Travel: Asheville by the Forkful
A gastronomic trek through Western North Carolina’s new culinary star
The big news the day before we’re to drive a couple hundred miles up I-26 is an announcement by New Belgium Brewing, makers of the tasty Fat Tire Amber Ale, that it will build a large brewery along the French Broad River in Asheville. I get thirsty just thinking about it. But beyond the eco-green, Blue Ridge-bordering city’s reputation for craft beers, crafty residents, and mountain views, it has a new draw as a self-proclaimed “Foodtopia,” and meal-motivated travelers are taking notice. Last year, TripAdvisor ranked the North Carolina hot spot number 10 among the “Top 10 Food and Wine Destinations in the U.S.” That list includes the gourmet giants of New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as Charleston (number four).
All the food buzz is reason enough for a road trip—a few days to eat our way through the groovy-casual town. After driving a little under four hours, we start where any hungry travelers who’ve made no stops along the highway might—at an unmarked, downtown Asheville parking lot near the post office on Coxe Avenue. (A local writer-friend clued me in about “The Lot,” which was officially designated for food trucks this spring.) Three mobile eateries are parked there when we arrive, and we order from one called The Lowdown, which is painted with a cartoon-like mural of a picnic. Owner Nate Kelly, who says he grew up in Asheville, makes us a barbecue sandwich with peppery smoked pork, purple cabbage slaw, and spears of pickled okra between thick slices of grilled bread.
The new space is not yet outfitted with tables, but according to a man in line, “the cement wall on the edge is kind of comfortable.” We join him atop the short wall and unwrap the foil for our first meal of the trip. Nate brings over a small plastic cup of peach salsa to try. With sauce dripping and the bread breaking apart at every bite, the sandwich is a messy, delicious start. We invite friendly customers near us to weigh in on our working list of possible food stops over the next few days. Suggestions range from longtime favorites such as Salsa, Table, and Mela to the newest places for tacos and Thai. We won’t be able to get to them all, but we start out again with purpose, along the hilly streets downtown.
On North Lexington, we step into the Asian/Indian-inspired décor of the Dobra Tea Room, a space that’s divided into several rooms, each with more adornment than the last. The global grooviness seems a perfect fit for Asheville. In the rooms at the rear, beads hang from the ceiling like curtains, Oriental rugs cover the floors, and customers remove their shoes to settle on cushions and sip tea. A flier on the wall announces an upcoming evening of belly dancing.
We sit in the middle room, and a server brings the menu—a thick binder of drink descriptions. We choose two iced varieties. The first is the grass-green “Forest Dragon,” made of matcha and jasmine green teas, with mint, rice milk, and local honey. It’s not as thick as it appears and is completely refreshing. Then the “Staroborshov” arrives, looking exactly like a pint of beer with a nice head of foam. It’s actually a tall glass of dark oolong tea with a froth of shaken fruit sugar on top—an interesting alternate brew for a beer-loving town. We end up meeting the young owner, Andrew Snavely, who says the tearoom opened in 2010, joining other Dobra locations in Vermont, Wisconsin, and Maine.
It’s still light, and I want to check out a place I’ve heard about: it’s only open when the weather is good and is tricky to find, but it’s the best venue for watching the sun set, I’m told. At the historic Flatiron Building on Battery Park Avenue, we follow the arrow on a chalkboard sign to the elevator, where the operator, Rico, smiles and invites us to step inside. “Sky Bar,” I say, and up we go to the three levels of balconies, starting on the sixth floor, that comprise this seasonally open nightspot. Nothing fancy, here; just the simple draw of being up high and looking out across the city. Wine and beer is served, and views are of downtown—I could spot the Early Girl Eatery—and mountains as far away as Tennessee. But there’s a chill in the air, and only four other people make their way on to the balcony as the sun gets low.
Our next stop is Cúrate, the Spanish tapas bar where celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain—and it seems like everyone else who passes through the Carolinas lately—has sat down for a taste. The slip of a restaurant was opened downtown early last year by chef Katie Button, who’s since been nominated for a James Beard Award. Other partners are her mother, caterer Elizabeth Button, and Félix Meana, whose restaurant management career includes a stint at the famous elBulli in Spain. As we walk in, I spy Meana pouring cava down the curved spiral of an orange peel into a pitcher of fresh fruit. When we meet, he explains that the sparkling Spanish wine is from a town near where he grew up and that the white sangria is made tableside at Cúrate whenever ordered.
