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Joys of Spring (Gastronomically Speaking)

April 14, 2010

1. Prosecco - it’s refreshing, not too bubbly, and the third ingredient is joy.  Some of my faves are on the shelves at Greenlife right this minute.

2. Two Spoons is open (although they are no longer using Ultimate ice cream and their new brand leaves a LOT to be desired.  Discuss.)  As an alternative, may I recommend the chocolate malt from the lunch counter at Woolworth Walk?  It is divinely thick and malty.

3.  The Michelada My recipe:  the juice of one lime, a couple of dashes of Worchesteshire sauce, a little horseradish, a dash or two of tobasco, salted rim, 3 ice cubes, and a bottle of Pacifico.  Mix, drink, go to heaven.  If you don’t want to make your own, Curras Dom mixes the best in town.

4.  Fresh, local asparagus.  Look for it at the first few farmers’ markets, or do what I do and invite yourself over to your gardening friends’ houses for dinner.

5. Sushi. I’m rarely interested in eating sushi during the winter, but once the weather warms, I can think of nothing but fish and rice, fish and rice.  Try Sora in Brevard for the freshest, most exciting sushi in WNC.

6.  Grilling out. So far we’ve made tuna steaks, steak-and-veggie shish ka bobs, roasted potatoes and onions, and turkey burgers.  What have you thrown on the grill this year?

7.  Caipirinha at Cocina Latina (Tomato). Honestly, it could have been a tad stronger, but I know Brazil’s favorite mix of refreshing lime, rum, and sugar will be hitting the right spot all summer long.

8.  Ramps. I love to sample all the inventive creations from local chefs who annually find new ways to work this fresh, garlicky, severely local green into their menus.   Ramps can often be found on the menus at The Market Place, Sunny Point Cafe, Cucina 24, Early Girl, and others.

9.  Local lamb. It’s starting to pop up on Asheville’s seasonal menus and specials.  Last week I had a Hickory Nut Gap lamb gyro from Sunny Point that tasted like springtime.

10.  Burgers, Dogs, Cheese Fries and Milk Shakes. You really want to know where I’ve been eating this month?  Really?   French Fryz (BEST strawberry milkshake in town), Five Guys Burgers and Fries (my pick for best burger),  Cats and Dawgs (best hot dogs around), and let’s throw in a Philly Cheese Steak for good measure from Philly Hoagie House and Ice Cream Parlor in Woodfin.  I’m a Chicago girl at heart, and that means when the sun comes out and the temperature rises, it’s time for some serious junk food.

What culinary expressions of Spring are you enjoying?  I’d love to know!

Good News for Asheville

March 25, 2010

Like we need any more reasons to wish for sunshine instead of snow, here’s yet another:  The Euromarket Cafe is set to open, but not until the absolute last snowflake has landed on these cold mountains.

If you already make it a regular practice to head over to the Euromarket for Tarragon soda, red caviar, and Polish chocolate bars, then you are aware of this thrilling new epicurean venture on the horizon.  Asheville’s premier Eastern European market is about to start serving food, at an incredibly low price too!

For years now, I have put Eastern European on the top of the list of “foods we can’t get here,” and I am totally psyched those dark days are coming to an end.  Slowly but surely, WNC is becoming the culinary tour d’ force I have long awaited.

Located on the corner of Patton Ave and Haywood Rd in West Asheville, the Euromarket Cafe plans on serving lunch and dinner, offering  such hearty menu items as Russian Borscht, Armenian eggplant stew, and Ukhafish soup.  They will offer all manner of blintzes stuffed with meat, chicken, cabbage, or sweet cheese, plus large meat dumplings called gutabs, caviar sandwiches, marinated platters, vegetarian plates, and Bosnian coffee.

Each of these dishes range in price from 5-$9!  Not to mention, of course, they will serve a variety of Eastern European beers and wines.  Grab any beer from the shelves and crack it open for $4.50.

Tonight, when you kneel for your daily prayer/affirmation/meditation for an end to the dreary white stuff, be sure to add a hail mary/light a candle/chant/sun salute for the Euromarket Cafe.  I’m ready to finally hear the famous Russian words    Priiatnogo appetita!*

*Bon Appetit in Russian.  Nobody in Russia really ever says that.

Thirsty Monk Does Food Happy Hour!

