts. They’re used in the cold meat and cheese plates served at the CBG, and they’re fabulous, not just pork but beef, duck, boar, sausages and lamb and sometimes even venison. Chef Matt showed us part of a young suckling pig from which he’s attempting to make his own very young prosciutto.
The smoker isn’t just for bacon. It’s where the pork butts (that’s shoulder to the layman) for those fabulous CBG pulled pork sandwiches are lovingly cooked for several hours. It’s where fish is smoked after curing. And of course, there’s the corned beef.
Chef Matt pointed out that the Reuben served at the hotel is as close as you can get to an all-local product anywhere in the state. “The rye bread is made in-house from War Eagle Mill grains. The sauerkraut is made right here from locally produced cabbage. The corned beef, too -- the dressing. We just don’t have the cheese yet.”
Of course, I had to share a little about Honeysuckle Farms with him.
Grav was fascinated with many things in the cooler and pantry. Quail eggs -- those were really neat to him. He photographed them while I asked more questions. “Do you use a lot of those?” I asked Chef Matt.
“We do. We also use duck and goose eggs. We try to cater to our clientele. Not everyone can eat a duck egg.”
“And quail eggs are richer,” I added.
Back in the kitchen, I asked about the big long Chocolate Brioche atop one of the stations. “We make all our own bread here,” Chef Matt pointed out. “Croissants, bread, biscuits -”
“And the brioche?”
“That’s the main ingredient in our Ashley’s Signature Breakfast, the bread we use for the French toast.”
I shared my admiration of the dish -- before this particular interview it had been my absolute favorite thing they’d served. Of course, that would change by the end of the day.
We talked about the more locally produced items, how the chefs at Ashley’s utilize the expertise of Jody Hardin and the resources of the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market collective. Chef Matt told me about the eggs brought in by local producers and farmers that come to the back door with their latest harvest. What isn’t available readily here is come by regionally -- Gulf shrimp and seafood brought up straight from Louisiana, beef from Creekmore Farms in Kansas. Some things like maple syrup can’t be obtained locally, but in some cases
locally produced sorghum and honey do the trick.
And then there are the jams and jellies. They’re all made in-house from seasonal fruit -- blackberries, strawberries in early summer, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, all made right there. The juice is fresh squeezed each morning. Pickles of all sorts reside in the pantry -- not just the typical dills but bread and butters, watermelon pickles, little ones and big ones. There are even tiny jars of housemade pickled carrots, pickled quail eggs and the like. These don’t usually make the menu -- they’re gifted to dignitaries and special guests at the hotel. I kinda wished I could garner that sort of treatment.
We had finished our coffee and I was going through my notes trying to make sure I was as thorough as possible. I asked straight out, “where do you think you’re going to go from here?”
“We’d like to have our own farm,” Chef Matt told me. “Chef Lee is really interested in that.”
“What about growing your own herbs on property?”
“Maybe on the roof. We don’t have that possibility yet, but it might be coming.”
“And you’d grow everything?”
“We’d still use our farmers, but there might be things we can’t get from them we could grow ourselves.”
It was a fascinating chat, but after more than an hour around the kitchen I figured it was time we left Chef Matt to his work. Besides, we were hungry, and that’s where I could break out the camera and do my thing.
Somehow, every time I’ve come to Ashley’s I’ve ended up in the same corner, right by the front entrance of the hotel with an excellent view of passing streetcars. Our hostess came out and asked us what we were interested in. I needed coffee, and juice was also offered -- orange for me, grape for Grav.
We ordered, and I was drawn into a conversation with a gentleman at the next table. Thomas Williams was there to talk with the chefs and the hotel about a few events coming up, and we shared some notes on eating breakfast in the South. I shared a few details about my breakfast project for the Times. He shared a book that includes Chef Lee’s work. It was a good exchange of information.
Our beverages were delivered, and while I was accustomed to the fabulous coffee I was shocked by the sheer orange-ness of the orange juice. I mean, it was ORANGE. It was sweet, not bitter, and I wanted to just have that and nothing else at that moment. It was perfect.
And then our celebration of a breakfast came out. Grav had ordered the Irish Breakfast ($10), a big bowl of smoked Cheddar and bacon grits topped with two poached eggs served up with a choice of bread (Grav had a biscuit) along with the house jam of the day and sorghum butter.
“The thing about froofy restaurants,” Grav later told me, “is that they do really good food but in small portions. I couldn’t finish them, they were so rich.” Made with War Eagle grits, cream and such right there, they were firm yet nicely textured. We argued about this -- my favorite grits are those from B-Side, but to be fair I can’t eat the Ashley’s grits because of the bacon. I was kinda jealous I couldn’t try his dish.
Mine was the Delta Sunrise ($14), that fabulous house-made corned beef brisket portioned up and freshly sautéed served under a couple of poached eggs with a biscuit and one of those roasted tomato halves (Chef Matt had told me the cinnamon, salt and pepper spiced tomatoes were served up with all the savory breakfast dishes -- which, since I’d had the Ashley’s Signature before, I’d missed out on).
I was surprised by the sudden sweetness of the corned beef -- not that it was candy-sweet but that the caramelized vegetables in it were on the sweet side, contrasted even more by the salty corned beef. Add in the yolk that lazily creeped out of the egg I had punctured, and… it was THE taste of breakfast.
I cannot go on without mentioning the biscuits with that butter and jam. The blueberry jam was really more like preserves, whole blueberries sweet and pliant in their own jell. They weren’t tart and they didn’t have that preserved flavor like store-bought jams. The butter was just slightly sweet but also slightly salted. Spread on those impossibly moist yet flaky biscuits made with War Eagle Mill flour, and wow. Just… wow.
We left satisfied, a notebook full of notations and a couple hundred shots between us with a better understanding of the way Ashley’s works. I’ve done the frou-frou restaurants different places. I’ve done down-home diners and the like; I’ve reviewed everything from barbecue joints to tapas bars. Ashley’s serves up some of the most decadent high-dollar food in the evenings… but in the mornings, it’s hearty filling fare that sticks with you and leaves you with a good memory and a craving that requires a repeat visit.
Now, an admission. I wrote an earlier piece about Ashley’s for Eat Arkansas. I was a bit discouraged by the idea of a breakfast that was unchanging and that didn’t allow for experimentation -- I mean, to me, breakfast seems to be the best place to experiment because there’s less variety in the morning meal. But I understand better now.
Chef Matt told me “There’s a lot of things that change with lunch and dinner, but breakfast basically remains the same.” He wasn’t saying there wasn’t room for improvement -- but that the improvement comes in the ingredients and how they’re prepared. If Ashley’s stays with this commitment to these ideals, it will be here longer than I will.