Stay classy, breakfast
Ashley’s puts the fancy in favorites like French toast and grits.
The thought of stopping for breakfast amidst a hectic morning rush is something that may be growing increasingly rare these days. And even when it shows up and goes beyond a cold bowl of Cheerios at home, the first thought is likely for fast food or, at best, a casual-fast greasy spoon diner.
But, in the heart of downtown, one of Little Rock’s fine dining gems offers a very compelling argument for the most important meal of the day. Ashley’s, by virtue of its location in the Capital Hotel and the need to meet guests’ needs, offers a sunrise menu that goes far beyond the complimentary continental you’ll find at accommodations of lesser caliber. And it’s not just a special Sunday brunch menu, though they have that too. There’s an everyday menu, and, of course, its offerings aren’t just for overnight stays.
Of the venue, there is a book’s worth to be said and no space here for it. It should suffice to note the Capital, replete with history and not so long ago enlivened by renovation, makes for an august impression. Ashley’s is no less so, with its elegant flourishes, soaring ceilings and detailed appointments. After all, since reopening in 2007, it has aspired to be — and has been — a place of destination dining not just locally, but on a national scale. And when classy is the word of the day for dinner and lunch, so too with breakfast.
But what, exactly, is a classy breakfast? English muffins, what with their accent and all, would seem to qualify. But bacon? Grits? Sausage? Can you class up country?
Well, yes, yes and yes. And, as with all things, Ashley’s offers a sense of culinary creativity even in these comfort foods. Most or all of the usual morning suspects show up on a menu of assorted sides that can all be ordered a la carte, from muffins or toast to meaty offerings like sausage or bacon made in house. Bread items come with house-made sorghum butter and preserves.
But the real show stoppers are the complete breakfasts, and reading each item tends to make the decision all that much more difficult.
Of course, for the touch ‘em all crowd, there’s the a traditional plate with eggs, grits or potatoes, and choice of meat and bread. But the tricky thing here is that, while it fits the bill for everything a hearty breakfast should be, it doesn’t necessarily offer everything Ashley’s is capable of. Say, the bacon-cheddar smoked grits and poached eggs of the Irish breakfast? What about the omelet, which gets a listing all its own, or the corned beef hash of the Delta Sunrise listing? So many choices.
And that doesn’t even include a couple of the house specials. The first of those is pancakes made with War Eagle Mills’ buckwheat sourdough, topped with what has to be among the most enticing sounding of finishes: cinnamon-orange whipped cream. But how do you overlook a dish that’s actually called the signature? Especially when it includes chocolate French toast, peanut butter-butter and bananas?
The simple answer, as it always is when dining decisions get too hard, is to come back. Of course, with most of those specials topping the $10 mark, it’s not exactly what many locals would call everyday dining, and for breakfast at that. But it doesn’t break the bank, either, and the ingenuity of the accents, almost all of which are generated in house and sourced from local providers, make the prospect of at least the occasional indulgence too much to resist.
It may take patience to hit all the highlights, much less make time for an early meal in the first place, but don’t forget that that’s a virtue. So is a fine breakfast, and Ashley’s has that nailed in every respect.
The Razorback ($8)
People may be down after the last football season, but when calling the Hogs gets a plate of biscuits and gravy, sign me up. In this case the two biscuits looked as though they were cut from a pan rather than dropped on a sheet (like skillet cornbread). The result made for tougher edges, sort of like the bottom of a drop biscuit, but with a flaky soft interior that you could fall asleep in. Gravy came in a boat about the size of a coffee mug, and while it just covered the two fist-sized biscuits, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more. Still, it was creamy and savory, spiced with house sausage (itself a standout side option rich with, I think, sage) that made a fantastic combination. The price puts it on the high end of early morning spending, but the quantity and quality suffice for passing on lunch. (sw)
Ashley’s Signature ($12)
What surprised me about this dish was that its sweetness wasn’t as overwhelming as I expected. While I definitely tasted the chocolate in my toast, it was an understated touch that worked with the light sprinkling of peanut butter-butter and perfectly sautéed bananas rather than engulf them. The toast was very thick and a bit tougher than I would have liked, but palatable nonetheless. What really stole the show was the bacon — made in house from locally farmed pork — which had the substantial flavor of finely cured meat, and added the perfect bit of savor to this deliciously sweet breakfast. (sc)
Little House on the Prairie ($9)
I usually skirt the sweeter stuff at breakfast, knowing well that a sugar crash will undo all my attempts at remaining bright-eyed and bushy-tailed through the morning. But I was interested in all of the details that went into this creation. Buckwheat sourdough pancakes? House-made sausage links? Orange-cinnamon whipped cream and Arkansas black apples? Sign me up. I didn’t know what to expect from buckwheat sourdough, but these were the fluffiest flapjacks I’ve ever seen. And they had a breadier texture than your typical all-purpose-flour pancakes that sometimes turn to mush in a puddle of syrup. Nope, these held their texture and they were delicious. On top sat several slices of Arkansas black apple, baked carefully so that they still had some crunch, and also a dollop of that orange-cinnamon whipped cream. I didn’t even soil these with syrup — well, I was feeling gluttonous near the end and drizzled a little bit — but they didn’t even need it. Yes, I wanted a nap afterwards, but was it worth it? Absolutely. (sm)
IN A NUTSHELL
Set amidst the luxury of the Capital Hotel, Ashley’s has elegance that goes beyond lunch and dinner. An everyday breakfast menu includes hearty, locally-sourced favorites infused with culinary ingenuity.
Location: 111 W. Markham St., Little Rock
Phone: (501) 374-7474
Alcohol: Full bar
Hours: Sunday-Saturday breakfast 6:30 a.m. - 10 a.m.; lunch 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.; dinner 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. (no Sunday dinner service)
Prices (breakfast): $8-15 complete, $2-$8 a la carte