Stu Helm, Food Critic, gets a taste of New York City


By Stu Helm

Hello Asheville!

I love this Fall weather! How about you? Here’s a joke I made up a couple of years ago:

Q: What did the bike rider say on the first day there was frost on the bike seat?

A: “Taint so cold!”

True story.


Here’s some food stuff:


You guys know how I’m always raving about Karen Donatelli’s baked goods, right? Well, now’s your chance to get a free piece of her cake!

Well, it ain’t FREE free. You gotta pay the ultimate price of being in a large room full of small children The world’s greatest monthly paper for children, Asheville Flyer for Kids is celebrating it’s two year anniversary at the Millroom this Sunday, October 19th, and Karen Donatelli is graciously providing a birthday cake! Everyone gets a piece!

You can even register to win a FREE Halloween themed cake of your very own from Karen Donatelli! Are you kidding me? That rules.

There will also be live music, magic, balloon twisting, games, crafts, contests, prizes, and activities galore!

The Hop will be vending ice cream, and pizza from Asheville Pizza and Brewing company will also be available. There will be APB beer for the parents too.

Yes, I will be there. The world’s most unhappiest Food Critic on Earth is gonna be in a room full of screaming kids. Keeping my smile fixed at all times. “PMA PMA PMA!*” Never let ’em see you sweat. And by “’em” I mean the children. Holy shit, if they sense weakness, you’re a goner.

Here’s some full disclosure for you all: I am the creator and co-publisher of Asheville Flyer for Kids. Karen Donatelli Bakery Cafe is an advertiser in our paper. Karen is also a personal friend. I have given her at least five rave reviews, mentions, and/or awards in these columns. The only reason that I even know Karen is because I walked into her store one day and fell in love with her food. Everything else just followed naturally. My point: Her food is fantastic, and the friendship followed.

* Positive Mental Attitude


Dawn and I took a trip to NYC last week! Yippy-yi-yay-kai-yo, y’all!! I’m 1/2 city slicker 1/2 hick, so I love visiting the big burgs and gawking at the tall buildings, purdy people, and ethnic diversity! “Oh mah gawd. Lookit that! Lookit this! Look over there! CHECK OUR HER SHOES!!! GAH!” I love the hustle and bustle, and the energy, and of course, the muhfuckin’ FOOOD!

We did almost nothing but eat. Dawn plans these things out, so we had some shit in mind. She even hunted down and booked us a reservation at two different 1 star rated Michelin restaurants! Now, if you’re like me — a complete rube who knows nuthin’ about nuthin’ — you might be thinking “One star?!? That sucks.”

Well, here’s the Michelin star system, directly from their guidebook:

-one star: “A very good restaurant in its category” (“Une très bonne table dans sa catégorie”)

-two stars: “Excellent cooking, worth a detour” (“Table excellente, mérite un détour”)

-three stars: “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey” (“Une des meilleures tables, vaut le voyage”).[4]

There’s also a newish category called “Bib Gourmand,” and it gets a bit complicated and sometimes controversial after that, so go read about it all on Wikipedia if you want.

A restaurant that gets 1 star from Michelin, is like an 11 star restaurant compared to most of the places that mopes like you and me eat at. You know what I’m sayin’? Eleven. That’s one more than ten.

The first place we went to, La Vara, was a small “tapas” style place that served us a delicious, delicate, but simple and substantial array of dishes that ranged from a wee little deep-fried amuse-bouche that the chef sent out on a spoon, to a super delicious dessert of some kind of special Jewish cake available that week only to celebrate the Holidays. We also had ice cream for dessert that came with the lightest, most delicate, crispy little cookie on top that we’d ever eaten. Holy fuck. So crispy.

In between the bouche and the dessert, we had a warm, creamy, crab meat and fresh herb soup that was very much like the one we had at that Table wine pairing over the Summer. It was was fan fucking tastic. Every drop was an eye-closer. Y’know, like, when you take a sip, and you close your eyes. So goood. We also had a simple, fresh, flakey white fish covered in a Spanish tomato and chili sauce that was mild but super flavorful.