We slide onto stools at the long bar, which overlooks the open kitchen. Like the full house of customers around us, we order small savory plates, one after another. The restaurant quickly starts to live up to the hype. From our vantage point, a night of food theater is in full swing as Button and her crew crank out dish after dish from the all-Spanish menu. We witness a mix of simple, rustic, and elegantly plated hot and cold fare, including salads topped with anchovies or Spanish bonito tuna and charcuterie plates of the prized jamón Ibérico, cured ham from the black-footed pigs of Spain. My favorites are the ajo blanco, a chilled soup of almond milk and garlic that’s like a bowl of savory and refreshing melting ice cream, and the brandada de bacalao, a cod and potato purée served in a hot crock that’s pure Spanish comfort food to be eaten with toasted bread. All around us, conversation rises to the tall ceiling, and Spanish wines are poured and drunk.
We’re staying at the Grand Bohemian, a sister hotel to the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah that opened near the Biltmore in 2009. With a Bavarian facade, the handsome and plush interior features a massive, center-of-the-lobby stone fireplace; original, contemporary art on most walls; and plenty of richly upholstered furnishings. In the morning, we catch up with Adam Hayes, executive chef of the hotel’s Red Stag Grill who had cooked in the Chefs Challenge that week as part of a series of culinary match-ups leading to the annual WNC Wine & Food Festival (to be held August 23-25, 2012 in Asheville). Hayes’ creation for the audience-rated competition was a shrimp, sausage, and grits dish with tasso gravy. (I had the chance to taste the chef’s deliciously smoky take on classic shrimp and grits—the chopped shrimp in sausage casings were incredibly tender.)
At Red Stag Grill, Hayes serves plenty of game and fish—bison, elk, mountain trout, and sea bass. The North Carolina native reminds me of an easygoing, young Elvis Presley—Southern with a swoop of dark hair. We talk of food and beer, and he says he’s found a great way to work his favorite local brew, an IPA from Green Man Brewery, into his signature dish at the restaurant. It’s a boneless short rib that’s been braised in the beer, and the malt and hops help create a beautiful mahogany glaze. Hayes says that the hearty short ribs—served with fried onions, mashed potatoes, and greens—are a popular item in the summer. “It must be the hunting-lodge style dining room,” he laughs.
A lunchtime visit to the brick and corrugated metal building on Patton Avenue known as Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack involves important research. Most of the booths are filled with customers, and there’s a short line of people at the counter deciding on the amount of heat they can handle among the seven levels from “Plain” to “XX Hot.” We order a plate of “Mildium” wings with the spice right in the middle. They are the large, whole ones, with a crispy fried skin that’s tinted to the fiery color of red chili oil. Whoa, my lips start burning right away. With eyes watering, I gulp through refills of both my Arnold Palmer and ice water, but keep right on eating the wings, along with an iceberg wedge and plenty of ranch dressing to cool things off.
Another day, I’d like to try Rocky’s Coca-Cola cake or the banana pudding, but we already have plans to go to the Hop Ice Cream Café on Haywood Road to sample the creamy, hyper-local flavors such as “Mascarpone Peppercorn” and “Vegan Lavender Almond Milk.” We leave the hip, Avondale-like section of town with cones in hand. Pretty soon, we’re back in the wagon to drive up the winding, mountain-hugging Town Mountain Road (NC 694) that offers views of the city where we’ve been eating. Black bear sightings are supposed to be common here, but we don’t see any or find any official overlooks for stopping. Still, it’s beautiful to ride under tall trees so close to the urban center.
Continuing our motor tour, we cruise over to the River Arts District and stop at White Duck Taco Shop in the Hatchery Studios. Opened in spring 2011, the small café is painted in pastel colors and has patio tables offering views of the railroad tracks and the French Broad River. In line, I hear a woman mention her penchant for the Bangkok shrimp tacos listed on the tall chalkboard menu, and we order those, too. The tortillas filled with shrimp, cucumber, and chili aioli are fresh and tasty, and I bet they’re a fine match for the Son of a Peach beer featured at the White Duck. We drive around a bit more before returning to park and walk the downtown blocks of shops and restaurants near Pack Square.
At the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, a three-story brick building with a blue-and-brown-striped awning, people are lining up for the handmade chocolate confections, cakes, and caramels. Inside, among the upholstered couches and chairs set in cozy groups and nooks, I meet Jael Rattigan, a young chocolatier who opened the store in 2008 with her husband, Dan. She tells me they are expanding the business and will be opening a “bean-to-bar” chocolate factory this year on nearby Buxton Avenue. Though I’ve been scanning the neat rows of house-made truffles in the display case, I opt for Jael’s recommendation of the “Indian Kulfi” drinking chocolate made with rose petals, pistachio, and cardamom melted with cream. In the lounge, I hold the petite mug made by a local potter, and I can’t get enough of the rich, chocolate treat.
