Here’s a thing that food travel writers do: They breeze into a town they know only superficially, spend a couple of days stuffing themselves senseless, and then declare said town’s food scene has “hit its stride” or “turned a corner” or maybe even (gasp) “advanced to the big leagues.”
So, let me join in. I just went to Asheville and, wow: This city has become a fun and exciting place to put food in your mouth.
The North Carolina mountain community and I are the most casual of acquaintances. My wife and I have spent the night there a few times over the years when we’ve taken our daughters to summer camp nearby.
The eating, as I recall, was always fresh and appealing, particularly at breakfast when the area’s organic/local mindset and Southern heritage combined to soul-satisfying effect. But I also recall it being fairly simple — a place where you might settle into a club sandwich or a crock of hot artichoke dip and a glass of American chablis on a patio in front of dulcimer-playing street buskers.
Now, after several years, we returned with a kid who has graduated to camp counselor. We knew to score a reservation ahead of time at Curate, the Spanish tapas bar whose young chef-owner, Katie Button, an alumna of Spain’s renowned El Bulli, recently competed for Rising Star Chef at the James Beard Awards. But we weren’t prepared to discover just how filled with dining and drinking options the compact, walkable downtown has become. It was surprisingly easy to wander around, find a cool-looking spot, and get lucky.
“We’ve watched this town grow and change,” said John Fleer, who spent 15 years as the chef at eastern Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm and routinely traveled with his wife through Asheville en route to his family home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. They were attracted to the open attitudes among the people they met in town and often thought it would be a nice place to settle and open a restaurant when the time was right.
About five years ago, it started to look right. Chef Jacob Sessoms pioneered a true farm-to-table restaurant with a daily changing menu at Table downtown. The Admiral showed that locals and visitors alike were willing to root out innovative seasonal cuisine in an ultra-casual dining room that draws comparisons to a biker bar.
More than anything, Fleer attributes Asheville’s culinary growth to the “incredible resource of farmers and producers” who’ve made it home.
So, last year, he made the move and opened Rhubarb, a market-driven restaurant and bar just up the street from Curate.
We liked our lunch there a lot, particularly the “market plate” of Asheville hippie-organic goodness. Farro, lentil-parsley spread, mint green goddess and a riot of beets, carrots and asparagus kept our forks darting here and there.
Pastry chef Ashley Capps makes a saucer-sized coconut chocolate chip cookie that comes warm from the oven and literally melts on the tongue. (One can only imagine how much butter makes this happen.) On my next visit I want to go back for dinner and try the lamb ribs with kimchi that have become a house signature.
Button, Curate’s chef-owner, surely can’t mind the competition. The tapas destination attracts a reliable crowd nightly, and though frenetic activity animates the dining room — thanks in large part to the open-counter kitchen spanning its length — the staff stays on top of things. Wonderful: As busy as this restaurant gets, you’re never ignored.
The staff requests that you place your table’s full order rather than going plate by plate so they can best order the progression from lighter to heavier dishes. The suggested three dishes per person ended up being way too much food for us, but it was worth the food coma.
Standouts included the best, crispest, creamiest fried eggplant I’ve ever tried. Button said the secret lies in soaking it overnight in milk. A dish called rossejat negro is a kind of paella made with thin fideo noodles, seafood and a squid ink-black seafood stock with the most intense burst of sea funk flavor I’ve ever tried. (Yes, that’s a good thing.)
Not only does Button source Spain’s best iberico ham, she also has iberico skirt steak, grilled simply with salt and pepper and served in naked splendor. This acorn-fed pork has a flavor unlike any other, one I found a revelation.
While Button doesn’t trot out a lot of modernist technique for this crowd-pleasing food, the bartender makes a super-fun cocktail called the sidra car, i.e. a sidecar made with Spanish dry cider and capped with a pouf of “apple air” and a few gratings of lime zest. Your nose and tongue register two completely different pungencies.
Now, Button can turn her attention to a second project. She opened Nightbell as a quasi-speakeasy, a cocktail bar and lounge set upstairs from a storefront that looks like a fussy little antique shop, then expanded the seating and tweaked the bar bites menu to encourage more full-on dining. Specialties include a deviled egg served in the shell and a rib-eye sandwich on a freshly baked roll that sounds like the Platonic ideal of a Philly cheesesteak.
We didn’t try any of the food or cocktails at Nightbell but did have the supreme good fortune to wander into Wicked Weed Brewing, one of the local brewpubs that has contributed to Asheville’s reputation as a beer mecca. We started to wander onto the street-side patio but the hostess had the good sense to direct us to the downstairs beer garden out back, near the brewing equipment. Picnic tables, free pretzels and cornhole invite you to stay.
What is the wicked weed? You’re wrong. It’s hops. Or so said Henry VIII in a quote that inspired these Ashevillians to make a variety of hopped-up beers, including a number of India Pale Ales. I was thrilled with my Freak of Nature, a double IPA with a bright bitterness that just kept unfolding on the tongue.
My wife opted for the Lunatic Blonde, a Belgian Pale Ale. It wasn’t until we were ready to leave that the waiter-brewer’s assistant started giving us tastes of the house sour beers and took us back into the brewery to show us the open fermenting tank where all the sour magic happens.
After a late breakfast the next day at Early Girl Eatery, an oldie but still pretty goodie, it was time to get the kid to camp. We stopped in the French Broad Chocolate Lounge to gape at the truffles and caramels made only with sustainably sourced ingredients, but were so stuffed from the weekend that we couldn’t manage to eat one.
We also need to check out Table and the Admiral, and spend some time in the River Arts District just west of downtown, which has its own dining revolution happening.
Next time. In three weeks we’ve got to head back to pick the kid up.