We also got some seared, stuffed rabbit tenderloin too, that was super delish, and was the first time that either of us had ever eaten rabbit. We also ordered two shrimp that still had the head on, drowning in garlic and butter, that were very savory, and sea-briny, and fuckin’ aye good. Head-on shrimp is really good if it’s super-fresh. Not if it’s not.

The other Michelin place was Del Posto, which was so fancy, that I had to borrow shoes from my (fortunately similarly fun-sized) friend Adam just to walk in the door!

They brought tiny ottoman stools to our table for Dawn and Aunt Sally to set their purses on, that’s how fancy it was.

Our friend Blake, poor thing, was so uncomfortable with the level of fanciosity that he tried to excuse himself and go home before we even ordered! The ladies cajoled him into staying, and I decided that I wasn’t going to be intimidated by the atmosphere. I’m the dang Food Critic for fuck sake. Plus, we all noticed a gentleman in his, oh, mid 70’s wearing a plain white T-shirt a few tables over. Just an ordinary, buy-’em-by-the-6-pack V-neck T-shirt. It was odd. Because, I’m telling you, this place was FANCY. Like, really really fancy. Super fanceballs. So, if Grandpa Mob Boss can get away with sttin’ around in his skivvies, then fuck it, I’m aaalll good in my borrowed shoes. Besides, Blake is actually one of the classier dudes I know. He was fiiine! You’re fiiine, Blake. We’re all fiiine.

Anyhoodles, I won’t go into too much excruciating detail about this meal, I’ll just try to bullet point some shit:

• The service was, like, out of this world. We had a fucking team captain, and at least 5 or 6 other folks taking care of our every need. There was a guy who was only in charge of the bread. He wasn’t some lowly bread runner, though. He was a tall, proud, handsome, knowledgeable bread guy. He brought the bread, and told us all about it, and kept that bread basket full to overflowing with awesome fresh bread at all times. There was a dessert guy too, and a beverage guy, and several other men and women in charge of water, forks and knives, napkins, food running, and whatever the fuck you can think of.

• When any of us arose to go to the bathroom, they escorted us. They fucking ESCORTED us to the BATHROOMS. Let that sink in.

• Dawn and Aunt Sally both commented that they expected the bathrooms to be nicer! Ha ha!

• The food was amazeballs to the maxwad. We did the prix fixe (“fixed price”) menu, which consisted of 5 courses. The stand outs were definitely Dawn’s lobster salad appetizer, which had a ton of really good, really fresh and sweet lobster meat on it, and my “burnt beef” which was one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever eaten, and was prepared exactly right. Like, fucking perfwads to the maxballs.

• Dawn’s martini was also a highlight of her meal. She paid $25 for it. No kidding. The vodka was so cold it was slushy and chunky. We watched the beverage guy pour it straight out of the bottle — bloop bloop bloop — while he told us about this special muhfuckin’ machine they got back there that chills shit to like, Sub-Zero, or whatever. (Yes, that was a random Mortal Combat reference.) Aunt Sally got a non-alcoholic cocktail that was likewise fantastic. I got coffee, it was good. NYC has some coffee issues. I guess they like it a little more European style there, which is more bitter than the American style. If I lived there, I would get used to it, and develop a refined palate for it, but I don’t, so I haven’t, and most of the coffee I had in NYC was a little too dark and bitter for me. C’est la vie. I drank an assload of it anyways.

• The dessert was also a highlight of the whole experience. Blake and Aunt Sally had to dash off to a broadway show (well, la-dee-da!) so Dawn and I crushed all four of them. It’s hard to describe these desserts and do justice to them. You guys know I eat a fucking LOT of dessert. These were perhaps the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life. That’s a tall order these days, because I eat some damn good shit for dessert, but this shit was a cut above. In addition to the four primary desserts, they also brought a ton of complimentary biscotti and other sweets along WITH dessert. It was intense. The biscotti was likewise, maybe the best I’ve ever had. Again, make no mistake, I have eaten A LOT of biscotti in my lifetime. This was the best. Maybe.

