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Falling in Love with Asheville Restaurants

The Southern town serves up cosmopolitan cuisine with local charm.

There are all kinds of love in the world. Some start at first sight. Coup de foudre. Others slowly smolder before exploding into full-on conflagrations.  My love affair with Asheville began at the table, at Table, when I ordered radishes, butter, and, instead of the salt offered in the traditional French version — bonito flakes. I could taste the dash of dry wit that accompanied the hit of salinity. The tempura fiddle head ferns weren’t shabby either. Eating that meal was like going on a first date, the kind after which you smile to yourself, try to keep your excitement in check, and think, okay, I’m interested. I would definitely do that again.

Which I did. Holidays, long weekends, the occasional why-not trip. That first dinner date may have been forced on me, but subsequent outings were of my own volition with a list of must-try places in my carry-on.

See, a few years ago, my mom called me up and told me that she and my dad were moving to Asheville, North Carolina. My mother grew up in Paris. And now she was moving to Appalachia?

"I like it there." Always a leaf on the breeze to my stubbornly rooted tree, I think she’d spent a total of five days in Asheville before deciding to just up sticks and move there.

"You’ll like it too," she promised. "The food is incredible."

I saw right through this gustatory hyperbole, an old tactic. I am the kind of person who measures her life in teaspoons and forkfuls. Meals are the pins I use to peg moments to the board of my memory. Food is entirely my point of reference. Some people will remember a day based on what they wore, or what the weather was like. Without fail, I remember what we ate.

"Please," my eye roll thundered down the phone line. "Don’t exaggerate. AND DON’T TRY TO MANIPULATE ME!"

Shelves of liquor on display at Table.
Shelves of liquor on display at Table.

A few months later, I arrived at Asheville’s friendly little airport, neat as a pin and populated with armchairs staring out at the mountains matted in trees. Maybe I wanted to be skeptical of a food scene that was getting a lot of hype. Let’s just say I am well known for two things: judging too quickly and being schooled by my mother.

The education began shortly thereafter at that downtown restaurant called Table. There is a Depression-era grandeur to the architecture in downtown Asheville — bank buildings with pillars and big glass fronts on 90-degree corners in a real downtown — tempered with an aura of warehouse reclamation. Upstairs windows were full of signs demanding we all "UnChain AVL" (this refers to keeping the city full of the independent small businesses that make the place so inimitable), music, moody lights, and laughter. Subarus parked on the streets flaunted "COEXIST" bumper stickers (the ones spelled out using the symbols of various religions), and that’s exactly what the city does. It coexists as this intersection of the region’s tradition and a distinctly young and modern perspective, at once inclusive and ambitious.

UnChain AVL signs promote independent small businesses. Glimpse into windows to catch music, moody lighting, and laughter.
UnChain AVL signs promote independent small businesses. Glimpse into windows to catch music, moody lighting, and laughter.

It was a "trendy" southern restaurant with all the trappings now identified with the NY/Portland/LA scene: minimal design, beards, plaids. But the feeling was different — a sense that simple utilitarian beauty was a permanent fixture of this place, one not daunted or flattered by passing trends. There was no feeling of emulation or pretense. Come as you are, the city seemed to whisper. It was the authenticity and earnestness of the people and the places throughout that I came to quickly recognize as defining and unifying the exploding Asheville food scene.

Asheville’s depression-era grandeur, in the form of reclaimed bank buildings and warehouses.

Back at Table, my mom turned from her menu to the server and asked, "Tell me, why is your hamburger $18!?" "Good question," he replied.  Owner and executive chef Jacob Sessoms explained it to me later in depth.  The beef comes from Brasstown Beef, a family farm in Brasstown, North Carolina that straddles the borders with Tennessee and Georgia. They send one head of free-range and green-fed (a combination of grass feeding supplemented with vegetarian protein feed left in the pasture that adds marbling to the traditionally lean grass-fed beef) beef per week to service downtown Asheville orders. Which means, as our server explained, that "the burger all comes from one animal." But it’s not just that. Jacob and his team make everything except for the cheese in-house. The bun is crafted by a baker who has worked with him for ten years.  The cucumbers, pickled in house, are bought from a woman with whom Jacob went to college.  Jacob insists on paying his staff and the farmers from whom he buys a real living wage, and that gets baked into the cost of the burger.

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The burger at Table is a prime example of the food of Asheville: a devotion to reincarnating simple, classic foods, mostly through the use of exceptional ingredients and a commitment to the tradition of the place.

We all thought about that for a minute. "I’ll have that," my mom affirmed. Take as a case in point that hamburger.  Unpretentious food resuscitated from the banal. Scanning down the rest of Table’s menu, I recognize a commitment to the South and the local. Pimento cheese, devils on horseback, and deviled eggs populate the short "tastes" menu. And up and down the page, ingredients from "NC", "SC", and "GA" are called out: tuna, wreckfish, chicken. Vegetables are named by provenance: "Ten Mile" beets, "Evan’s" romaine lettuce, "Gaining Ground" bitter greens. But while Asheville food knows where it comes from, and celebrates that place, it is not myopic.  Global influence adds a layer of thoughtful reinvention — not fusion, just a little something to elevate the historic. Table’s menu currently features basil-fed escargot, vol-au-vent, green garlic, shiso. How’s that for Japanese-nudged, French-inspired Appalachian?