That night, a few miles from downtown in a modest industrial building on Haywood Road in West Asheville, soul and blues music plays from the sound system, and candlelight glints from a nautical motif mirror and a retro wall sculpture of a schooner. With concrete floors and pub-style booths, this could be a dive bar. Maybe it is—but it’s one with sought-after dinner reservations. The Admiral’s philosophy is “clipper ship elegance…with the practicality of a cinder block,” and the kitchen is led by chefs Elliott Moss and Drew Maykuth. (Maykuth was on the line the night we visited but has since departed for a restaurant venture in New England.)
When my order of Manila clams arrives with a side of grilled bread (nice char marks), I breathe in the steaming broth of coconut milk with ginger. A bottle of Bad Penny Brown Ale from a Raleigh brewery tastes great with the next hot plates from the busy kitchen—diver scallops on a deep green purée of peas and mint and then crispy fried South Carolina quail with polenta and stewed lima beans. Overhead, the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” plays through the speakers. I’m almost dizzy with the meal’s flavors—in a good way—and we eat every forkful.
We’ve had great meals on other trips to Asheville, but never have I tasted so many different flavors in the mountainside city and seen so much excitement about the kitchens and the cooking. Just a few hours from our very own hot restaurant mix, Asheville’s food scene is definitely hitting its stride.
A BITE OF ASHEVILLE
Favorite stops on this three-day food, drink, and mountain views bender
The Admiral, West Asheville dinner dynamo, 400 Haywood Rd., (828) 252-2541, theadmiralnc.com
Blue Water Seafood, fresh fish and gumbo daily, 94 Charlotte St., (828) 253-2080, bluewaterseafood.net
Cúrate, Spanish tapas and sangria, 11 Biltmore Ave., (828) 239-2946, curatetapasbar.com
Dobra Tea Room, Asian/Indian libations, 78 N. Lexington Ave., (828) 575-2424, dobrateanc.com
The Hop Ice Cream Café–West, locally sourced ingredients, 721 Haywood Rd., (828) 252-5155, thehopicecreamcafe.com
The Lowdown, at The Lot’s daily food truck rodeo, 51 Coxe Ave., thelowdownfoodtruck.com
Mela Indian Restaurant, locals love the lunch buffet, 70 N. Lexington Ave., (828) 225-8880, melaasheville.com
Red Stag Grill, lavish food and drink under antler chandeliers, 11 Boston Way, (828) 398-5600, bohemianasheville.com
Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, fiery wings, 1455 Patton Ave., (828) 575-2260, rockyshotchickenshack.com
White Duck Taco Shop, fresh ingredients in many varieties,1 Roberts St., (828) 258-1660,whiteducktacoshop.com
Grand Bohemian, boutique hotel near the Biltmore Estate, $229-$499. 11 Boston Way, (828) 505-2949, bohemianhotelasheville.com
Hotel Indigo, hip and urban, $189-$349.151 Haywood St., (828) 239-0239, boutiquehotel-asheville.com
Princess Anne Hotel, 1920s B&B with large suites, $129-$259. 301 E. Chestnut St., (828) 258-0986, princessannehotel.com
-Drive up scenic Town Mountain Road for city views.
-Watch the sunset from six stories up at Sky Bar/World Coffee Café, 18 Battery Park Ave., (828) 225-6998, worldcoffeecafe.com
-Visit the tasting rooms at the Green Man Brewery, 23 Buxton Ave., (828) 252-5502, greenmanbrewery.com and the soon-to-open French Broad Chocolate Factory, (828) 252-4181, frenchbroadchocolates.com
-Indulge in food and drink at the Asheville Wine & Food Festival (August 23-25, 2012) showcasing the best of the region’s chefs, wineries, farmers, and food producers at three events. The final Chefs Challenge takes place Thursday, 7 p.m. at Pack’s Tavern downtown ($65). On Friday night from 7:30 to 10 p.m., the Sweet after-dinner fête in the historic Grove Arcade features locally created desserts, specialty cocktails, champagne, live music, and after-hours shopping in the Arcade ($35). And for Saturday’s Grand Tasting, sample wines and local delicacies in the newly renovated U.S. Cellular Center. Regional culinary professionals will host cooking demos, classes, and Q&A sessions throughout the day ($65 VIP & $45). ashevillewineandfood.com