• In a classic bit of old school sexism, at the end of the meal, our team captain — who was a woman, and ruled — handed me the check and gave Dawn a “box of cookies, for the lady.” I promptly handed the check to Dawn and she… also kept the box of cookies. They looked really good.

• My steak was huge, so I got some of it to go. The guy in charge of people who are getting things to go took it away and came back with a ticket. He said it would be waiting for me in the coat check room. On the way out, I stopped by the coat check room, and the nice lady with the awesome Eastern European accent handed me my food. I gave her five bucks. Ya gotta tip the coat check lady, People!

With tips, and drinks, and everything else, expect to pay about $200 per person at Del Posto, so it ain’t no joke, Yo. You can sit at the bar and eat a la carte, and spend much less.

This was by far the most extravagant meal that either Dawn or I have ever eaten. We come from fairly humble backgrounds. Dawn grew up in a house that came in two parts, if you know what I mean., and my family lived in houses owned by the church, because my Dad was a preacher and my mom was a full time employee of the VA, as well as a full-time student. We didn’t do a lot of super-fancy dining when we were growing up. The money wasn’t there. Now, to some extend, every once in a while, the money is there.

Our next goal… a 2 star joint! Now we’re looking at $500 per. Gulp.

Other highlights of our NYC trip included:

Bar Jamon – A very authentic Spanish Tapas bar that was about the size of a shoe box and was packed to the gills. The food was amazing, and according the world-traveling Dawn, very much like the real deal over there in Spain. When I ordered an Americano, the guy looked so sad, that I changed my order to an espresso. Ha ha ha!

Bagels – Ermerferkin’gerd, bagels. They are so good in NYC. Sorry, Asheville, your bagels are too bready and not doughy enough for me.

Starwurst Brats! Our friend Junebug is an amazing chef and a food guru to us. She’s involved with a start-up company called Starwurst, who make very authentic Swiss style bratwurst that are served with (not on) a crusty roll and a side of mustard. It is fucking awesome. AND, and, there’s an NC connection! The meat is from North Carolina, and is processed by a guy down here, who is the absolute best guy they could find. June and her partners are very picky. Their product is very good.

Chez Oskar – While Dawn is very good at planning things out, I am not. I do, however, possess an ability to make decisions on the fly, and one cold, rainy day, she was at a total loss of where to go and what to get, getting colder and more stressed out, so I picked a place that we had passed that looked good to me. Good? Yeah, it was perfect. Chez Oskar is a cozy little French Bistro style place, that was crowded and vibrant, but not obnoxiously so. The service was great, and we had a savory crepe and warm beverages, maybe one of the better cups of coffee I had on the entire trip. Yay, Chez Oskar to the rescue!

Grand Central Station – Ho. Lee. Fuck. Grand Muhfuckin’ Central. It is the shit. The bomb. The titty-ass dig-duggity best place on Earth, I fuckin’ love it. If I lived in NYC, I’d be there all the time. The food, the chaos, the people watching… the building! Holy shit sticks that building. You could fit half of downtown Asheville in the main hall. There’s all kinds of stuff available in the food court, and I always get a hot dog from the nice ladies way at the very end, because A) It’s a good hot dog! and B) The nice ladies always smile back at me when I smile at them. Judging by the Type A-hole Gordon Gekko ass-hat in line behind me, they probably really appreciate a smiling customer.

We also hit-up the market place in Grand Central Station, which is awesome. Very fresh grocery, bakery, deli, and produce items from meat to fish to prepped salads to bulk spices and more. Again, if I lived in NYC, this would be my jam. I can imagine that perhaps “real” New Yorkers probably don’t shop there, and that someone is going to comment below that I’m a hillbilly goon and that I really need to to go to Hong’s Flea Circus and Farmer’s Market out Yonkerdonkville in order to get the absolute best and authentic shit in the NYC, but hey, for an Ashetown guy like me, Grand Central Market is fucking exotic and huge and awesome and makes my mouth water just writing about. Oh wait! The BEST cup of coffee I had in NYC was at a place called JOE in Grand Central, where I also bought a delicious house-made Ring Ding. Mmm… Ring Dings.

