I’d lived in Memphis twenty-nine years before being sucked into Asheville, North Carolina’s pachouli-scented culinary orbit. And it happened completely by chance.
Kristin was snoring, full-drool in the passenger seat. My son Luke, our reason for making the trek to the Carolina coast, hadn’t popped up from his heavy quilt and down pillow in the back seat since just east of Nashville. After seven hours of grey, Tennessee winter in my windshield, I was struggling to stay awake. Music, always my companion on the road, wasn’t working anymore. Conversation was non-existent. There was no way I was going to make Greensboro, North Carolina without veering off the road. More than once, the sound of my tires running over the warning grooves in the breakdown lane snapped me out of my stupor. I’m responsible for three lives. Must stay awake. But before too long, my head became too heavy for my neck to hold up again. Something needed to give. And quickly.
Like the beam of a lighthouse in a Nor’ easter, the Starbuck’s logo on a road sign guided me to safety (and coffee). We were funneled off of 40 East into a dreamy enclave of Asheville called Biltmore Village. White stucco cottages, microbreweries, Romanesque architecture, promising looking farm to table restaurants, art galleries, expensive boutiques, happy, good looking people with Patagonia bubble coats on, all stood in contrast to the hours spent staring at the rolling flatlands littered with leafless trees, smokestacks, travel plazas and navigating unnerving mountain passes in the rain. And there was the Starbuck’s in the middle of it all holding out its hand with a Venti black, no room. (I know, you support local coffeeshops and hate Starbuck’s. That’s immaterial. When you’re about to fall asleep at the wheel you care a little less about the political leanings of CEOs). Hearing me ohhh and ahhh, Kristin opened her eyes. Not normally thrilled by being awakened, she couldn’t help but express equal surprise at our good fortune. We were surrounded by mountains, charmed by the snow village atmosphere, intrigued by the abundance of culinary options. From that odd, wonderful moment on, vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina was at the top of our travel bucket list.
I think it’s a disservice to southern foodies that Asheville has largely remained subordinate to New Orleans, Nashville and Chicago in popularity. It’s true that ecstasy can be had in all of those cities, but Asheville has mountains, a vibrant downtown and an overstock of je ne sais quoi. And the food…just, damn.
Maybe it’s the bohemian contingent with its crunchy coffee shops, its delicious vegan food and hemp beer, the (scheduled and impromptu) downtown drum circles and Patagonia-sponsored clean mountain living or maybe it’s the mish mash of celebrity chef culture and the DIY, make it happen and do it on your own terms work ethic in the restaurant scene. Whatever it is, Kristin and I are drawn to the little city in mountains like magnets. We’ve been seven times in the last year and a half. Four of those times were spent looking for a house. In fact, we put down earnest money on a beautiful A-frame in the low hills of Maggie Valley before rescinding our offer. Black mold and irrationally high radon readings were deal killers. We were heartbroken to read the fourteen-page inspection report from a window facing booth at Caritas in Memphis. It was quite obvious we were going to die upon moving in.
You should ease your way into Asheville’s restaurant scene. Go to some lesser-known spots, first. Rhubarb and Curate, owned by celebrity chefs John Fleer (first chef of Blackberry Farm) and Katie Button (El Bulli alum one of Jose Andres’ running buddies) respectively are fun and you will definitely find nice, James Beard worthy food in each spot, but there are plenty of fireworks to be had in less celebrated joints around the city.
A great way to ease yourself in (or back out on to I-40) is with a—hold on to your hat of preconceived notions—beet shawarma from Gypsy Queen. The tiny, casbah-themed restaurant located in stripped down West Asheville, serves up the best Lebanese street food I’ve ever had. Notated on the menu as a “Beet Shawarma Wrap with 7 Spices, Mint-Cabbage Slaw, Pickles, Parsley, Tarator and Toom”, the sandwich, enclosed in a freshly baked pita, is a heart stopper. When we went this last time in November, as the pandemic had all but emasculated Asheville’s restaurants, we were sad to find the beet shawarma had become a casualty of small menu syndrome. I hope it’s back on the menu next time we go. Also stunning and one-of-a-kind, were the semolina cookies and fig-newton-like Hamantashen confections for sale in the Plexiglass case by the cash register. The owner, an affable and surly Lebanese woman, proudly told us she made the fig cookies from fruit found in her yard. Kris and I were duly charmed.
Maybe at the top of the list for food epiphanies is the quirky and fun Chai Pani. Intrigued by the promise of Indian Street Food (samosas? No, Idiot! Pakoras. Or like, butter chicken tacos? Dude, it’s not fusion. The owner is Indian. Don’t feel alone in your ignorance of the genre. These were my initial questions, too), I bellied up the supersonically loud bar on a solo, house-hunting visit to the city. Into my second hemp beer, colorful plates piled with unfamiliar shapes and presentations started to crowd my narrow space. Are those supposed to look like flying saucers. Damnit, those flying saucers are tasty. Onion skin-like paper made of rice flour encased bombs of flavor that danced and burst in my mouth. With every crunch of the Bhel Puri, an awakening. Then it was a completely unfamiliar and nuclear-hot potato fritter sitting on a bed of spiced garbanzo bean stew called Aloo Tikit Chaat. Tamarind, green chiles, yogurt, spices, hot potato, cold chutney, yielding chickpeas. My brain almost exploded. Matchstick Okra Chaat…simple, fried, tasty…Sloppy Jai (yes, a play on Sloppy Joe) spices, lamb, tomatoes, the ever-present green and tamarind chutneys, all on two, slider-sized buns toasted with ghee. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier. I spent a hundred dollars by myself.
