By Elizabeth Keyser
Two Nights in Asheville
As our trusty old car climbed into the mountains of Western North Carolina, we got excited. We were headed to Asheville, NC, a new place for us. This city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has been the home to many writers, artists, musicians, and craftsmen. And, we were to discover, a creative vibe still abounds. And the local food scene is blossoming.
The drive from our food adventures in Chapel Hill, NC, to Asheville took about four hours. It was pleasant driving, especially for two people from the northeast. Southern drivers, we discovered, don’t interpret signaling for a lane change as a red flag. No one stepped on it, raced ahead of our car and blocked our access. Upon seeing our blinker, drivers hung back and gave us room to merge. For the northeastern driver, this was stunning. And very appreciated.
Getting a hotel reservation in Asheville wasn’t easy. Everyone kept saying it was the height of the fall foliage season. The hotels were booked. Whether it really was the height of the season – during the next two days we searched in vain for glowing red and orange leaves — became a reoccurring joke between Michael and me. And so we stayed at the Marriott right in the center of town, in a room looking down upon the national historic site of author Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s “Old Kentucky Home” boarding house. (Wolfe’s first novel, “Look Homeward, Angel” takes place in Asheville.) Our room at the Marriott was small, but freshly decorated in bright colors. A console with plenty of outlets for laptops and recharging cell phones was welcome, though the extra charge for internet service wasn’t.
We set out on foot upon the city on a lovely, warm night. We heard music. There on the street, a band was playing bluegrass. And playing very well. Musicians gathered round, waiting for their chance to join the jam. We fell in love with Asheville right there, looking up at the skyline of Art Deco buildings and feeling the youthful, bohemian vibe of this city filled with young, retro hippies and girls wearing long, flowing skirts. We walked up and down the steep sidewalks, looking at buildings, gallery windows and restaurant menus.
We’d been peering into restaurants and reading menus for about an hour when we discovered Bouchon. We stepped inside and knew this was the place. People were having a great time here. Owner Michel Baudouin greeted us, took our names, and suggested we order a drink at the bar and sit outside in the terraced garden during the short wait for our table.
The phrase “Bonjour, Y’all” on Bouchon’s menu says it all. Bouchon has good humor and great food. Local ingredients cooked French bistro style. Mussels can be ordered five different ways, including “Parisian-born Redneck” — steamed in PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) and Dijon mustard. I’ll stick with the classic white wine version, but I enjoyed the laugh.
My eye was drawn to local duck rubbed with Black Mountain Chocolate cocoa nibs, sea salt, coriander and black pepper and served with l’orange sauce. It must have been damn good; they’d sold out. But then I saw rabbit on the menu — local rabbit braised in Dijon, cippolini onions, fingerling potatoes and carrots, topped with puff pastry. The rabbit was tender, the sauce flavorful, the pastry light and crisp. Michael tucked into his steak au poivre with cognac sauce, dipped his frites into mayonnaise and Dijon mustard, and proclaimed his meal excellent. When owner Michel stopped by our table to make sure everything was okay, we raved.
Along with great food and vibe, the prices at Bouchon are extremely reasonable – under $20 for each entrée and bottles of wine for $30. Even better, Bouchon is a green restaurant. Along with using local ingredients, Bouchon composts all vegetable scraps. All the disposables are compostable or biodegradable.
We wavered over ordering dessert, and our waitress told we had to check out French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Over coffee or drinks, French Broad serves single-origin chocolate truffles and flavored ganache truffles like cabernet and anise, “Indian Kefi” with cardamom, and mole negro with chiles. They use local fruits, berries, honey, herbs and eggs. The chocolates were exquisite — small, intensely flavored and rich.
For breakfast the next morning, we walked to City Bakery. We’d eaten their excellent baguette the previous night at Bouchon. The moment we stepped into City Bakery, we were rewarded with the feeling that we were in a favorite local spot. Large black and white photos of bread hang on walls of the self-serve dining room, where hipsters lingered over laptops. (City Bakery offers free WiFi; Marriott hotels take note.) Michael had the sausage and gravy ($4), served on a fresh baked cheddar scallion biscuit. I had the sausage, egg and cheese. The biscuits were light and fluffy. Michael also liked the flaky, almond bear claw.
It was raining, but we didn’t let that stop us from tramping all over Asheville, checking out antiques stores, shops and galleries. Grove Arcade is a restored 1929 shopping center featuring boutique shopping and dining. Woolworth Walk is an old Woolworth’s transformed into an arts center featuring local artists and artisans and a restored chrome and red Formica soda fountain.
We ate a flavor-filled, inexpensive lunch at the Indian buffet at Mela, a cavernous, skylighted space with orange and tangerine walls, red ceiling and big windows that open in summertime. Once again, we had the feeling we’d come to the right place. Mela was bustling with people enjoying the $8.95 buffet. With a local Wedge Iron Rail IPA, lunch cost $11.
In the late afternoon, we drove up to the Grove Park Inn. Built in 1912 of mountain boulders, this monolith’s huge lobby is furnished with what is considered to be the world’s largest collection of arts and crafts furniture and hand-hammered copper lighting fixtures. We sat outside on the Sky View terrace, warmed by heat lamps, hoping the rushing clouds would reveal the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The weather wasn’t with us, but looking out over a green valley punctuated by a few red- and orange-leafed trees, while sipping a local St. Teresa Pale Ale, made by Highland Brewing was relaxing.
Back in town, we parked the car and set out to find a place for dinner. It wasn’t the menu that lured us into S&W Steak and Wine. We were arrested by the facade of this 1929 Art Deco building. Double story arched windows are outlined in beautiful glazed tiles in blue, green and gold. (You can see photos at artdecobuildings.blogspot.com). Until the 1970s, it was home to S&W Cafeteria. In 2007, the building was renovated, thankfully leaving much of the original Art Deco interior intact. We headed upstairs to the bar on the mezzanine overlooking the dining room. The locals were friendly, telling us about the history of the building, and giving recommendations for places to eat. Bouchon, of course, was on the top of the list.
The next morning, our too-brief visit to Asheville ended. We were driving to Savannah, GA, to meet friends. But before we got on the interstate, we had an important detour to make. The concierge at our hotel helped us plot a half-hour drive along the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway. Despite the misty weather, it was thrilling. Asheville, we’ll be back.
Part III – South Carolina, Barbecue, Savannah, and Charleston (coming soon).
Elizabeth Keyser is an award-winning freelance writer based in Fairfield, CT. Her work has been published in GQ, American Photo, The New York Times, The New York Post, Connecticut Magazine, Edible Nutmeg, the Yankee Brew News and newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Her “Tips on Eating Locally” column appears in the print and online versions of the Fairfield County Weekly. She has won eleven awards from the New England Newspaper Association, the Society of Professional Journalists Connecticut Chapter, and the Connecticut Press Club.