So, how does Asheville stack up to NYC? First of all, Carole’s house-made Twix at True Confections is certainly as good as that Ring Ding was, if not better! And yeah, our top restaurants and bakeries are very good here in Asheville, we are not missing out on the food trend in the America, at all. We do well for a town our size. Very well! It’s not even really fair to compare us to NYC, which is truly world-class in size and international in depth, and yet, people do compare us to them, and that right there tells you something. You can get a meal and service here in Asheville that is as good or better than some of the top rated places in New York. No joke. We’re not even as big of a city as GREENVILLE for fuck sake. The food scene here in Asheville is very good, in my opinion. Take advantage of that if you can.

I only wish that the fucking bus station here in downtown Asheville was more like a teeny tiny version of Grand Central Station, instead of the filthy and depressing human ashtray that it is. Why is the main, downtown, (oh so ironically named) ART (Asheville Rapid Transit) station so fucking ugly? Here’s why:

Asheville, like other cities, has made the basic mistake of providing public transportation for poor people. A healthy city strives to provide public transportation for ALL people. Because, unfortch, when a system is set up strictly for poor people it is typically underfunded, and paid less attention to, whereas, when a system is set up for all people, it is typically nicer, prettier to look at, more friendly, and more highly functioning.

You know: Poor people don’t deserve nice things!

But they do need to be shuttled out to the mall and such where they work, so give ’em an exhaust farting bus and a concrete box to wait for it in. One dollar, make ya hollah.

Also, the (incredibly ironically named) ART is designed for people without cars, but a healthy city strives to also design their rapid transit for people WITH cars, in order to keep them from, oh, I dunno… driving their fucking cars into the crowded downtown area of your healthy city!!!

In order to get people to abandon the warm, comfortable environs of their cars, you have to make the public transportation a similarly warm and comfortable experience. The ART station in downtown is neither of those things. You literally wait in the cold, or the sweltering heat, standing on a filthy, stained, concrete slab, inhaling cigarette smoke, or you can go in the little building, which has all the ambience of a run down laundromat and feels like a future crime scene waiting to happen.

There’s no art. No plants. No color. No joy. It sucks.

The ART station should be every bit of a destination as any other part of downtown! With a fucking name like the ART station, for one thing, it should have some A-R-T!!! In fact it should have a public gallery. And a cafe. And a fucking fern or two. At least throw some paint on that concrete for fuck sake!

The downtown ART station should be friendly, and cheerful, and welcoming of tourists and townies alike. It could be so awesome, it has so much potential, with food trucks and vendors selling Asheville shit there. Buskers and what-not to liven it the fuck up.

I will say that the busses themselves, while they are not the nicest, are fine, they work, and they run on time. I take the bus to the airport when I fly alone. It costs me one dollar and drops me off right there. Easy peezy lemon squeezy. I only wish that the wait at the station was a little more pleasant. I’d love to be able to get a hot dog from some smiling ladies.

Yes, I did just compare and contrast our tiny little ART station with the world famous and awe inspiring Grand Central Station in New York City. So what? We might be the size of a molecule in comparison, but I don’t see why we can’t be just as fucking awesome!!!

Am I right? Or what?!?

Stu Helm is an artist and writer 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 restaurant reviews strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook in 2013.


Richard Parker October 21, 2014 - 2:40 pm

Next time, rock the Oyster Bar in GC. Kinda touristy, yep, but hit the room in the back and sit at the bar and commence to drop big dimes on boffo drinks and cray oysters — and everything else that swims in the sea. One of my fave places in NYC.

Bill de Blasio October 21, 2014 - 11:50 am

Another rib-tickler, Stu. I laughed, I cried…I farted. As an NYC transplant, I enjoyed your earnest take on the big, bad city. No regrets, though: Asheville definitely punches above its weight for a city of its size. NYC is a special beast, but so’s Asheville. A local NYC-related breakfast tip for you: Geraldine’s Bakery on Merrimon has authentic egg on a roll sandwiches. Slabs of orange cheese never tasted so melty. Check ’em out. I think the owner is from Long Island.