You wanting to go cheffy and creative? Are you unafraid of shooting Jameson from a spent veal marrow bone? Or are you a sauce on the side, gluten-free pain in the ass? Do unfamiliar cooking terms make your smush up your face in disgust? If you’re the first two, then a visit to see chefs Jeff Crowder and Benny Shepis and the team at Jargon should be on your Asheville agenda. Sitting on two bar stools on the pass-through window between the kitchen and dining room, we had one of the more memorable meals of our lives. Starting with the now infamous Elotes Hushpuppies, beef tartare and a studly pork belly with scallop dish and ending with the whisky bone luge and foie gras semi-freddo, my creative energies were drunk with inspiration. Crowder, with his deep Carolina drawl and Cajun affect threw course after course of inspiring food at us until we had no choice but to tap out. Subsequent visits, including a recent one during the pandemic, were fun and tasty too. The restaurant has a soul. And it’s the soul of a trillion dead cooks begging for another shot on the line. Jargon, in my mind, is a cook’s restaurant. That diners are so enthusiastically pro-Jargon owes to the vibrant and curious culture found all around the city. Besmirching the menu with pandering dishes like beef tenderloin, fried catfish, barbeque, Caesar salad, mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette, Alfredo—the usual suspects—would never happen at Jargon. You go knowing that thought was put into the food. You don’t go with intolerances, indifferences, or attitude. If creativity (well executed) isn’t your bag, skip Jargon. But shit, can that kitchen crew dazzle.
Go have your leisurely meat and egg forward breakfast at Rhu (John Fleer’s bakery concept) or, if you’re into vegan, gluten-free, meat alternative, house made kombucha, save the Earth, plant a tree responsible eating, go to BimBeriBon (also on Haywood in West Asheville). Just be prepared for the stares when you scarf down your respectable Cubano made traditional with pork rather than the suggested jackfruit. Jackfruit Cubano? Isn’t that illegal? And they staff is pretty crunchy, even by Asheville standards. But Kristin and I had a great, mostly plant-based breakfast there.
Also serving breakfast but with a cheffy, farm to table take on classics is the wildly delicious and pretense-free Haywood Commons (yes, also on Haywood). Hand-cut animal fries (with preserved lemon crema? Delicious blasphemy), Thai vegetable salad with ginger-maple salad, incredible bibimbap, burgers, beef tartare with gribiche, it goes on and on. The theme, if there is one, is transformation. Nothing is what it seems. Get a plain sounding Caesar and you’re likely not to recognize what you get. Same with burgers, fries, tartare, salads. The chef, a Florida expat named Rob Starr and his wife, Hannah, use the term Appalachian-inspired comfort food to describe the culinary aesthetic. Although I’m not sure what that exactly means, I’m sure if I spent more time in Asheville, it would definitely fit. Most vegetables and proteins that find their way to your plate have been sourced from local farmers. The restaurant is set up like your typical farm to table butcher shop/bistro with reclaimed wooden accents and pig diagrams framed on the wall and tattooed to cook’s arms. You’ll want to stop here for a quick lunch and maybe buy some interesting local foodstuffs from their onsite market.
Then, once you’ve mined the lesser-known spots, make a reservation (at least two days in advance) for Curate. Asheville native, Katie Button, married to former El Bulli service manager, Felix Meana, fell in love with the surrealistic (and traditional) food stylings of the Catalan Coast of Northern Spain after doing time in Jose Andres restaurants Minibar and Café Atlantico. Recognizing her abundant interest in modern Spanish food, it was Chef Andres that demanded she go do time with Ferran Adria. When she returned from Spain after having her culinary mind bent, she had a husband and raison d’etre. Curate opened to nationwide fanfare in 2011. In the last ten years has joined the culinary zeitgeist and can be found swimming in the same circles as Thomas Keller, her mentors Adria and Andres, and all of the big names practicing today.
Kristin, Peyton (our daughter) and I had a wonderful lunch there. Sitting at a table that faced the open kitchen we watched as Jamon Iberico was shaved on traditional slicers and passed over the counter to day drinkers and swooning foodies. Modeled after a typical tapas restaurant, the small bites of focused amazingness, always with an emphasis on cured Iberico pork, Curate will enlighten. By far, the best dish of 2019 was Button’s White Asparagus with Tarragon and Light Lemon Mayonnaise. I mean, holy shit. On the flip side, an El Bulli dish, Adria’s Anchovies with Hazelnut Espuma and Raspberries tasted like a train wreck. There was zero cohesion. It seemed pretentious and tasted worse. It was the one miss out of the ten to twelve dishes we sampled that warm spring afternoon. Vermouth culture, a big thing is Spain, is also a big thing at Curate. You need to sample a few different ones, maybe get some sherry too, to complete your Spanish dream.
Ok, Rhubarb. Farm to table, expensive, tasty but not revelatory. I don’t remember a single dish. A restaurant that is very proud of itself and full constantly. I think we need to go back before I pan it. But it’ll be on someone else’s dime.
Asheville! Asheville! Asheville! Put it on your bucket list. You’re welcome.