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Asheville, NC. The Paris of the South…?

November 18, 2011

After morning “chores” today, I was reflecting on a recent five-day, work-play road trip to Savannah, Georgia and Asheville, North Carolina. Although Savannah has its southern charms and haunts, it was Asheville stole my heart. In turn I must steal a moment of your time to gush to you about the little city in the Western Carolinas. Asheville has been dubbed a lot of things, including Best Beer Town two years in a row with 10 microbreweries, “Ashe-thetic” in its mix of people and cultures, Foodtopia (this, I can confirm) and, last but not least, The Paris of the South. Now, the question that begs is not who graced this quaint little city with such an enormous reputation as to compare it to the City of Lights, but rather, why hadn’t I heard? I’m enthralled! Although I may need another trip or two to truly confirm it’s colossal comparison to the old-world cultural capital, I must say that Asheville sure is a shiny penny. And a complete food-lover’s dream, folded into the rolling mountains. Just ask my travelling companions, Elaine and my mother-in-law Becky. As easy-going as I was about the trip, I insisted that we find room in our bellies and our itineraries for four full meals in our 28 hours in Asheville (thanks, ladies, for complying with the food addict’s request).

On our road trip back from Savannah, two things were on our list of things to do: see the Vanderbilt-built Biltmore Estate (how’s that for a tongue-twister), and to pay homage to one of the foremost experimental art schools to ever have touched our continent, Black Mountain College. Although I was awestruck by the cavernous rooms of Edith and George’s little abode (250 rooms, four square acres of house!), and I enjoyed every moment of seeing the work of John Cage at the BMC Museum, I must admit I was most enamored with Asheville’s love of food. I’m not knocking Savannah, but really, what’s a girl gotta do to get a good meal in such a decent-sized city? Where Savannah has a small fistful of indie restaurants with quality, local food, Asheville has over 250. Count ’em up, I said two hundred and fifty. That’s insane. And insane it was. Every street corner opened up to another small cafe or dive, tooting local mushrooms, farm-fresh eggs, local beer, and Counter Culture Coffee.

The all-star line-up: Tupelo Honey Cafe,  The Mellow MushroomSunny Point Cafe, and Curate Spanish Tapas Bar. Tupelo Honey is named so for the honey they serve on the table with their stuff-your-face buttermilk biscuits that comes from pollination from the Tupelo tree in Florida; however, I suspect with Asheville’s other great identity as an art and music town, it has something to do with Van Morrison…I can’t remember the last time I waited an hour an a half to get into a restaurant…no wait, I can. It was for Locanda Verde, one of Robert Deniro’s new enterprises in TriBeCa. And Tupelo Honey was every morsel as good, if not better (of course, at a third of the price and with more down-to-earth service). (Speaking of Mr. Deniro–did you know that his father was an abstract expressionist painter that attended Black Mountain College?). Although I was too starved to remember my camera, I can attest to the most deserving shrimp and grits of a five hour drive that I’ve ever had. Close to a dozen shrimp nest themselves  into tangy, savory goat cheese grits, consumed in a roasted red pepper sauce that bites your tongue but beckons you back for more, like the Sirens luring you in. Not to mention the bowl is the size of your face…get the recipe here!

By far, I must say, the most award-winning was breakfast. The Sunny Point Cafe knows how to do this with extreme precision, from the size of your three-egg omelet to the raw sugar sprinkled on your heavy cream biscuit. The unassuming little dive collects a line every morning, and happy waitstaff pass out coffee to the eager folks perched on logs outside the door. Slabs of hickory smoked bacon sizzle and drift into the air of anticipation, increasing the excitement for what will be the best meal of the day. Enough with my lacking lingo, let me show you what I cannot find words to say.

In addition to measuring up in the gastronomical corner, Asheville has an arts scene all its own. Pottery, woodworking, painting, knitting, collective studio spaces; all of these practices and more are woven into the rich history of the little town, a town that seems as if it’s not been barraged by the craft/fine art; high/low divide. Long before Brooklynites were building studios into burned out buildings, Asheville has nurtured the souls and works of artisans for decades, giving it a gritty, painterly charm where the woman blowing glass drinks homemade kombucha out of the mug made by the woodworker next store as his daughter knits her dog a sweater. Below are some of the studios in the River Arts District.

Of course, there’s always time for a little shopping on a road trip…literally, shopping on the road. We came across this make-shift store with four different “vendors” (or might we call them Vintage Curators?), and of course, they were accompanied by Eatbox, selling brunch and quality brewed coffee.

Curate Tapas Bar not only offers experimental, local seasonal tapas, but waitstaff that exude a passionate endearment for depicting the flavors and textures of the dishes ordered to customers. It’s a great way to get your mouth watering and your ordering up–describe to me, table-side, what I’m about to eat! Surely, I want more! The roasted butternut squash soup was served with chopped Spanish Marcona almonds and sage cream with olive oil, and the local mushrooms were magicians–disappeared off the plate before I could figure out what exactly they were. (Another interesting tid-bit–did you know that the artist-musician-composer John Cage was one of the foremost mushroom foragers in his time, authoring a book on mushrooms?). Below, Elaine at Curate, leaving town for the long trek home, and a personal favorite of mine, an image I caught late-night after we had all gone to bed of my mother-in-law sneaking up to watch football. Isn’t life beautiful?

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