Eating in the mountains: Asheville, NC.

May 16, 2011 § 15 Comments

“If we didn’t have birthdays,
you wouldn’t be you.
If you’d never been born,
well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born,
well then what would you be?
You might be a fish!
Or a toad in a tree!
You might be a doorknob!
Or three baked potatoes!
You might be a bag full of
hard green tomatoes.”

~ Dr Suess

It’s not uncommon to see Marvel characters wandering the streets.

This Thursday past marked my first birthday in the Northern Hemisphere and what a novelty it was to wear a sundress out to dinner on the 12th of May! As I mentioned earlier it is tradition for my family to extend birthdays for as long as possible, so not only did I get my early birthday present and my lovely birthday dinner with friends, but then NB whisked me away to the mountains for a weekend in Asheville, North Carolina.

I would describe Asheville as the love child of hippy Bellingen (NSW) and trendy Bangalow (NSW) with a little Manly (Sydney) chill thrown in. The city is eclectic, but not in the slightly grotty way that can be parts of Newtown, and it thrives on organic, sustainable living. Asheville’s architecture is as diverse as its population, with a nod to both Parisian chic and Greek Revival as well as the Federal design you might expect to see on a southern plantation.

The Biltmore Estate

If it’s architecture you’re after then wait until you catch a glimpse of Biltmore Estate, the extravagant 175,000 square foot residence built on 125,000 acres. The Biltmore House was designed in 1889, by architect Richard Morris Hunt, for George Washington Vanderbilt and his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. The family moved into the residence on Christmas Eve, 1895, and can you believe it, they only had one child to fill the 38 guest bedrooms! No wonder they were always hosting parties! A visit to Asheville would not be complete without touring this amazing home ($60). Not only will you get to see Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set in the library, you’ll also get the chance to ogle the three massive kitchens (main kitchen, meat rotisserie kitchen, pastry kitchen), giant walk in pantries and one of the first ever industrial cool rooms… but remember to save time to nip across to the wine tasting as you leave the property.

The food scene in Asheville is incredible and I’ll tell you now that one night is simply not long enough to eat your fill! As I said, Asheville is all about the local, the organic and the sustainable. Expect to find restaurant menus that are shaped under a strict farm-to-table philosophy. Here are 30 places to get you started.

We arrived in Asheville around noon and went directly downtown in search of lunch. The downtown area is about the size of five square blocks, busting at the seams with cafes, restaurants and bars. My ears were filled with live music coming from a nearby tavern while my nose was leading me towards the tantalising aromas floating from within a small Himalayan restaurant. As much as I wanted to fill my belly with curries and flatbreads and rice, we had booked a Spanish tapas restaurant for dinner and I was trying to save my appetite. Instead we followed the stairs that lead to Wall Street, a little road that sits above the main downtown shops, and found an organic vegetarian cafe that I had been reading about the day before.

The Laughing Seed is a global fusion vegetarian restaurant with friendly staff and interesting cocktail combinations. We perched outside at a table covered by the leafy pergola, hoping that the rain wouldn’t sweep in sideways and wet our feet. I know NB had only said yes to ‘the hippy place’ because it was my birthday weekend, but from the moment we sat down I watched his eyes scanning the plates of nearby diners in hungry anticipation.

The menu is a terrific combination of appetizers, sandwiches, salads and entrees (i.e. an Australia main course) that incorporate tastes from Louisiana to Asia and anywhere in between. I had read great reviews about the raw spinach-pesto manicotti (zucchini noodles stuffed with live sunflower-spinach pesto, cashew ricotta, and fresh basil served over sun-dried tomato marinara with house-marinated olives), and in hindsight I wish I had ordered it, instead opting for the Open Market Plate on which I chose to have dhal, tempeh and steamed vegetables ($8). The plate size was modest, which is perfect for me at lunchtime, but if you are a big eater I would recommend one of the bowls or sandwiches. My little serving of yellow dhal was creamy and delicious and hit the spot that was still craving Himalayan curry. I also really enjoyed the grilled tempeh and I’ll probably begin to use this in cooking, instead of tofu, in the future. The steamed vegetables were a bit on the plain side, although they were steamed to perfection with a nice bit of crunch, I would have liked a little sauce to drizzle over them. It was a yummy little meal for me but the menu is so excellent that next time I’ll not try to design it myself!

NB was tossing up between the cuban sandwich and the special of the day which was a vegetarian version of a Philly cheesesteak, using seitan instead of meat. Our waiter recommended ordering the Havana Cuban (herb and spice battered organic tempeh, crispy housemade pickles, black bean spread, tomatoes, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, and Asheville’s Lusty Monk mustard on grilled flaky Cuban bread. $10) which turned out to be a delicious choice and came with a side of crunchy jalapeno fries and creamy pesto pasta salad. I think the meal basically converted NB and it reminded me of the time that BR introduced her boyfriend to Pure Wholefoods, one of Manly’s organic cafes. While initially there was plenty of knuckle dragging and nail biting, apparently these days you can’t keep him away from the haloumi burger on Sunday mornings!

We left Laughing Seed Cafe with bright eyes and bushy tails, ready to explore our way through the champagne second hand bookstore (yes really) and the French chocolate lounge.

Other places to eat in Asheville:

1. Dinner at Curate, 11 Biltmore Avenue, 828 239 2946. 

This was the only tapas restaurant that I had been to since Kika in Darlinghurst, and it was even better than my first experience. Make sure you book ahead because the place was bursting.

Must haves: chorizo with olive oil potato puree, lamb skewers, grilled green asparagus.

Not as much: potato bravas.

2. Breakfast at Early Girl Eatery, 8 Wall Street, (828) 259-9292

Traditional southern cooking, made from scratch with a local focus. This place is cheap as chips so order a few dishes to share for the table and get a real sense of what it is to enjoy a good southern breakfast.

Must haves: Ginger and pumpkin bread (3.25); grits with cheese ($2.25) these ones are the perfect texture, more like rice pudding than mushy oatmeal; omelette with local fillings ($7.95).

Not as much: Everything is excellent, and even the coffee tastes more fresh than is usual in American cafes.

3. Thirsty Monk Pint House and Beer Bar, 92 Patton Avenue, (828) 254-5470

What a fun place to stop for a drink and a nibble. We ordered the Local Flight, which was a selection of four beers from the local breweries for $6. We tried #1 Nantahala Pale Ale, which I thought was a bit reminiscent of James Boag and very yummy, #2 Highland Cattail Peak wheat beer, hints of raspberry on the palate, #3 Pisgah pale ale, a little more gingery, and #4 Pisgah Red Devil. To accompany our drinks we shared the hummus platter which included original hummus, chipotle hummus, tabouli, sundried tomato tapenade and thai cashew butter (NB’s new favourite spread) $7. The pizza also looked delicious and we were entertained by a man dressed as a nun running in and stealing another patron’s beer.

4. A sweet treat at Marble Slab creamery, 14 Biltmore Avenue

BS to NB: ‘Can I be fat?’

NB: Yes, of course!

BS to server: Peanut  waffle cone with dark chocolate ice cream smashed with Oreos and coconut and topped with whipped cream.

…Also come to experience a real American milkshake, where it’s so thick you can’t suck it up a straw.

NB summed it up when he said that in Asheville I was able to find my food-town soulmate. What a revelation! Tell me Blushers, where do you escape to for a weekend away?

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