From a distance, Asheville, N.C., comes across as the Jan Brady of restaurant markets in the South. Charleston, S.C., and Nashville have been hogging the food stage for years now. “There’s no Eater in Asheville,” says Jacob Sessoms, the chef-owner of Table, one of the top tables in town, referencing the online city dining guide.
There are, he and other local food leaders will also tell you, a bumper crop of quality farmers and food producers, more than a few stellar watering holes, a booming beer scene and a growing number of entrepreneurs eager to feed restaurant-goers well. Get a little closer, and you’re apt to find more than the Biltmore Estate to entertain you.
One man’s dining strategy:
It’s a sake brewery!
It’s a beer garden!
It’s home to a $25 pupu platter, enough appetizer for four!
Foremost, Ben’s Tune-Up is wacky fun. Carved from a former auto garage on the edge of downtown, the indoor-outdoor pan-Asian restaurant and bar is, more than a year after launch, still being figured out by its owners — “and we want it to be that way,” says one of them, Jonathan Robinson.
The menu, like the kitchen, is small. Playful, too. Supple “Bad Buddha” pork dumplings show up in a steamer basket with what the eye registers as applesauce and the tongue determines is pineapple shot through with ginger. Wontons are pressed into service as shells for fish tacos streaked with Sriracha aioli and strewn with edible confetti: chopped scallions and purple cabbage. Make time to get acquainted with the chicken wings, too. The snacks are brined in tea before they hit the fryer and get massaged with chili peppers. There’s also ramen, packed with color and savor if not nuance. (Try the bowl with roasted pork and kimchi.) The handful of house-made sakes include one that nods to the season (apple spice) and another that’s still aging in barrels used for rye whiskey.
The complex, which repurposes shipping containers as dining rooms and includes a bodega with a pool table and T-shirts for sale, can seat as many as 250 revelers in warm weather. A perch at the outside bar overlooks a sprawling patio that references both “Gilligan’s Island” (picture grass umbrellas) and spring break (a hut selling Jell-O shots).
There really is a Ben, by the way, and he occasionally makes his way to the restaurant that borrows his name. More than a few patrons let the staff know they’ve been to this address before, Robinson says. Parroting a customer, the restaurateur says, “‘Ben used to work on my Ford Galaxie!’”
195 Hilliard Ave., Asheville. 828-424-7580. benstuneup.com. Sandwiches and entrees, $9 to $15.
Asheville’s temperate climate means rhubarb can be grown in some spots half the year, which helps explain why chef John Fleer plucked Rhubarb as the name for his downtown dining attraction, introduced a year ago. A 15-year veteran of Blackberry Farm in eastern Tennessee, Fleer says he was also attracted to “the ambiguity of a vegetable used as a fruit.”
In earlier times, the space that became Rhubarb hosted a pawn shop and an adult bookstore; these days, barn wood, Edison lights and spoon collections forge a cozier environment. The cooking reflects the taste of a North Carolina native who isn’t afraid of seasoning his work with outside influences playing throughout the contemporary South: Rhubarb’s popular lamb ribs, for instance, are racy with a collard green kimchi. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s signature ingredient pops up in a beet salad (garnished with pickled rhubarb) and on duck confit (in the form of rhubarb glaze).
I made it to Rhubarb only for brunch, but what I sampled there made me sorry not to have time for dinner as well. The midday choices fall into two camps: “breakfast-ish” and “lunch-ish.” Partial to the latter, a companion and I opted for the fried chicken biscuit and the trout grillades. Fleer shared the secret to the success of the chicken: a soak in sweet tea, “the wine of the South,” before cooking. Helping out: a fluffy biscuit and house-made bread and butter pickles. A riff on classic Country Captain, the grilled fish, splayed across a puddle of grits, gets a kick from a tomato gravy laced with curry.
Even Rhubarb’s top-shelf daiquiri reveals a Southern accent. Sassafras, I discovered, plays well with rum and lime juice.
7 SW Pack Sq., Asheville. 828-785-1503. rhubarbasheville.
com. Entrees, $18 to $28.
Jacob Sessoms knew exactly what he didn’t want when he opened a restaurant of his own in Asheville almost a decade ago: “a crappy, hot, fluorescent-lit” kitchen like the ones where the chef had toiled in New York after graduating from what was then called the French Culinary Institute. Consequently, the first thing diners see when they enter Table, the modern American restaurant downtown that the Nashville native owns with his wife, is a slender open kitchen with a broad window facing (ahh) a spa across the street.
Two of us spot some free stools at a small counter bridging bar and kitchen. Forget Table’s dining room around the bend — we want to watch our drinks and our dinner being made in front of us. Our guides for the next hour or so are the bartender and the cooks, everyone so close and attentive they anticipate our needs before we think of them ourselves. Here come fleshy maitake mushrooms and roasted baby beets on a pale-yellow pool of corn cream, a warm and wonderful salad flattered with purple amaranth leaves on top. Delicious grilled trout is heaped with focaccia croutons and plump blackberries simmered in vinegar. Another great catch: pork steak flavored with pork-belly drippings and sliced over a garden of browned baby carrots, crisp broad beans and a comma of lime-brightened avocado puree. Table knows to buy good ingredients and, with just a flourish or two, let them speak for themselves.
My choices aren’t likely to be yours. The menu at Table changes daily. But there’s always that trout, served with its head and tail, and cuts of pork from the whole animals the chef buys and butchers in-house. Sessoms, who has a background in pastry, cares about the last course. I could easily have had seconds of a late-summer slice of Table’s orange marmalade cake.
The night is young when we pay our check. Eager to continue our winning streak, we do the sensible thing and climb the stairs to Table’s lively bar, Imperial Life, where we drink, well, regally.
48 College St., Asheville. 828-254-8980. tableasheville.com. Entrees, $20 to $33.
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