I am not a native Southerner.
Though I have been living in Arkansas for 36 years, I was not brought up on Southern comfort food, which forms the basis of Chef Matt Bell’s menu at South on Main.
So it might have been a natural error for an ex-Damyankee to assume that the “Liver and Onions ($12)” on the appetizer menu was, as would have been the undoubted case above the Mason-Dixon Line, fried calves’ liver and sauteed onions.
Uh, uh. We’re talking chicken livers, perfectly deep-fried (so that the batter outside is crunchy-crispy and the livers inside the batter are moist and flavorful), served with soubise (a French onion-bechamel sauce to which Bell has added maybe a little mustard) over thin, contrastingly sweet apple slices.
It’s a risk we’re glad we took and a mistake we’re glad we made.
Bell, a Montana native, was for four years the sous chef at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel. He interned at North Little Rock’s Ristorante Capeo and has a culinary arts degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.
He and then-Oxford American publisher Warwick Sabin created the concept for a restaurant to be part of the magazine’s new headquarters, in the South Main building that formerly housed Juanita’s. It spans the culinary South, with such staples as fried chicken, pork chops and fried green tomatoes, but also has a few items that are less immediately familiar.
The culinary approach is Southern with New American twist. For example, your glass of water is a Mason jar (very Southern) made of blue glass (tres modern). Those traditional Southern items (chicken, pork chop, catfish) come with nontraditional, though still Southern, sides (sorghum three-bean salad, sweet potato gratin). Bell is living up to the promise of using local produce and products whenever possible and some uniquely Arkansas items, including the local basmati rice.
There’s no direct corollary between South on Main’s lunch and dinner menus; there are common entree items, but they come with different sides.
The restaurant, which incorporates a performance stage with a resident grand piano, is in the space that formerly housed Juanita’s bar and performance space. Among the renovations: a completely rebuilt air-conditioning system, for which diners might express a particular seasonal gratitude.
The decor is the product of at least two of Bell’s co-owners - his wife, Amy Kelley Bell, and her aunt, Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen (the other partner is Steenburgen’s husband, actor Ted Danson).
It acknowledges the Old South (and we did see one patron in a seersucker suit and a Panama hat) while pointing firmly at the New South. It’s a pleasant exercise in mostly blacks and grays, with seating at booths and tables, some with cane-bottom hoop chairs, some with moderne aluminum. On the tables, respectably heavy silverware comes rolled in white napkins with light blue borders - add a six-pointed star in the middle and they could pass for Israeli flags.
Old typewriters, a nod to the magazine and also the restaurant’s logo, top the dividing wall between the dining room and the bar, which by all appearances remained behind when Juanita’s moved to the River Market. There is a lot to attract the eye on the wall behind the bar, including some old-timey-looking portraits. The most prominent wall feature in the restaurant proper is a blown-up Oxford American music issue cover.
The background music is a pleasant mix of Southern rock and other genres. On one dinner visit, however, the soundtrack seemed to be on a very short loop. We heard the same song twice in about 20 minutes.
What Bell says is one of his biggest hits, even out of the restaurant’s soft opening, was also a hit with us: the lunch menu’s Catfish Hoppin John ($12). The grilled catfish filet comes atop a goodly portion of black-eyed peas with tasso (a Cajun ham that is probably the thing that really makes this dish) and pickled tomatoes; on the side, creamy grits (the waiter said “potato grits,” whatever those are) and three pieces of perfect fried okra - crisp (!) and not mushy - that pleased even the party member who would normally have shied well away from the grits and the okra. (On the dinner menu, catfish, $15, comes with soybeans, bacon, red onion and hollandaise.)
You Pick Two ($8) - your choice of a half sandwich and/or a half salad or a cupof soup - sounded like a good light-lunch option. It was certainly light. A cup of smooth tomato soup with a slightly submerged dollop of creme fraiche paired with half a very low-key chicken salad sandwich (a whole one is $8 with an accompanying carrot raisin salad that didn’t show up on the Pick Two plate) was neither filling nor satisfying.
We had no issues with the size of the portions on our dinner plates. We were surprised, however, to discover that what the menu listed as Roasted Chicken Breast ($17) turned out instead to be a pair of artfully arranged drumsticks, one roasted, one fried. Both were perfectly prepared - the meat moist, especially in the fried piece, which the batter enhanced, not dominated. It came served over a very tasty and slightly crunchy sorghum three-bean salad.
We could have done without the squash in the summer vegetable mix, even though it came in a ham broth, but we loved the Roasted Drum ($15), a white-fleshed fish that’s a little more “beefy” than tilapia, and the Arkansas basmati rice underneath. (A $12 lunch item comes paired with summer corn, roasted peppers and marinated avocado.)
We delighted in all three appetizers we sampled. The Liverand Onions you already know about. (You can also find the livers atop lunch’s Hot Chicken Liver Salad, with iceberg lettuce, radish, blue cheese and bacon, $5 half, $9 full.)
The Soft-Shell Crab ($10) was light-fried and delicious, topped by a tart, spicy pepper jelly; the accompanying mint coleslaw was pleasant even for the party’s slaw-avoiding member (more mint leaves would have been nice - they perked up not only the slaw but the crab as well). The Pickled Shrimp was a little pricey at $12 but we enjoyed the flavor, as well as that of the lightly dressed arugula-basil-cucumber salad on which the shrimp were perched.
The menu describes the after-dinner sweets - “Jar,” “Cookies” and “Doughnuts” - accurately, if inadequately; you’ll get a fuller idea when you ask your server for the sweets of the night. We also recommend asking your server for the prices.
The jar, it turns out, is a layered dessert of varying content, sort of like a parfait without the fruit. A pair of kitchen-baked cookies (chocolate chip on the night of our visit) sandwich a filling du jour.
The doughnuts are also kitchen-created, not round rollers but chunks of deep fried dough, somewhere between doughnuts and beignets, served in a brown paper bag with confectioners’ sugar and bourbon-infused cocoa nibs. We didn’t quite shake ours hard or long enough, and so sufficiently coated only a portion of the dough-chunks, leaving sugar and nibs at the bottom of the bag. Taste wise, it was a near-perfect conclusion to a meal, but if we’d known when we ordered that it was going to cost us $8, we might have passed.
The dinner menu comes on a large clipboard; the check comes on a small one. We were well taken care of during one lunch and one dinner visit, but on our first dinner visit, our waiter was out of pocket, and even out of view, a lot of the time and when we could see him he was hard to flag down. And he was a bit on the smug side to boot.
There was one area in which South on Main is not Southern enough: There are no sugar packets on the tables. So if you need some to sweeten your unsweetened tea or blue-Mason-jar water, or to shim a table leg, you’ll have to ask.
South on Main Address: 1304 Main St., Little Rock Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Monday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday Cuisine: “Southern Comfort” Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D Alcoholic beverages: Full bar Reservations: Yes Wheelchair accessible: Yes Carryout: Yes (501) 244-9660 facebook.com/Southon-MainLR
Weekend, Pages 29 on 09/12/2013
Print Headline: South on Main, Southern style