Another restaurant, and one of my favorites, through completely different from Table, strikes a similar chord. The Bull and Beggardescribes itself as European-inspired Appalachian cuisine.  The space, a part of a studio building in the River Arts District, looked like an abandoned industrial parking lot in the dark night as we drove up.  Inside gave way to that distinctive Asheville look: smooth, rustic wooden tables, small bunches of wild flowers, Duralex French bistro glasses. Jeans, of course, and plaid. Appalachian warehouse meets Parisian getaway. My heartbeat quickened.

Warehouse trappings, low-key atmosphere, serious food and drink at The Bull and Beggar.

My two favorite things on the menu that night came at the beginning and the end.  Asheville takes great pride in serving local trout, and you’ll see all kinds of recreations of it, most often sourced from the adored Sunburst farms where trout are raised in Pisgah National Forest waters.  That night, it came in the form of smoked local trout pâté, reminiscent to me of the two-salmon rillettes I ate in my time in Paris. This one was flaky and creamy, smoky like the barbecue the region is famous for. I smeared it on toasted coins of bread. Unpretentious but perfectly delivered.

Later, after a local riff on cassoulet, I told the server I just had to have the warm homemade madeleines, a personal favorite, and I would take them to go. He brought me a small brown paper box. Tiny, shell-shaped, glistening from a tumble in sugar. I picked one up, still hot, and slipped in into my mouth.  Just crisp on the edge, lightly dense and spongey. Reeking magnificently of orange blossom. After all the time I had spent in Paris, after growing up in French-American home, it was the best madeleine I had ever eaten. They didn’t make it to the car. My mother smiled smugly all the way home.

Tiny, piping hot, and addictive: homemade madeleines at The Bull and Beggar.

The madeleines were followed the next trip by a New Year’s dinner at Cúrate,  a Spanish tapas restaurant built on a foundation of local Appalachian ingredients. Even in the decidedly Spanish setting, there’s no escaping the local. "Yes some of our menu is imported," explains executive chef and owner Katie Button, "like the Spanish specialty products of cheeses and jamón, but what lies underneath the Spanish items is a focus on local products and ingredients. We have a bunch of farmers that we support from our dairy and eggs to honey and seasonal produce to pork and beef from a variety of nearby farms." The Esqueixada de Montaña, a Catalan raw fish dish, is made with that famous local Sunburst Farms trout.

But I truly regaled in the pulpo a la gallega, described on the menu as "Galecian-style octopus served warm with sea salt, olive oil, Spanish paprika, and Yukon Gold potato puree." Simple. Perfect. And followed by my favorite thing on the menu, the Cerdo Iberico a las Finas Hierbas, which our server told us was a skirt steak cut of imported Iberico pork, fed on acorns. It comes, simply sliced, grilled with fresh rosemary and thyme. Again, simple and honest, but made from the best ingredients intelligently sourced. The meat is so tender and gentle, the herbs so forthright.

The noteworthy pulpo a la gallega at Cúrate.

Button summed up the city’s ethos. "We wear jeans and a T-shirt just about everywhere, because it is a relaxed place to live, but then behind that casual vibe is a focus and strive for perfection in what we do."

Soon enough, this budding romance I had with the city followed the natural course of things. I moved from gallivanting through my list of special places I had to try, to frequenting the more quotidian types of food that I went back to again and again.

And there were more things to try, like All Souls Pizza, a little place off Clingman Avenue where you can sit at wooden picnic tables in wild garden, eating crispy chickpeas with a garlicky yogurt and drinking homemade soda. The pizza is exceptional, with dough made by Farm & Sparrow’s baker David Bauer (word to the wise: buy at least two loaves of Farm and Sparrow’s elusive, char-crusted, chewy-crumbed bread when you come). It’s thin in the center, bubbling and bready and charred at the edges, made from flour home-milled from organic grains. The toppings run the gamut from smoked NC shrimp to NC soppressata to fermented chili to pickled onion. But these are not only local ingredients — they are local preparations. The techniques and heritage ingredients have always been there. But now they’re being unearthed and fused in interesting ways.

I had heard a lot of good things about Vortex Doughnuts, next to the famous Buxton Hall barbecue, which serves both cake and yeast doughnuts made from North Carolina flour and milk and Asheville eggs and chocolate in flavors that include honey lavender, espresso, and my favorite to date, orange and fennel. The general manager tipped me off to a "rotating tap, which uses a different beer glaze every time we make it, topped with peanuts, pretzels, and beer malt" — which is a nod to Asheville’s moniker: Beer City. The same old maxim applies here too: Good ingredients produce the tastiest product possible. Falling in love with Asheville, even if it is a long-distance relationship (for now, anyway), took me by surprise. Such fantastic food, chefs, and entrepreneurs right here, in a small American city.

Button describes Asheville as "an inspiring place to live, not only because you have all of these extraordinary entrepreneurs here, but also because it is just a beautiful place to spend your life and raise a family, hiking on your days off, or going to a concert at the Orange Peel or Grey Eagle — it is a city that has so much to offer for its size."

There is a group of chefs and purveyors in this place who, as Button puts it, "have decided to pursue their dream and open their own business — and that shows, because the people behind the restaurants are extremely passionate and are putting all of their energy into doing what they love to do." The focus on excellence, the support the community puts behind the local and the independent, the inherent ingredients and cuisine, the wonders of the city itself — this confluence has created a fertile ground for food that is, simply put, truly excellent. I recommend you get yourself down there, to live or to eat, to take a seat at the table and taste for yourself.

Photography by Crested Coua

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