Saturday, March 23, 2013
Culinary and Other Adventures in Asheville, NC
For the last 6 weeks or so I've been working some very long hours, including weekends. While I was back at it this week, last weekend I was able to take a bit of a break. I was contemplating taking a day trip on Saturday, just to get some fresh scenery. I mentioned this to John, offering that he could come along if he liked. I was thinking Birmingham or Chattanooga, but he suggested Asheville -- a town he knows well and which has been high on my list of places to visit for a long time. Before you know it a day trip became an overnight, and on the way it became a full weekend. I felt a little guilty that this meant I couldn't work on Sunday, but ... well ... the fun of the trip more than made up for the lost weekend work time.
We arrived in town Friday night just in time to make a late reservation for dinner. John had done the research and found a tapas restaurant called Zambra. Just off the main park downtown, the unassuming entrance in an ordinary office building turned out to be a cozy, warmly lit space, with a large main dining area and several nooks. A combo was playing near the bar, and even as late as it was -- 9:00pm -- both the bar and the restaurant were nearly full of patrons. We were seated in one of the nooks and eagerly perused the menu.
There were two menus, actually. A "regular" menu which seemed to be a semi-regular lineup of dishes, and then the daily specials menu, which was nearly as long. Unlike tapas restaurants that we've had in Nashville, there were no real entrees. The truly small bites like olives or bread & olive oil were labeled "tapas" but everything was a small plate. After a deliberative period of contemplation and discussion, we each picked two dishes. John ordered scallops with duck liver mousse and a potato pancake, and a crawfish & escargot dish. I ordered a cauliflower dish and pork spring rolls with a mango dipping sauce.
In our typical fashion we shared everything. The items arrived one by one, the next arriving just after we finished the previous. I didn't make notes, but I will say that everything was delicious. The scallops were especially wonderful. In fact, I would say the best scallops I've ever had; they were perfectly, perfectly cooked. I had never had escargot before and was a little apprehensive, but I was pleased to find them inoffensive. I don't know that I would order them again, but it was nice to cross them off my list.
We decided on one more dish, and chose the papas. A gratin dish of small cubes of expertly cooked potato, drizzled with a spicy sauce, rounded out the meal. The potatoes were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and put any other notion of french fries or other fried potatoes to shame. We listened attentively to the recitation of desserts, and were tempted but decided to pass.
We stayed at the Grove Park Inn. A huge Arts and Crafts resort halfway up the slope of one of the mountains surrounding Asheville, it was built by the inventor of quinine water. It's famous in its own right, but is also known as the residence of F. Scott Fitzgerald during Zelda's stay at a nearby sanitarium. My favorite part was the huge fireplaces at either end of the enormous lobby. Practically large enough to stand in, they were guarded by what had to have been 5-foot andirons. The row of rocking chairs in front of the fires was a great place to take a respite from sight-seeing.
The next day dawned bright and warm for March, and after a late start we headed to Biltmore Village to find lunch. The Village is a historic planned hamlet at the entrance of the Biltmore Estate. The Village is now chock-full of shops (both chain and local), galleries, and restaurants with charming streets suitable for strolling. We ducked into a shop and asked for recommendations. The staff recommended both The Cantina and The Corner Kitchen, but said that The Corner Kitchen was what we wanted for a genuine Asheville experience. We headed down the block and found the charming old cottage on the corner of Boston Way and All Souls Crescent; a brief wait and we were seated.
They offered both lunch and brunch dishes. This time John and I ordered for ourselves. He got the fried oyster salad, I went for a bowl of corn & crab chowder with a side of grits. (If there is polenta or grits on a menu, I find them hard to resist, whatever else I order.) The grits didn't disappoint; they were stone-ground, creamy, and thick and lacked only a little salt -- easily added -- to be perfect. The chowder was good, as well. John was pleased with his salad & oysters. I was tickled to find that most of the dishware was Fiesta, down to little syrup pitchers I saw on neighboring tables. I would happily return to The Corner Kitchen for another meal.
After full afternoon of wandering the downtown on foot, we decided on a casual dinner at the original Mellow Mushroom. I was surprised at how good the crust was on our Magical Mystery Tour pizza -- it was light with just right amount of chewy-crispy texture. A little more exploration of downtown and we headed back to Biltmore Village for dessert. We found Fig Bistro and opted to sit in the courtyard of what seemed to be primarily an office building. It was late so we were the only patrons outside. We ordered a trio of ice creams and a bread pudding. I love bread pudding but have a beef how as it's usually served in restaurants. Typically it arrives at the table steaming, piping hot, but this was merely thoroughly warm - perfect. I'd love to return to Fig Bistro for a full meal.
Sunday morning we opted for breakfast in the Grove Park Inn restaurant. When we walked in the hostess asked our name and if we were staying at the hotel, and checked us in. The waitress then referred to us by name -- nice touch. The breakfast was a buffet, and they had everything. Omelets and waffles made to order, and tables full of just about any breakfast item you could want, everything from biscuits and grits to bagels and lox. We feasted, then headed out to the jewel of the trip, the Biltmore Estate.
It would take an long blog post just to detail America's Largest Private Home; suffice it to say it was magnificent. Of course, being a Vanderbilt graduate as well as an aficionado of the culture of the period, I was particularly interested in the history as well as the architecture and decor. Built by George Vanderbilt (son of The Commodore, Cornelius) in the late 1800s, it is a monument to the Gilded Age. Naturally, John & I enjoyed the "downstairs" of this upstairs/downstairs world, where the work of the modern castle took place. If you've ever seen the cramped downstairs of a BBC Edwardian miniseries, you'd be surprised at the spaciousness of the Biltmore's kitchens (including a separate pastry kitchen), pantries, workrooms, laundry rooms, and even servants' living quarters. The downside of the timing of our visit was that the gardens (designed by the designer of Central Park in New York, Frederick Law Olmsted) were grey and dormant. I hope to return during a more verdant season when the famed landscaping will be in full riot. A bonus of the visit was that I got to see three paintings by one of my favorite American painters, John Singer Sargent. Portaits of Olmstead as well as George V. and his mother (a Kissam, for whom my freshman quad at Vanderbilt was named). All in all, a very satisfying round of sight-seeing. Asheville was charming, vibrant, and full of wonderful architecture, arts, crafts, and food. I look forward to another visit.
We headed back to Nashville that afternoon, taking a series of hair-raisingly twisty US/state highways through the mountains. It was a thrilling ride, with a new incredible sight around every bend. We kept our eyes peeled for a place for our last meal of the trip, but many likely spots were closed on Sundays. We finally found a late lunch / early dinner on Main Street in the small town of Bryson City -- the Cork & Bean. Located in the old Bryson City Bank building, the restaurant is charmingly decorated and uses the old bank vault for wine storage, among other things. We sat in the front room, which doubled as a coffeehouse, with comfortable arm chairs around a low table and gourmet coffee and coffee drinks served to walk-up traffic at the bar. On first impression, the Cork & Bean would not be out of place in any hipster neighborhood in Nashville. The menu proved to be surprisingly big-city as well, with organic and gluten-free options and sophisticated dishes. I enjoyed a crepe with turkey, gouda, spinach, and avocado with a berry mustard; John had Eggs Benedict, which he ate with relish.
I have to say that we had great good luck this trip finding satisfying places to eat. I usually stress out during a trip trying to find "the best" whatever via web sites, blogs, social media, etc. As chance would have it, though, my cell phone was misbehaving -- it wouldn't charge -- so I wasn't able to scour the Internet for guidance. It was a good lesson that sometimes it's best to just take things as they come and take your chances.