Welcome to the 3rd, and in some ways my favorite, installment of the annual Stoobie Awards! If you missed Parts One & Two, you can read them here:
And just in case you’re a newbie to the Stoobies…
My name is Stu Helm. I’m a food writer, and host of a radio show about food, and I’m a guide for walking food tours of downtown Asheville. I eat at a lot of restaurants. People often ask me to label stuff — meals, venues, people — as being “The Best” in Asheville. The Stoobies are me doing that.
So far I have given out nine 2016 Stoobie Awards for Best Burger, Best Hot Dog, Best Pizza, Best Shrimp ‘n’ Grits, Sandwich of the Year, Best Breakfast, Best Lunch, Best Dinner, and Best Brunch. Now let’s move on to the good stuff: CAAAKE!!! And coffee. In fact, let’s start with Best Coffee, since every single day of my life starts that way.
I drink it here there and everywhere. I’ve tried every coffee vendor in Downtown Asheville several times over, and I’ve tried to get to as many as possible in West Asheville, North Asheville, and other sundry areas. I love coffee so much, that I even conceived of and helped produce the fist annual Asheville Coffee Expo. I am not a coffee expert! I don’t know jack shit about jack shit when it comes to being a super-refined connoisseur of coffee. I can never taste the “hints of bumbleberry wine” or “undertones of Lothlorien sunlight” that other people seem to detect. Jus’ gimme coffee.
That being said… I know enough to discern bad, good, better, and best when I taste it, and I’m telling you right now that PennyCup Coffee is roasting and serving the best effing coffee in Asheville, in my opinion.
DISCLAIMER: I WORK FOR PENNYCUP COFFEE CO
When I work for any food or beverage vendor, I don’t ever try to hide that fact from you guys. I have a very strict policy with myself, that I only work for food and beverage vendors that I consider to be the best. I won’t work for a company that I don’t personally stand by, and behind, and in front of %100. I truly honestly believe that PennyCup Coffee is roasting and serving the best coffee in Asheville right now, and if I eliminated them from this category based on the fact that I work for them, that would only mean that the entity I named in their place would really actually be 2nd best, and these aren’t the awards for 2nd best.
PennyCup is the best. I do their Instagram page. No big whoop.
PennyCup is a small-batch, single origin, responsibly sourced coffee roaster / cafe / wholesaler located in the increasingly less lonely South Side of Asheville’s River Arts District (RAD). They have another cafe (no roaster) located on Market Street in the YMI building downtown. In their RAD location they are literally roasting coffee in the same room that you’re drinking it in, and to me there is almost no better coffee experience than that right there. I’d have to be wrapped in a fucking Snuggy made of kittens to feel more cozy than I do when I smell fresh-roasted coffee while drinking fresh-brewed coffee.
Co-owners and master roasters Bill Tanner and Amber Arthur are very good at what they do in my opinion. Equally adept at turning Bill and Amber’s magic beans into a cup of caffeinated heaven are the baristas at both locations: Tommy (also a master roaster), Wes, Rick, and Matthew, who is co-owner of the YMI location. I have never had a sour, bitter, gritty, weak, jacked-up, janked-up, fucked-up, or even slightly unpleasant cup of coffee at either location, and that is because the beans, the roast, the grind, the measure, the tamp, the temp, the mutherfucking everything is dialed in just right at all times. I go to the one in the RAD a lot — more than any other cafe in Asheville — and they have never once let me down, and those are only some of the reasons that I think PennyCup Coffee Co has The Best Coffee in Asheville.
So, if PennyCup has the Best Coffee, does that automatically mean that they are the Best Cafe?
There are a lot of reasons why I think Trade and Lore Coffee is the Best Cafe in Asheville. These are only some:
Plus, when it comes to a cup “to go,” it might be the last self-serve cafe left in downtown Asheville. It’s almost like a throwback to a bygone era in that way.
To me, the perfect cafe experience includes a great pastry, a crossword puzzle, and an espresso drink that has a shape made out of milk foam on top. Add some people-watching, along with the ability to be separate from the world, while still being in it, and I’m in Stu Helm Heaven. At Trade and Lore, I’m in that heaven-zone, plus, it’s just sophisticated and hip enough, that I feel like a grown-up, having an urbane experience. I fucking love it, and that is why I’m 100% comfortable telling you that I think it is currently The Best Cafe in Asheville.
