I have always known Asheville to be a sort of neo-hippie haven tucked into the mountains of North Carolina. That and the home of the George Vanderbilt’s Xanadu, Biltmore Estate. Outside of those two notions, I did not know much more about it since I had not visited in over a decade. And that was only for a short day or two.
Enter, Asheville Restaurant Week. I had been looking for an excuse to get out of town for a weekend. After coming across the proclamation that this sleepy town of just under 85,000 was about to embark on this celebration of the food and drink of the city, I knew I had found my destination. Bags were packed. With wife and brother in tow, off we were to the AVL.
I will be the first to tell you that I am a morning person, but one is not meant to rise before five a.m., or so my body has always told me. Not today. We have a date with a baker and if you don’t know, they get started early. Utterly early.
A shot or two of espresso and miles of unlit highway later, we are pulling up a snow-laden driveway up to a small, nondescript house that matched our address of destination. Unsure if we are at the right place, we hop out. The mesmerizing aroma of fresh bread seemed to melt the frigid atmosphere. We are in the right place.
Farm and Sparrow is the creation of Dave Baurer. He and his team use heritage, local grains to produce wood-fired breads and other baked goods that are familiar but at the same time bring a certain uniqueness with them. The baking process is based around the practices of the area, use what you have available during the year. The heirloom grit boule has an astoundingly moist, soft sourdough-like inside that is juxtaposed by a crispy, grain-filled exterior. And their bialys are a Gotham expatriate's dream.
Dave will be furthering his exploration of grains by partnering with Chef Brendan Reusing of Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill to form All Souls Pizza. The eatery will specialize in using traditional grains, fresh flour to create house-made pastas and polenta. They will also use house-cured meats and local cheeses.
For scratch-made Southern breakfast, Tupelo Honey drips with offers that tend to combine the sweet and savory to fashion fan favorites that begin with their complimentary biscuits served with tupelo honey produced from the White Tupelo Gum tree in the Florida panhandle or their blueberry jam that is much more berry than jam. The main attraction in the morning is the Sweet Potato Pancake, a mammoth buttermilk pancake with sweet potato and cinnamon highlights touched off with whipped peach butter and spiced pecans. Southern traditions run deep in Asheville but global conventions are continuing to crop up amongst the standards.
Katie Button, fresh off a win at Robb Report’s First Annual Culinary Masters Competition, is one of those cultivating this idea. She is amongst a group of chefs and restauranteurs that are working in and owning their first restaurant. Katie and her husband, Felix, have pushed their eatery, Cúrate, into the national food spotlight. They, along with their peers, work in an exciting environment that includes a slew of talented chefs, bartenders, butchers and bakers doing what they do and creating their niche. They are in it together, in the growth of Asheville. This year was more than last year and next year will swell even more. It’s all about some friendly competition and a sense of team and making relationships happen. It makes everyone raise the bar a little bit higher. Everyone gets to do their individual styles and really appreciates everyone’s uniqueness. With that being said, Cúrate does Spanish food and they do it well.
Cúrate, translated as ‘cure yourself,’ brings small plates to the table with loads of traditional and fresh ingredients and flavors. Their jamón selection stars ibérico pigs that are both buttery and nutty, which comes from their steady diet of acorns. The brandada de bacalao is a traditional cod and potato purée that is smooth and mild with a slight fish flavor. Spanish cuisine is also known for fresh seafood and the rossejat negro is staggering. This paella-like dish takes thin noodles and combines them with squid cooked in its ink and garnished with all i oli and salsa verde. This is what coastal Spanish food is all about. After pincho moruno, lamb skewers marinated in moorish spices, and an impactfully flavorful ensalada de invierno, with it’s delicate stacking of belgian endive, valdeon blue cheese, candied walnuts, orange and pomegranate, the evening was finished off with a unique turn on dessert. Berenjenas la taberna pairs fried eggplant with wild mountain apiaries honey and is dotted with sprigs of robust rosemary.
It seems Asheville really embodies a sense of community over everything else. Maybe that’s a product of its place in its own growth. The city is large enough to support unique styles of eating and cooking while still not being large enough to be saturated by the competition. Everyone seems to shine amongst themselves at what they do independently.
As I embark on my second day of epicurean exploration, Early Girl Eatery is the first stop to warm us up as the wind and threat of snow continues to cut the air. It's cold and I am red wine hung over. And inside, it's bright, warm and cozy. Yippie...