P.S. Keep the hits coming — and, as always, F the haterz.

rich October 21, 2014 - 10:27 am

You seem to struggle in finding adjectives used to describe food and the experiences around it. Fuck and suck really do not tell me much, other than you have a short vocabulary. Here is a link to a web site created by a writer who is looking for folks to add words that are used to describe food. I noticed fuck and suck are not on it, you may want to add them, or just use the list to expand your ability to communicate your food experiences.

JT October 21, 2014 - 2:33 pm

It’s a shame, Stu’s illustrations are very cool but his writing style makes my eyes and brain hurt.
Some folks must enjoy these “articles” because they keep getting published and growing in length.
I fear that numerous comments (whether negative or positive) represent success in online publishing… so I guess I share the blame as much as anyone.

Louis October 21, 2014 - 3:39 pm

People from Phoenix are Phoenicians.

j.w.thibideaux October 21, 2014 - 1:23 am

Native New Yorker here…can confirm Miss Daisy…Joey’s is the real deal…best bagels probably in the South period.
And Stu…I used to pass through Grand Central monthly, years ago…was there when they first opened the food “court”. Sounds like nothing has changed :)…always my favorite part of the trip!
I second your comments re:ART. Maybe we can start a movement to make the changes happen…hell, it’s in the trending South Slope!

Mike October 20, 2014 - 12:59 pm

So, since your a pro at the Asheville Food scene, and just visited the Food Meca, how does Asheville hold up? Is it up in coming, does it hold steady? Or does it have a long ways to go?

Levy October 19, 2014 - 8:01 pm

the problem with AVl is there are no potato knishes. you can request one, but they don’t know what the fuck a knish is…the best bagels are made in New Jersey with water shipped over from Brooklyn = completely true

Hip Life October 18, 2014 - 8:01 am

What you were describing was actually Grand Central Terminal, not Grand Central Station. They are two diffo places ya potty mouth.

Joyce Abeles October 18, 2014 - 12:47 am

We so enjoy your critiques, Stu! We’re from NY and spent a lot of time (and money) in NYC restaurants, but that ship has so sailed! We’re delighted to be in Asheville and the only negative foodie comparison would be consistency – the chefs are terrific and inventive here, but the quality of meat/fish/poultry/etc is just not quite as good, nor is the prep as consistent. But with few exceptions, the obsequiousness/pretentiousness is just not happening here, a good thing! The exception is Table – just saying… Keep up the good work – we’re thrilled to have you, not to mention delighted to be here for the past eight years!

robyn October 17, 2014 - 9:23 pm

totally agree about the bagels-
I didn’t know you could take a bus to the airport.

burnsey October 18, 2014 - 2:50 am

Yes, and doesn’t take as long as you might expect. Certainly much cheaper than paying to park your car for a couple of days. Just don’t get back too late, last bus leaves the airport at something like 7:30 PM.

Bill C. October 17, 2014 - 6:05 pm

Great article. Laughed out loud a bunch of times.

And what a blast you had. Awesome.


🙂 B

Selene October 17, 2014 - 5:48 pm

Yay! Thanks for visiting my home town (including a few places I have never been to and probably will never be able to afford). Bagels! While a couple pizzerias in Asheville are getting pretty close to NYC quality pizza, sadly, no bagels in Asheville are even half as good as NY bagels. This is the sad truth. I wish you had announced that you brought back a trunk load of bagels (and bialys) and were selling them by the dozen!

Miss Daisy October 20, 2014 - 10:52 am

Word on the street is that Joey’s Bagels in Hendo it the real deal. I can neither conform nor deny.

Miss Daisy October 20, 2014 - 10:53 am

I meant confirm. But I can’t conform either.

Selene October 21, 2014 - 1:23 am

Yes, I have tried the best bagels of Hendersonville. They are passable, but definitely not magical.

Stu Helm October 17, 2014 - 3:30 pm

Sorry about all the typos.

Post Comment