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story.lead_photo.caption Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese is a signature dish for new Capital Bar & Grill chef James Hale. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison

Every couple of years, the Capital Hotel turns over the top person in the kitchen at the Capital Bar & Grill, its secondary restaurant.

Most of them, at least since the advent of executive chef Joel Antunes at the hotel in 2013, have been successes. But the chef who took it over in March is a real winner: James Hale, former co-owner of Acadia in Hillcrest, where the food was, before its much-lamented closing a couple of years ago, among the area's best.

Hale joined the hotel culinary team in 2017 and had been the morning chef at the One Eleven at the Capital, the hotel's high-end showplace. (His predecessor, Marc Guizol, gave the menu, and the kitchen, a major upgrade after he took over the bar and grill in late spring of 2016. He replaced Arturo Solis, who lasted there less than a year.)

In announcing Hale's accession, the hotel's marketing folks noted in particular his New Orleans roots, reflected in several new entrees. We went for that New Orleans vibe on a couple of recent dinner visits, and everything we had was first-rate.

Take, for example, the excellent Skillet Blackened Redfish ($25), a good-size portion of very tender fish with a coating of reddish spice, further accented — as were the grits underneath — by a zippy, translucent red-pepper-based sauce and the Creole crawfish cream that has a hint of smoked tomato. (It came, as Intrepid Companion requested, on the side.)

Gallery: Capital Bar & Grill

We were both intrigued — and, frankly, a little frightened — by the Frog Leg Poutine ($18), fried frog legs, cheese curds and herbed mushroom gravy, served, with house parmesan fries, so we passed it up. We also bypassed, though with considerable regret, the Duck Pot Pie ($22), roasted duck with white beans, turnip greens, and a house-made buttermilk biscuit served with a side of orange-soda collard greens.

But our Chicken Marsala ($24), a weekend off-menu special, was special indeed, a lollipop-bone-in, remarkably tender and moist chicken breast, roasted (and successfully retaining that roasted flavor), topped with a very subtle Marsala-mushroom sauce (the Marsala was more of an accent than a statement) and served over a large portion of garlic-cheese grits that was at least as much fun to eat as the chicken.

And we gleefully revisited Hale's signature Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese ($18), a dish he says has been trailing him throughout his three-decade culinary career, and certainly a favorite of ours (and of many others) at Acadia: al dente elbow macaroni in a smoked-Gouda cream sauce liberally garnished with shaved portabello mushrooms and white truffle oil. It was delicious on the plate, but too much — don't we wish we'd skipped that appetizer — to consume on the premises, so a dinner-size portion went home in a reheatable plastic container. And it was at least as good reheated as it was originally.

Speaking of appetizers, we can thoroughly recommend the Louisiana Crab Salad ($12), shredded crab meat tossed with Old Bay mayonnaise with a swirl of kicky cocktail sauce and served with chips not unlike, though wider than, the crisp noodles you get on the side of Chinese soups. Our chips weren't as crisp as we'd have liked, but the crab salad was tasty and rich and enjoyable.

We can also recommend the Aged Cheddar Cheese Dip ($9), smoky with house-made andouille and enhanced by poblano peppers, served with an ample supply of crisp blue corn tortilla chips.

Capital Bar & Grill

Address: Capital Hotel, 111 W. Markham St., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: American, now with a slight New Orleans accent

Alcohol: Full bar

Wheelchair access: Yes

Take out: Yes

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

(501) 374-7474

And Intrepid Companion, a big fan of wedge salads but not of the bleu cheese dressing that usually comes on it, reveled in the Wedge ($12), three good-size chunks of iceberg lettuce, liberally topped with chopped cherry tomato, bleu cheese crumbles and bacon and served with a tangy light green herbed ranch dressing that was surprisingly good — especially for the person in our party who is particularly ranch-averse.

Longtime CB&G fans, fear not: Many of your favorites remain on the menu and, we're told, unchanged. That includes the house gumbo ($7 cup, $9 bowl), the Best Spiced Pecans ($8), the pimento cheese dip ($8), the House Parmesan Fries with CBG Truffle Sauce ($9), the 7-ounce Burger ($16) and the cheese and charcuterie boards — we didn't try those this go-round, but they looked really good on somebody else's table.

And we were happy to learn that Hale has retained one of our favorite CB&G desserts — the Banana Pudding ($7), rich, creamy and served parfait-style in a jar laced with tiny house-made vanilla wafers. (Other $8 dessert options: Chocolate Creme Brulee and Bourbon Pecan Pie with vanilla ice cream. Get all three on a share-it-with-your-neighbor plate for $20.)

Prices are a little high — it is a hotel restaurant — but certainly less than those at tres haute One Eleven, and they're certainly comparable to other area restaurants with this level of cuisine.

Service was friendly, helpful and prompt. That hasn't changed. Another thing that has remained constant: the Old World, old-wood charm, with rock-firm pillars holding up the "roof" of the central bar and solid wood tables and chairs surrounding it on three sides (on the fourth side is, of course, the kitchen). Full on a busy weekend night, it was noisier than we've ever experienced, the volume and pitch affected, we believe, by the shrill voices of several small children.

Weekend on 06/13/2019

Print Headline: RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: New chef adds, keeps best items on Capital Bar & Grill's menu

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