When I’m out and about in Asheville, there’s usually only ten things on my mind, and they’re all food!
Asheville is the greatest food city in America as far as I’m concerned. To live here is to eat things. Good things. REALLY good things. It seems as though every food-maker in town is creating amazing products, from the most simple things like yogurt and smoothies, to elegant things that involve purees and caviar and microgreens ‘n’ shit. And sometimes a thing called a twankie. Here are just ten of the amazing things I ate while out and about in Asheville recently…
1) SMOKED OYSTERS – Some guy gave the restaurant Vivian a “Best New Restaurant” AND “Restaurant of the Year” award in 2018… that guy was me… and good gottdang, I went there last week and confirmed with myself that my own high standards are still high, and that when it comes to fancy eats on a haute cuisine level, Vivian is tops. I popped in solo on an odd day of the week, odd time of evening, and opted for a seat at the bar. I like to be around other people when they drink sometimes. I didn’t talk to anyone! Ew. But I like to listen to folks talk to the bartenders around town about wine and cocktails, because it’s fun and interesting to hear the staff’s preferences and depth of knowledge. I’m just gonna go ahead and say that the folks who work the bars around this city know their shit. You should listen to them when they talk. The bartender at Vivian that night was not just knowledgable about beverages, but also about food, and, with my permission of course, and brought my dishes out in a different order than I originally asked for them. I was, like, “I’ll start with the potted shrimp, then the smoked oysters, and venison, please” and she was like, “Can I start you with the oysters instead,and then bring out the venison and potted shrimp?” I admired her confidence, and agreed to her plan! It was a good call on her part for sure, as the oysters were a perfect place to start. Served warm, smoked but not cooked in the shell, with a tiny dollop of creme fraiche, caviar, fennel oil, and a wee little sprig of micro green on top. There were four oysters on the plate. I could have eaten forty of them. Forty plates, that is. They were heavenly, and one of those rare dishes that had me involuntarily closing my eyes again and again. Go to Vivian and get these now. Or anything else on their menu, really, such as…
2) VENISON – After the oysters at Vivian, I highly recommend the venison. It was the most perfectly cooked piece of meat that I’ve eaten, maybe ever. No lie. It virtually melted in my mouth. It was cooked rare, sliced medium-thin, and served with a huckleberry compote, lightly smoked mushrooms, pickled mustard seed, and micro greens. It was fucking exquisite. The sauce and berries of the compote added the perfect amount of sweetness and fruitiness to the deep flavor of the meat and mushrooms, and the bright mustard seeds & micros added high notes that created even more layers to the flavor and texture experience of this amazingly balanced little dish, that managed to be delicate, yet thoroughly meaty at the same time. This is high end food, my friends, make no mistake. I mean, for real, you be gettin’ food in New York City, at THEE fanciest motherfuckin’ places, and I’ll tell you what, no jokel, if I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’, it won’t even be this good. #truestories I’ve been to those fancy New York places, and they are AWESOME to be sure, but I’ll. Tell. You. What, Asheville, they ain’t got nuthin’ on Vivian. Give co-owners Shannon and Chef Josiah McGaughy jsut a little more time, and I see high accolades in their future on the national level. I mean it! James Beard. Food and Wine, Look out. So, my advice to you is to get in there and eat their food while you can still find a seat, Peasants! And if this venison is still on the menu, do not hesitate for even one second to order it.
3) GRILLED SCALLOPS – I was recently invited to come try the new menu items at Capella on 9, at the AC Hotel, and yom! Really frickin’ tasty and also, very pretty to look at. The chef is local Asheville native, born and raised, named Rakim Gaines. He got his start in the pro cooking world as a CHILD, volunteering for his neighborhood Chinese restaurant! By the time he was in his teens, he was in the kitchen of the Lobster Trap, one of Asheville’s best and most consistent restaurants, where he rose in the ranks from oyster shucker, to chef! Still a young man by my standards, Chef Rakim is now the Executive Chef at Capella, where the new menu was recently released. With his background at The Trap, it was no wonder that the super-star dish for me was the grilled scallops, with edamame succotash. Chef’s seared scallops had been on the menu for over a year, and were awesome, but the switch to the grill has brought them into the Summer mode, with a hint of smoke and char. A sprinkle of course-ground black pepper gives them a slight heat, and in my opinion, a tip o’ the hat to Southern Appalachian cooking, in which black pepper is often a strong element. The edamame succotash was also a clever take on a Southern side dish. I enjoyed this dish, as well as the others that Chef Gaines cooked and served me that night very much,and will recommend the seared Scottish salmon, Scallop Ceviche, and beef tartare. You can see a bunch of nice pictures from this meal on my Facebook page, and read few more words about it on Dig Local if you’d like.