March 10, 2010

Ever since I returned from a trip to Portland, Oregon, I have lamented Asheville’s lack of a food happy hour. In Portland, many of the high end restaurants offer small samplings of their menu for $3-$6, from 4-6pm weeknights.  The restaurants make a ton of money off of cocktail and wine sales, while the 20-somethings or others with lower income get to taste the gourmet food for a fun, snackable price.  When in Portland, I fully embraced this phenomenon, and bellied up to the Happy Hour tables every evening I could. 

Back in Asheville, I just know this would do wonders for upscale restaurants who may be struggling, because diners are spending more conservatively these days.  Finally, I’m not the only one who agrees.  The Thirsty Monk is now offering a food happy hour, week nights, from 4pm-6pm!  Oh Joy!   Last week I tried a soft-baked pretzel with mustard and a lamb slider, both $3 each!  I’m going back to try their $6 poutine (pomme frites with melted blue cheese and stout gravy).    So let’s all support Thirsty Monk’s brilliant new venture, in the hopes that more restaurants will try to lend us poor gourmets a helping hand.

Oldie But Very Goodie: East Village Grille

February 22, 2010

I’ll admit it: I don’t want you to read this review.  I don’t want you to know the glory and wonder of this undiscovered treasure; I want to hoard it all like a landlocked pirate, and curse all ye who find the spot marked with an x.  There are not many restaurants in Asheville where I can hide without bumping into an awkward acquaintance, to enjoy the Winter Olympics in peace and solitude.  But I’ll sacrifice it all so the world will learn of this uncharted culinary gem in Oteen, of all places.

If you need a break from the posh, the hip, and the cosmopolitan tourist trap, the East Village Grille, on 1177 Tunnel Rd, is your relief.

The dimly lit dining room plus bar is decorated slightly better than your college dorm room, sports magazines are randomly strewn about the tables, and the menu appears too general and expansive to be truly great.  But that is exactly what it is.

East Village Grille’s bar offers a decent selection of beers on tap, including Highland’s rich Black Mocha Stout and Blue Moon, a personal favorite.

On my first visit I ordered ten wings, along with their homemade tangy ranch dip.  What I really love about this place is that it’s not trying to be a wing-crazed smorgasbord, its orgy of wings tasting like they were given a sponge bath in a rainbow of fruit flavors.  I don’t need thirty flavors of wings.  Just a few really great sauce options are all I require.  East Village Grille’s Tiger wings are beastly creatures, big enough to satisfy a substantial appetite for dinner.  Moreover, the Tiger sauce is sure to inspire any wing lover to ravage their meal before dashing off to write sonnets, love songs and slam poetry in fervent ode.

Slowly creeping, well-balanced heat and a sweet citrus finish make these wings worthy of the Olympic Gold.  (Do the wing-frying semifinals follow the curling competition?)  Thick sauce can lead to soggy skin on a chicken wing, but in this case the snappy crisp holds up perfectly, giving way to a substantial amount of juicy meat within.

Another contender for the pub food Gold is EVG’s onion rings.   Onions rings seem like a no-brainer, just something to throw on the plate next to a burger.  But often I’m working my way through bland breading to reach the flaccid, pale onion hidden deep within its starchy casing.  These onion rings crackle delightfully on the tongue, like savory pop rocks.  The thick juicy onion is front and center, complimented by a light, pleasantly greasy shell.  They pair beautifully with the spicy ranch.  Mom wondered why I kept writing home about these onion rings.

Like a good Greek diner, EVG offers a wide variety of sandwich options.  By the way they also feature steak dishes, ribs, Mediterranean entrees, pork chops, and on Wednesdays, pizza.  If a person can’t find something they want to eat here, they must be, well, vegan.

For someone who likes the wings but would rather eat them on a bun, I highly recommend the Tiger Chicken Sandwich.  Their Cheeseburger Club is an interesting, old fashioned three decker behemoth.  EVG’s “world famous” Grouper Reuben was the resounding answer to the riddle, “what do you get when you cross a Filet-o-Fish with a Big Mac?”  I could feel my arteries straining in protest, yet the grouper tasted fresh and mild, golden breading pleasantly shaking hands with a decadent mess of Russian dressing and coleslaw.  The prices are reasonable, and with Filo, a Greek bakery right next door for dessert, the East Village Grille is definitely worth the drive.  But let’s keep this between us.  Just don’t tell the tourists.