So, above I mentioned that Trade and Lore carries some of what I think of as the “new pastries,” which actually hearken back to old pastries, and use recipes and ingredients that our grandparents or forbearers might have used. I admit that I know next to nothing about baking, beyond shoving the end-results into my face by the fist-full, but I know enough to see a trend towards a certain type of high-end, high-quality, yet quasi-rustic baked good and pastry that is both hearty and delicate, as well as wholesome and decadent. There are a few of these types of bakeries in and around town, and this year I’m giving one of them a Stoobie Award…
Back in July of ’16, I wrote a quick review of OWL Bakery for my own blog (“REVIEW: OWL Bakery on Haywood Road in West Asheville“). Here’s an excerpt…
“…the pastry case had some amazing looking stuff in it! Holy moly, and some of it was super fresh and hot out of the oven. Dawn and I split a savory turnover and a sweet turnover, and both were frickin’ amazing. Made with high quality, local, seasonal ingredients, I could tell they were prepared and cooked with love and a clear dedication to providing good food to people. Dawn and I are planning to go back to OWL again and again, to try everything they offer eventually.”
We have returned to the shop several times since last July, and the bakers there have not only wowed me, but they have blown me away with the quality, creativity, and integrity of their baked goods! They are crushing it and in my opinion, taking the baked-goods scene to a whole ‘nother level in this town. As usual I’m completely clueless, and would rather admit that I hate doing research than actually do any, but as far as I can tell from the web site, there are three bakers at OWL, and they are Susannah Gebhart, Maia Surdam, and Rose Caplan. Bakers always seem super-busy to me, so even though I’ve spotted at least one or two of these women, and briefly met them at the shop, I haven’t really gotten to know them as well as I’d like to. I’ll work on that.
In the meantime… Just as good pastries are a part of the Best Cafe category, the fact that OWL has bangin’ coffee did not hurt them in the Best Bakery category one bit. Here’s what I said about it back in July…
“Also of note is the coffee, which is very high end, prepared fresh… with the pour-over method, and delivered in a cute little cup. It was so good, that I drank it black, which is super-rare for me. I don’t take sugar, but I do usually take cream, unless a hard-core coffee-lover goes on-and-on about the flavor and pedigree of a certain bean, and then I drink it black. Co-owner John was very enthused about the coffee he was offering that day, so I drank it black, and it was the bomb.”
The interior is also very well designed and attractive, and the lighting is great for taking pictures!
Back in July, I also promised that I would be “creating a whole new Stoobie Award category because of these guys: Best Outdoor Seating.” Well, consider this that. Whoop whoop. Best outdoor seating. There’s dappled sunshine. And trees. And no smoking allowed.
Anyhoo, so yeah, for all those reasons and more, I’m giving OWL Bakery the 2016 Stoobie Award for Best Bakery in Asheville. They rüle! Buhhht… I’m telling you what, I’m so baked… I mean, I eat so many baked goods, that I can not stop myself from doing a little sub-dividing of this category into other accolades for specific areas, and other vendors such as…
Holy moly, Yo. Chef Karen Donatelli has taken home this award — or some derivation of it — every year that I’ve done the Stoobie Awards, and I’m sorry world, but no one is about topple Queen Karen from her tyrannical reign over the pastry scene in Asheville any time soon. Anyone who knows Karen personally, will get my “tyrant” joke for what it is, because she is simply one of the nicest, kindest, most charming, and humble people you’ll ever meet, and she is much beloved by all, especially the other bakers and pastry chefs in the area, who hold her in as high regard as I do.
She is, however, a deadly kung-fu master at what she does, and is not to be written-off as some kindly cookie-baking matriarch. She’s a dragon-lady. A viper. An assassin with a spatula, slaying all challengers to her title as undisputed Queen of Pastries in this city. As good as everyone else is, none are as good as Karen. She’s world-class, Yo. And that’s no joke. Here’s a picture…
Now… I’ll give you time to go get a tissue just in case you are openly weeping at how insanely delicious the pastries in the above picture look. Okay, c’mon, compose yourself, get it together, because… here’s another…
Good lord. Look at that! LOOK AT IT!!! I know I just told you to compose yourselves, but… GAH! I’m freaking out. Karen is an artist. Karen is a genius. Karen may in fact be a goddess in human form. I mean, I’m not a religious person, per se, but I have been known to worship at the alter of the pastry case in her shop. And by “worship at,” I mean drool all over. I kinda don’t know what else to tell you about Chef Donatelli’s artistry that I haven’t already said every time I’ve reviewed or mentioned her culinary contributions to the Asheville food scene. Along with high-end restaurants like Posana, Table, and Curate, Karen Donatelli Bakery Cafe was one of the very first super-fancy places I started to frequent when the Asheville food scene began to really take off and fly. It’s every bit as good, and even better than it was the day I “discovered” it for myself. Chef Karen Donatelli is baking The Best Pastries in Asheville, and now she’s winning a Stoobie Award for the 4th year running. Here’s another picture…
I ran Karen’s Instagram page for a little bit over the Summer, and I have never seen any pastries — or any food for that matter — that was so consistently photogenic! And believe me, every morsel tasted as good as it looks in these pictures. Old school, French and Italian style pastries baked, decorated, and presented with precision, elegance, and style. Nothing rustic here. Pure refinement, in fact.