4) CHICKEN ‘N’ WAFFLES – Every Saturday morning, I bring a group of between four and fourteen people into Mojo Kitchen & Lounge, and I introduce them to the magical greatness that is Mojo’s version of Chicken ‘n’ Waffles. I gave this dish my “Brunch Item of the Year” award on 2017, and added it to my food tours shortly thereafter. It is a grand-slam hit with 99.9% of my tour patrons who eat it, and even though I think I have eaten it myself upwards of one million times, I still love it. It consists of scratch made waffles, boneless chicken tenders, Jamaican jerk sauce, and “jerked” maple syrup, fresh apple slaw, and a dusting of powdered sugar on top all make this dish a wonderful combo of sweet and savory, spice and comfort, crispy and crunchy textures and flavors. Chef A.J. Gregson who also won my “Chef of the Year” award in 2017 for many various reasons, has a unique ability to create contrast and harmony in his food. I always say that Chef A.J. cooks food people like, and then he adds the Mojo. That is absolutely true of his unique take on this Southern favorite!
5) BRISKET SANDWICH & TOTS – Sorry for the blurry picture. I think I got brisket grease on my camera lens. Just wait ’til you see the picture I took of the chicken pot pie coming up next! ha ha! I used to take great pictures. Now I seem to really suck at it, and I’m not sure why. Either my eyeballs are getting too old or my iPhone is. Or both. Yep. So… I got this fucking amazing brisket sandwich from Chef Steven Goff’s giant-sized, awesome, food truck, which is called Brinehause Meat + Provisions, and is sometimes parked next to Catawba brewing on the south Slope. I’ve hit it up several times, and jumpin’ jimminy shit sticks, People, the food is so fucking goooooood, I kinda wanna die. So far, I have had the smoked chicken tacos, and the chicken wings, and now this brisket and they’s all been real good, I highly recommend them. The tots in the picture were totally tasty too, and I also ordered a side of baked beans that I didn’t take a picture of, but were outstanding! Very much Steven Goff style baked beans, with bits o’ pork and other unknown food matter in the mix, and micros and pickled shit on top. I have truly loved every bite from this food truck so far, and will continue to hit it up with frequency. Also, fun fact: I did the logo and graphics for the truck, as well as the crazy butcher-pig cartoon on the Brinehaus T-shirts! It was one of my very last art and design gigs, and I love seeing it around town!
6) CHICKEN POT PIE – I took a short ride out to the Stony Knob Cafe with my sister and brother in-law last week, and I gotta say, I was super impressed with everything! Food, service, atmosphere, decor, all on point. First of all, the server was AWESOME. The joint was hoppin’ and super busy when we got there, and our server was so cool, calm, and collected, and never lost their smile, EVEN THOUGH, my family members — love them tho I do! — were being a little bit slow and indecisive about things. It was giving me anxiety, but not our server, who was 100% pro, friendly, and polite the entire time. My sister: “Do you have any IPA’s?” Server (smiling politely): “Here’s our beer menu, the IPAs are listed here, I’ll get you all some waters and be right back.” Sounds simple enough, but the smile was crucial. When the restaurant slowed down our server had more time to spend with us, and actually recommended the dish pictured above (sorry for the super-blurry picture, it was hella dark in there, plus as mentioned above my iBalls are old). I ordered this dish strictly on the server’s recommendation, and I loved it! Great call, great server. The dish was the most outside-the-box chicken pot pie in the world, with grilled chicken, fresh roasted vegetables, chevre cheese, and micro greens, all pilled on top of and inside of a very fine and flakey puff-pastry. It hit the “Three T’s” (taste, texture, temperature) perfectly, and was absolutely worthy of the confidence our server showed in it. All the food was excellent that night. Since we’re family, we tasted each other’s entrees, and we also shared an appetizer and two desserts, and everything was delicious, creative, pretty to look at, and a little bit surprising in the best ways. I’m very much looking forward to our next trip out to Stony Knob, and if you go, follow our server’s advice and get this pot pie!
7) MUFFIN & SODA – Remember when the tap water was all dirty a few weeks ago… UPDATE: days ago… UPDATE: today… and the city was all, like, “It’s fiiiiiine, no problem, boil it if you wanna, but around here we’re like, if it’s brown, drink it down!” Yeah, no, even though the city was saying it was safe enough to drink straight outta the tap, I was, like, “nuh-uh,” and I did boil a giant pot of it, and guess what? It left a ring of skudge around the pot and a bunch of grit at the bottom! TRUE STORY! So, I’ve drinking more canned soda pop than ever, and lordy knows we’ve got a lot of choices for local sodas these days! I think that having so many choices is really great, and it’s part of why Asheville is just the best fuckin’ place on Earth. Devil’s Foot is one of the leaders on the local soda scene and I’ve enjoyed all of their sodas so far, including this ginger berry soda that I got at High Five Coffee on Rankin Ave, along with a really fucking tasty muffin, that I think was from All Day Darling, since they are partners now. One thing I really love about Devil’s Foot and other local soda companies is that they ain’t killin’ me with sugar or over-the-top chemically arrived at flavors. Y’know, like, when you drink Cheerwine (which I do love) it’s like SUGAR AND CHEERWINE FLAVOR IN YO FACE!!! Well, locally made sodas tend to be a little drier when it comes to the sugar content, and they are generally going to be a little more subtle in flavor as well. I don’t drink alcohol, so my beverage choices are sometimes limited to water (boring), soda (too sweet), soda water (boring with bubbles), or some combination of those things mixed into a fanciful, neutered beast mockingly called a “mocktail.” . ___ . Local sodas to the rescue! Drink them.