Wake Up to Waking Life

February 16, 2010

I finally visited the fairly new espresso house, Waking Life, on 976 Haywood Rd in West Asheville.  Joining me were two houseguests, both of whom consider themselves espresso junkies and experts in the craft.  Hip artists living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, my friends can get some of the best, most compulsively perfect espresso in America on their morning walk to work.

These New Yorkers were humbled before the ultra-specific, handcrafted espresso, presented in precious robin’s egg blue cups.  Sunlight streamed in to the cozy little shop.  We sipped our drinks and watched in awe as customers, all sitting alone in front of laptops, meandered in and out of conversation, debate, laughter, and then back to the solitaire game or whatever.   They didn’t arrive together, but the atmosphere there was so comfortable, they spontaneously treated each other like old pals, working side by side.  This phenomenon felt completely foreign to my New York visitors, who declared their Americano a perfect storm of balance, richness, and adrenaline.

In this Starbucks age, a local coffee shop must deliver high quality coffee or have an unbeatable location to stay competitive.   Waking Life’s owner has invested most of his money and energy into the  (hand-cranked) espresso machine, the fine,  locally roasted coffee, and a small assortment of rustic loose teas.  Get the espresso right, and you’ve got an instant following.   Waking Life has earned their place in the coffee pantheon of Asheville, and is sure to attract a dedicated clientele.

When it comes to coffee, I’m kind of like the girls from Sex in the City.  I often go for the Cosmopolitan of caffeine, the Mocha.  I detected none of the requisite thick, high-fructose corn and chocolate syrup in my mocha.  Instead, the coffee leaped ahead of a lingering chocolate aftertaste, balanced so exceptionally well,  I hadn’t even ruined my appetite for dinner.   Rather than simply discerning the tongue parching experience of “sweet” coffee, I was able to separate the flavors enough to experience them both, bitter acid and sweet decadence, before they met in an erotic tango of caffeinated bliss.

If espresso’s not your thing, you can find (arguably) the best cup of coffee in town.  Each individual cup is hand brewed, just for you.  That’s dedication.

I love when a fanatic like Jared Rutledge opens a coffee shop, simply because he loves his town enough to do the hard work to elevate the quality of its beloved coffee.  Sipping our steaming drinks on a frigid winter day, we felt loved too.

If you have a morning, afternoon or evening to kill, I suggest you spend it at Waking Life, open 7am-9pm daily.

Curras Dom is Open!

January 28, 2010

I don’t know who, and I don’t know how, but somehow, grace has smiled upon Curras Dom and therefore all of Asheville once again.  They got by with a little help from their friends, and they are back open!  Plus, their menu is more affordable than ever.  Maybe someday soon, Asheville will be a town that provides its residents, not its tourists, with choices that support living within their means.

Although the menu and the restaurant’s physical grounds have changed, the website hasn’t.  So you’ll have to head out to Woodfin if you want to taste first hand the new and improved, thrifty yet still gourmet menu offerings.

Trog:NYC

January 26, 2010

My partner-in-dine and I spent all of last week cruising around the city with lightening speed.  We took in a Broadway play, heard a choral concert at Lincoln Center, we saw friends, and art, and of course, we ate.  Here’s one meal I can’t get out of my head.

Gourmet dim sum at the Chinatown Brasserie in the East Village.   The wide open dining room accepts afternoon light like a mountain spring accepts a waterfall.  Red lanterns, ornate chairs, and koi pond created an elegant atmosphere midday on a Tuesday. 

We sipped fragrant, sweet jasmine tea while waiting an extraordinarily long time for the dim sum to arrive.  We had ordered a sampling of their most popular offerings.  Shrimp with watercress dumplings, roast pork buns, turnip cakes, pork, shrimp, and pea shoot shu mai, and shrimp in crispy taro root.  Also, they offered one unique pairing I had never come across: sea bass and avocado tart.  Here’s what arrived at our table.

These dreamy dumplings glistened in the afternoon sun, and various flavors exploded like a roman candle on our tongues.  Yet, each individual ingredient was perfectly discernible within its dainty rice jacket.  One bite of savory shu mai, and the power lunch din fell away completely.   Here’s the shrimp in crispy taro root, along with a mustard dipping sauce, and scallion-soy sauce that added spicy notes to the salty sweet dim sum.  We were smitten with the Chinatown Brasserie, which although mysteriously far from New York’s Chinatown, was a perfectly tailored dining experience.  Everyone in NYC should eat there at once, the rumor is this New York treasure will be closing in a month!

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