First the good news — and there’s plenty of very good news about the Capital Hotel: It’s a stylish and classy hotel; it’s a friendly and hospitable hotel (it has free Wi-Fi throughout, complementary bottles of spring water always available and excellent free coffee on offer in the main lobby during the day and - depending upon availability - a free shuttle service to and from the airport); it’s a phenomenally comfortable hotel; it’s a phenomenally clean hotel and; it has the best bar in the city. The Capital is in fact more than just a hotel; it’s a Little Rock institution on a par with the Old State House and the State Capitol building as a place worth visiting within the city.
Moreover, with its period charm, grand and elegant public spaces and superbly appointed rooms it rivals similar ‘hotel institutions’ such as Claridges in London for sheer understated class, if not for outright splendour. In all my years of travelling, all over the world, staying in all forms of smart hotels, I can honestly say I have never experienced more physical comfort. From the plentiful supply of large, soft towels in the pristine bathroom to the crisp, smooth cotton bed linen on top quality mattresses the Capital has got it just right.
…because the Capital is in almost all respects a perfect hotel, the one or two problems we did experience seemed all the more puzzling and incongruous.
Our one and only gripe so far as the accommodation was concerned was one I least expected from my previous experience of travelling in North America (and ironically a moan normally directed in the opposite direction across the pond, from disgruntled North Americans about British hotels) and that was our shower. Our shower was frankly, pathetic. The pressure was miserable and the lever gizmo thingummy at the side of the showerhead for adjusting the “jet” was clumsy and stiff. It was also a fixed shower head, that would have been acceptable if the pressure had been good, but given the near-dribble that we were lumbered with it was very difficult to thoroughly rinse off, especially those hard to get at places! In other words, showering was a very unsatisfying experience.
My other issues are with regards to aspects of the eating experience in the hotel.
Breakfast is served in the hotel’s restaurant, Ashley’s, widely perceived amongst the Little Rock cognoscenti as the best and swankiest eatery in town. The first thing to say is that in common with the rest of the hotel, Ashley’s sits within a very handsome period room with immaculate, understated attention to detail from a design point of view and has a very pleasing and serene atmosphere. Furthermore, most of the dishes on offer for breakfast were perfectly fine (without being exceptional) and nicely presented. However, there were several oddities.
During our first breakfast the service was so uncoordinated that within five minutes of sitting down three or perhaps four different (overwhelmingly friendly and intensely enthusiastic) waitresses, in quick succession, launched into the same introductory spiel (which comprised a smiling “and how are you today” followed by a description of some “on-the-house” sickly sweet molasses flavoured butter spread) before we could stop them. It was like being assailed by a train of smiling, affable robots and by the time of the third “and how are you today” we were becoming irked. This well-meaning unintended battery of service continued throughout the meal with at least three consecutive attempts to take our order and incessant attempts to keep refilling our coffee cups … (fortunately, on our second breakfast, we had only the one waitress and everything went swimmingly)
Another thing which struck us as odd was the composition of a so-called “Irish Breakfast” as one of the menu options. Having visited Ireland many times we are something of experts on the Irish breakfast, which fundamentally is the same as the Full English breakfast, except for the strictly non-negotiable addition of soda-bread in place of regular bread, and the nearly always inclusion of black pudding (blood sausage) and often white pudding too (plus heaps of bacon and pork sausage etc etc). Ashley’s version of the famous Hibernian breakfast feast had none of these constituent parts however but did include cheese grits amongst several other distinctly non-Irish items.
The final worry was, on the face of it, the most trivial but actually suggested something not particularly encouraging about Ashley’s the restaurant. I asked for mustard with my breakfast and was stunned when one of our aforementioned phalanx of waitresses returned with a pot of Heinz “Dijon” saying that this was all they had in the way of mustard. It was better than nothing so far as my breakfast was concerned – just – but the thought that the kitchen of the acclaimed Ashley’s, with its reputation for haute cuisine, could not produce a pot of quality mustard – French or American or anything – was worrying (the first thing that occurred to me was how could they even make something as simple as a French vinaigrette salad dressing without a decent Dijon mustard?).
The following evening we had supper in the hotel’s bar. The first thing to say about the bar itself is that the room is a fabulous example of an American bar and ticks all the boxes so far as style, comfort, atmosphere (there was a really good Jazz trio playing there two of the nights we were there, led by an accomplished guitarist) and drinks - the bar being copiously stocked with tipples to satisfy even the most demanding and discerning drinker, all served by highly professional bar staff. The bar also offers a good selection of tasty food, from bar snacks to full-blown entrees at reasonable prices.
... on this occasion something went wrong. I ordered the rib-eye steak (which was excellent except for the fact that it turned up medium when I'd asked for it medium rare - no big deal) which was accompanied by a neat rectangular stack of vegetables including slices of “roast eggplant”. Unfortunately though, the eggplant was raw with the texture of shoe leather. Now, to be fair to the chef at the bar, undercooked eggplant is a common error amongst chefs west of France who rarely seem to understand the material they are dealing with, believing that it can be treated in a similar way to things like courgettes and capsicum. Well, as any good Arab, Israeli, Turkish, Indian or Persian cook can tell you, it can’t. Anything other than fully cooked aubergine - however its cooked - is unpleasant at best and inedible at worst. Anyhow, our excellent waiter went and got me a new batch of vegetables, and as I expected, the aubergine was still raw and inedible. I even offered to go into the kitchen and demonstrate to the chef how to cook aubergine but the waiter diplomatically pretended not to hear me, although he did assure me – totally unprompted – that the chef acknowledged that there was a problem with the dish and that “it would be removed from the menu”… All very well, but assuming the chef had tasted the dish before passing it fit for diners, why was it on the menu in the first place?
As it happened, the following evening we bumped into the head chef of Ashley’s at the reception desk of the hotel and he explained to us that he was only responsible for lunch and dinner in the restaurant, and that the bar and the breakfast were cooked by other people. I thought of mentioning my issues regarding breakfast and the bar meal directly to him, but he was a genuinely charming man and somehow it didn't seem apposite at that moment to keep him further from his duties. However, the thing is, we had planned to finish our visit to Little Rock in grand style by eating dinner at Ashley’s but, before I spend 3 Michelin Star money on a meal – which Ashley’s prices represent – I need to be damn sure that I'm going to get 3 Michelin star food. Sadly, the little niggles described above planted enough doubt in my mind to make me decide against. Going out for posh expensive dinners should never feel like a gamble.
In summation though, I would highly recommend the Capital Hotel as a wonderful place to stay and will definitely look forward to future visits.
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