Triple threat

Nov 20
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Good food returns to the Tower Building with Southern-French-Mediterranean inspired menu.

Photo by Arshia Khan
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Downtown diners can sleep soundly in the knowledge that all is once again right with the world. The Tower Building, well known as a destination for long offering a pair of established eateries on the ground floor facing Fourth Street, is once again full after a period of some turbulence.

That’s thanks to newest tenant Natchez Restaurant, now in its third week, which moved into the space that most recently served as home to short-lived El Jalapeño, and before that, Your Mama’s Good Food, which moved north two blocks and reopened in the Pyramid Building almost exactly one year ago.

At a glance, it’s easy to see that Natchez is something a little different from its cafeteria-style predecessors. And it’s not just that the place offers sit-down service. The hours advertised on the website include dinner, and that’s something the location has previously been tenuous for at best, much like a lot of daytime downtown staples.

But the transformation is more encompassing than even that. Sharp-eyed regulars may notice the tilework on the floor and the small patch of counter space where the iced tea resides haven’t changed much, but all else has been the beneficiary of an extensive makeover. The line of steam tables has been replaced by a lunch counter. A divider separating line from seating has been taken out and the overall number of tables reduced for a roomier experience. And those who ever had occasion to look up at the ceiling, particularly over the grill, will note that it’s been cleaned and painted. In short, the place has a very spic-and-span look that’s been long absent. Black tables and cloth napkins — rather than chrome and paper, respectively — give a touch of upscale to the casual, airy space.

In other words, it’s the kind of place where you might expect owner and chef Alexis Jones to venture out to chat with guests about their experience. Those expectations were met in my visit, in which Jones was easy to spot making her way around the dining room to introduce both herself and the restaurant to its new patrons. A Mississippi native, as she noted, she’s been in fine dining around the country, including locally at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel.

That sort of touch shows in the menu, which Jones and her staff explained is going to change frequently. The general concept is Southern-based food with French and Mediterranean accents, but the actual selections at lunch will vary by day and dinner entrees on a biweekly basis.

So what does Southern-French-Mediterranean look like? Well, as of last week, it meant main dinner courses like quail with bread pudding and maple cider glaze ($16) or butternut squash agnolatti ($17). Starters offered included chicken liver pate ($7) and soups like carrot, apple and ginger with honey whip ($8). Lunch on that Tuesday included two or more options of sandwiches or plates. The former included steak with onions and cheese or chicken curry with feta ($9 each). Plates, all priced at $8.50, were chicken liver gnocchi and pork with greens and sweet potatoes, with a vegetarian-friendly option in the veggie risotto. Salads of equally inspired measure (like poached pears and pecans, $5) and desserts like Italian cream cake ($5) are also likely candidates to round things out.

But again, that’s just a sample of only a few selections from one week’s menu when things are likely to change often. In that much, at least, Natchez has common element with its blue plate predecessors. But don’t think that means it’s another meat and three kind of place, because it’s not. It’s something new, and that — more than anything — should put a smile on the face of one-time regulars who, until recently, would pass by the window and see only emptiness.

THE DISH

Chicken curry sandwich with feta ($9)

This was one of those times where an early online scouting of the menu proved useless as I was sold on this item, which was only listed on the in-house markerboard, as soon as I saw it. The result was certainly pleasing. Tender, shredded chicken was piled high on slightly toasted, very savory bread. It didn’t always stay together, but it went down nonetheless. The curry flavor was very minimal rather than overpowering, which is a delicate thing when it comes to curry. The odd thing was that the feta, which was promised in the menu description of the sandwich, was nonexistent. Don’t get me wrong, it worked without it, but I was looking forward to the pairing of feta and curry with no real idea what the result would be. I passed on the side of greens and paid a slight upcharge ($2.50) for the risotto, and I’d concur with everything said about it below. (sw)

Veggie Risotto ($8.50)

The texture of Natchez’s veggie risotto is like how I imagine a cloud would feel if you sunk your teeth into it (if only that were feasible and not just an impossible ambition of mine). There’s no better word to describe it than “fluffy” — or maybe “dreamy.” Either way, the dish elicits celestial adjectives. The flavor is light, airy, uncluttered by heavy over-salting and over-spicing. Minutely cubed carrots and other diced vegetables and a creamy sauce give it substance, but it’s all about the consistency. I want to lie down in this risotto and make risotto angels in it. (sb)

Pork with greens and sweet potatoes ($8.50)

This plate flaunted all the signs of fine dining that the menu at Natchez suggests. Three cuts of pork loin were topped with a sweet glaze and resting against the side of a big mound of mashed sweet potatoes. These potatoes had a nice consistency — not overly mashed, but with some chunks still intact. The pork itself was excellent. It had a slight pinkish tint in the center, just enough to give the meat some tenderness and dispel any worry of dryness. The giant leaves and cubes of turnips in my side of greens were seasoned well, though a little acidic. (sm)

Baked Alaska ($5)

I’d long heard of this dish, but I can’t say I ever remember having had it before. The creation puts ice cream on top of sponge cake, tops it with meringue. The whole thing is then baked. But the result isn’t a hot dessert, like a cobbler. Rather, it’s quite cold. There’s a distinct savory element to the meringue, which is firmed by the baking. It pairs with the sweetness of the high quality ice cream and soft cake. The server noted there was rum somewhere in there, but the taste is a pure sweetness that’s not rich or cloying, just serene. It’s a serving that could split well enough for two, but our party of three only got a few bites each. (sw)

IN A NUTSHELL

Natchez Restaurant, taking up residence in the familiar dining hotspot of the Tower Building, offers a moderately upscale experience. An ever-changing menu of lunch and dinner selections by owner and chef Alexis Jones pairs Southern cuisine with European tastes for a different kind of daytime dining or after-hours fare.

Location: Fourth and Center streets, Little Rock

Phone: (501) 372-1167

Web: http://natchezrestaurant.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday

Prices: $5-$20

Alcohol: Full bar

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