Wait. What's this? Fresh, free coffee while I wait? Don't mind if I do. The menu leans heavily on locally grown fruits and vegetables and regional meats and cheeses. Besides breakfast all day, the bustling cafe sports salads, veggie and meaty sandwiches and a selection of meat and two plates. Today, the Early Girl Benny will get me started. This tower of breakfast delights starts with a base of grit cakes that maintain their structure as sauteed spinach, poached eggs and avocado are layered and drizzled with a smokey tomato gravy.
Another younger, but no less successful, chef in the Asheville food community is William Dissen. In 2009, William bought the 34-year-old Asheville heirloom, The Marketplace Restaurant, which has always prided itself in a farm-to-table mission since its onset. Besides some cosmetic adjustments; updating with modern decor and physically manipulating the space, the core values remain intact. William works closely with local farmers in a symbiotic relationship in which the farmers' production influences the menu and at the same time, his needs influence their planting for the next season. Often times chef and farmer will shop for seeds together, discussing the concerns and needs of both producers.
These ingredients go into a full, diverse menu of small and large plates. The smoked potato gnocchi, served with roasted beets, an arugula & orange salad dressed with buttermilk dressing and benton's country ham cracklins,' and maple lacquered bacon, which is grouped with crisply seared brussel sprouts, spiced pecans and acorn squash, are some of the smart, well-focused samples. The main event here on the menu is the trout. This fish comes from local Sunburst Farms and lays upon a bed of beluga lentils, smoked bacon and confit tomato vinaigrette. Crispy. Flakey. Fresh. This is why local is good.
This idea of farm-to-table just seems so inherent here and William tells me that this is because, being a smaller mountain town, Asheville was seemingly forgotten by the industrial revolution. The traditional ways of cooking, from canning and curing to using what is available, were the only methods at hand and industrialized eating took much longer to make it their way. The practices never really went away and have continued on. While everyone else has caught on, Asheville never left.
After we speak, William prepares for The Culinary Super Bowl at The Cast Iron Cook Off. He is leading a team that includes Elliott Moss, from The Admiral Restaurant and Buxton Hill Restaurant, and Michael Moore, from Blind Pig Asheville Underground Supper Club. They will win.
French Broad Chocolates is a local, well, chocolate empire. French Broad is a bean-to-bar chocolate factory that houses, roasts (with solar power!), grinds and mixes all of their imported cacao from Central and South America. The French Broad Chocolate Lounge, where their chocolatiers hand-craft artisanal chocolates, truffles, brownies, whoopie pies and pastries prepared with local and organic ingredients, is the place to delve into the chocolate desires you may possess. Me? I am just really interested in this xocolatl. It's a bitter, chocolate drink based upon what the Aztecs originally drank with the cacao bean. Not for everyone, but I like it.
You can take tours of the factory to see how they produce some of the best chocolate I have ever tried. If you are a chocolate nerd, this is your highlight of Asheville; chock full of information about cacao and finished up with a tasting of several chocolate bars. Knowledge and sweets.
The final stop on the culinary tour is Table. While The Marketplace and Early Girl are local vintage favorites, Jacob Sessoms' Table, and the companion bar upstairs, The Imperial Life, are the standard. Since opening its doors in 2005, Table has been bringing New American cuisine to Asheville with a pleasing bend on Southern traditions. Jacob is serious about what he does. His love for the craft shines through and beyond culinary trends and marketing buzzwords, Jacob does what he does for longevity. Farm-to-table and using traditional techniques that are at the same time cost effective and obvious to the principals of Jacob's small, but unrestricted and welcoming kitchen.
Upstairs at The Imperial Life, the chartcuterieier, David, serves a strong variety of house-cured meats all prepared in the basement of the building. They also specialize in rare bites including fresh Atlantic oysters with a Texas Pete sorbet and a venison tartare complimented with bread and butter pickles, cole slaw and BBQ powder.
Downstairs, things get real. Jacob greets me with a plate of Creole shrimp towered upon pillowy crab beignets which buoy in a brown sauce that begs to be sopped up before the bowl is taken away. My final enchantment of the weekend was with a little bird. The squab, done two ways here with the breast roasted and leg confit, is perched over a hash of potato, apple, gochujang and brussel sprouts with a marrow paste decoratively streaked across the plate. The presentation and the taste cause small moments of sublimeness. I must stop, sit back and soak this all in.
After two days of eating through Asheville and a day of walking through Biltmore Estate to try and even myself out of the epicurean haze Asheville has put me in, I leave this place. I am far too ready to see what spring and summer bring.