8) TWANKIES & MORE – I’ve made no secret of the fact that Chef Susie Pearson is fast becoming my favorite person in the entire history of the planet Earth with her new line of baked goods at Sunshine Sammies. She has recently started offering her “all-natural and house-made takes on childhood favorites.” Shut up!!! No, seriously, 100% true. Now, for copyright reasons, she can’t say the word “Twinkie” within 15 yards of her super-delicious corn meal and local-fruit-cream-stuffed “Yellow Submarines” (wink wink) without risking legal action from the ever-litigious Twinkie the Kid, and her “Lunar Pies” (get it?) might be tempting the NASA lawyers a li’l bit, but I think she’s covered there too, and won’t be sued by the city of Chattanooga. I mean, I’m no expert but I think it’s perfectly okay for Chef Susie to say things like “double chocolate doughnut holes,” “coconut pineapple thumbprint scones,” and “biscuit dough cinnamon rolls,” right? Well, if the feds show up and you need someone to help eat all the evidence, get me on the hot-line, Chef Susie! I’ll hide this tray of Twankies right her in my belly! I’ll be eating and reporting a lot more on these new sweets, they might be vying for a Best of Asheville nomination at the end of the year! Please go try them for yourself in the meantime. Soon. As in right now.
9) UNSWEETENED YOGURT – My friend Jonathon Flaum (pictured above) is a wonderful human being. End of review. See ya next time! Oh, wait! He also delivers milk! And eggs and other dairy-farm type products to people’s front doors! His company is called Farm to Home Milk! and I’m sure that many of you are already familiar with it, as his trucks can also be seen around town delivering to restaurants and cafes. Jonathon recently told me that he wants to refocus his personal energy on home-delivery, and he generously signed me up for a trial run, so that I could see what it’s like, and it was, as might be expected, frickin’ great! Super-fresh milk, butter, butter-milk, heavy cream, chocolate milk, half & half, and and even eggs and chicken delivered right to my dang house, on a schedule that I picked, and placed in an insulated metal box on my front porch by the loving hands of a real live person. One of my favorite things to get from Farm to Home is the Wholesome Country Creamery unsweetened yogurt. It’s the best dang yogurt that I have ever had, and if I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’. It’s loaded with two things I love: Fat and flavor. Please, keep all the low-fat yogurts away from me. They are either too smooth and plastic-y in consistency, or they are somehow strangely dry. Dry yogurt? How the…? I know I know, some folks are counting calories and I applaud that, but since I’m not one of those people, and it’s not like I’m eating buckets of yogurt anyways, I don’t skimp on fat, which contributes greatly to the wonderful texture and consistency of this locally produced yogurt. As we all know of course, “fat equals flavor,” and it’s the flavor of this product that really impresses me! Tart but mellow, salty without having salt added, sweet without having sweetener added, and very “dairy farm” flavored, if you know what I mean. I’ve heard some food-industry people describe this as literally “tasting the farm,” and I would say that this is definitely the case here. It’s like you can taste the clean grass, fresh hay, sunshine and mountain air that the animals are ingesting and surrounded by. I do hope that one day Jonathon will be able to offer this yogurt in glass or ceramic containers, but I’ll still be ordering it along with my milk, butter, and egg delivery from now on! I highly recommend it for true yogurt lovers, as well for people who want to support local farms and businesses, and for people who like with fat and flavor.
10) SMOOTHIE! – So, my mom is still on a juice kick, and we went back to Simple Cafe and Juice Bar in West Asheville again — as predicted — and this time I got a smoothie instead of juice, and a muffin (sorry no picture of the muffin. I was really hungry!), and both were great! The smoothie was very icy and frosty, with more of a “slushy” type of consistency to it than I was expecting, but it was very enjoyable just the same. On the menu mine was is called “The Hemingway,” and it consisted of coconut water, cashew butter, key lime, coconut cream, almond milk, and graham cracker dust. It was hardy as fuck, and with a muffin already inside of me by the time it went down, I was pretty well stuffed, and all set for the rest of the afternoon. The smoothie was slightly tart from the key lime, and it was creamy and rich from all coconut, cashew and almond content (fat, fat, fat), and the graham cracker crumbles made it a little more fun and decadent than a some kind of 1970’s health-shake. I’ll be returning to Simple time and again, I can tell, to try their other juices, smoothies, and solid food items. They are batting a thousand with me and my mom so far!
Alrighty, everybody, I hope you enjoyed my 2nd installment of “10 Things I Ate About Asheville!” You can read the first installment HERE if you haven’t already, and please stay tuned, as I plan to post several more from this series throughout the year, as I eat my way through the greatest food city in America, Asheville, WNC, USA, Y’all!
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.