Okay, the last category in this installment is for Best Dessert, which is distinguished from Best Pastries in that dessert is served in restaurants, generally after dinner, or sometimes after lunch. While Karen Donatelli, OWL Bakery, and other places such as Old Europe and French Broad Chocolate Lounge are serving delicious things that are very much like dessert, they do not qualify for the Best Dessert Stoobie Award because they are not being served after a meal, in the same venue at which the meal was ordered and eaten. Can you dig it? Gotta be at a restaurant in order to be dessert. Okay, so who’s gots the best desserts? It was a very tough call, but…
Dawn and I recently started going to the Admiral a lot more often… well, we went once in 2012, and then returned for a 2nd visit last September… in 2016. No reason for the gap, that just happens. Since returning, we’ve been back a 1/2 dozen or more times, and the food, venue, and staff have shot straight to the top of the charts with us for any number of reasons, up to and including dessert! Holy fuck. The dessert program at The Admiral is phenomenal, and in the short amount of time that we’ve been going back to sit at the bar for dinner, I’ve had nothing but one amazing dessert after another. The Admiral has very quickly won my heart and indeed, they have stolen top honors for Best Desserts in Asheville 2016 at the last minute!
The pastry chef at The Admiral is Caroline Williams, and she is not only an amazing cook, baker, and culinary artist, but she’s also a smart person, and a savvy marketer. On our third visit to The Admiral, someone must have recognized us, because at the end of the meal, three incredible desserts showed up in front of us. “These are from Caroline,” spoke the server, “She knows you like dessert, so she wanted you to try them.” Smart. Savvy. A real go-getter. I like that. Dawn and I were about to get up to leave, sans dessert, until Caroline put herself on the fast-track for a Stoobie Award with one bold move, backed-up of course by the fact that each and every dish she sent out — and every dessert I’ve had there subsequently — has been totally amazing, and beautiful, and delicious, and comforting yet surprising in that familiar-but-different way that I love for food… and art… and music… and sex… and everything to be!
Several million molecules of her desserts later… Chef Caroline was ahead of the pack, breaking away in the home-stretch, the crowd is on their feet, the roar is deafening, and at the finish line… the Stoobie Award for Best Desserts in Asheville, 2016 was hers!
As a fan of dessert, I feel super strongly that a restaurant with excellent, high-end, creative savories (ie: starters, entrees, small plates, etc), should have a dessert program that is at least equal to the rest of the menu. To ignore the desserts, or treat dessert like an afterthought, is to let the quality and integrity of your hard work slip, right at the very end of the meal. It’s like giving up in the last minute of a three round fight. Or playing a ham-handed version of chopsticks at the end a beautiful piano solo. Or at the very least, it’s like using a period at the end of an exciting sentence.
See? Add three exclamation points, and now I’m craving a dish of sweet, warm foxdoggen for dessert. Or something like that. I dunno. I made that up. Here’s another picture of an actual dessert at The Admiral…
Suffice it to say that now I always save room for dessert at The Admiral, and I recommend you do too. It’s difficult, actually, because the rest of the menu is also intensely good, and you’ll wanna keep ordering small plates until you die, but please, take my word for it, The Admiral has the Best Desserts in town, and THAT is saying something.
Okay, and that’s the end of the 2016 Stoobie Awards, Pt Three, “Jazzed & Baked.” The winners were:
PennyCup Coffee Co.
“Small batch roaster features a tasting room with various decaf and custom blend coffees.”
362 Depot St, Asheville, NC
39 S Market St, Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 232-7216
Trade and Lore Coffee
“A brick-walled cafe for locally sourced coffee, pastries & bagels with seats inside & out front.”
37 Wall St, Asheville, NC 28801
Phone: (828) 424-7291
“Old World Levain Bakery. Naturally Leavened Breads. European Pastries. Coffee & Tea. Breakfast & Lunch.”
295 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 785-1770
Karen Donatelli Bakery Cafe
“For two decades, Karen Donatelli has specialized in creating beautiful, delicious, custom and specialty desserts.”
57 Haywood St, Asheville
Phone: (828) 225-5751
“An innovative, daily changing global menu & cocktails in a humble cinder-block building.”
400 Haywood Rd, Asheville, NC
Phone: (828) 252-2541
The next installment will cover the following categories…
MEAL OF THE YEAR
SERVER OF THE YEAR
RESTAURATEUR OF THE YEAR
CHEF OF THE YEAR
RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR
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.
ON THE RADIO: wpvmfm.org