I know it’s been a while since’t I wrote a food column for ya, but I have been busy as fahhhhk lately. Which is good, since I work for myself, and being busy means I’ve got gigs. Gigs gigs gigs! Gimme gigs.
Anyhoodles, love is in the muhfuckin’ air these days, right? Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and for me personally, I just celebrated 10 years of unwedded bliss with the great and powerful Dawn Roe! Happy Anniversary, Dawn! Thanks for being awesome.
Dawn and I did a couple of romantic-type things for the big ten-oh, so I thought I’d share them with you this week as suggestions for Valentine’s Da… What? NO! I’m talkin’ ’bout food and such. Gawd. You guys. So pervy. Anyhoo…
ZAMBRA – Downtown Asheville
WTF can I say about Zomb’s? We love it. We always have. It’s one of the corner-stones of the food scene in Asheville as far as we’re concerned, and it has been since early days. Back when I first arrived in A-town, in 2005, there were a LOT fewer restaurants downtown. Like, a lot fewer. There’s been a muhfuckin’ essplosion of eating and drinking establishments in the meantime… plus a pub-cycle… but all the while, there was Zambra, being Zambra, changing ownership along the way, and kitchen-staff too, but remaining steadfast in its food, mission, and image.
It was one of the first places that we consistently ordered a new-fangled thang called a “small plate,” and back when I was still drinking, it was the first place in town that I decided to branch out from my usual beer-dom, to try a few “specialty cocktails.” They still do all that at Zambra — small plates and mixed-drinks — and they still do it very well in my opinion. For one thing: Always the right amount of everything. We’re small people. When we order a “small” plate, we want it to actually BE small. Not tiny — like “WTF?” — but small, as in not huge. Zomb’s nails it on portions with us.
Our all-time favorite server, Stacy, works there, and the service in general at Zomb’s has always been nothing but professional and proficient, with just the right amount of friendliness to make it personable without taking it into the realm of “chummy.” Most of the time, we’re not looking for chumminess. Especially not on date night, when we mostly wanna be left the fuck alone.
The atmosphere at Zomb’s is one of the key elements to its romantic bona fides. Dimly lit, with an “exotic” vibe, there’s usually some sexy, mellow, Euro-lounge jazz-type of music playing quietly in the background, and the acoustics of the rooms are such that the noise levels (ie: the chatter of the patrons) remains bearable even when the place is full, so you can still talk in low, Barry Whitesque tones at your table.
As far as the food goes, the menu changes often and almost everything we’ve ever tasted there has been great. I even gave them a “Lifetime Achievement” Stoobie Award on FaceBook for their gnocchi, which has never failed us even once in all the years we’ve been going there, no matter what the preparation/sauce/added micro greens/what-have-yous. Their gnocchi is our fave in Asheville. I recommend it highly.
Seared scallops also appear on the menu often and we almost always get them. Again, they come prepped in a variety of ways that changes, but they are always fucking good. Like, really fucking good.
The mixed greens salad at Zomb’s is also perfect, every time, without fail.
Y’know what? One of the most frequent betches that I hear from the gen-pop when they’s betchin’ to me ’bout the Asheville food scene is “inconsistency.” I don’t hear it a lot, but I hear it more often than anything else, when it comes to negative critique of the local restaurants. Well, let me tell you, Zambra is fucking consistent. Has been. Will be.
Now… this has not been a review of Zambra, so much as it has been a love letter to one of my fave places, and a very strong recommendation, especially for couples… or threesomes (Asheville)… for a little romance, right downtown.
We went there on the actual date of our Ten Year anniversary, had a fantastic meal, and at the end, the house wouldn’t let us pay. Sorry, I know that drives some of my readers crazy, but what am I gonna do? Say no? That would be rude in my opinion. So we left a large tip and thanked them a million times.
GROVE PARK INN – NAVL
Have you ever stayed at the Grove Park Inn? Well, if you haven’t, you should! It’s fun as fuck! Dawn and I have stayed there at least four or five times, sometimes for more than one night! It’s like our go-to place when we want super-romance, and we went back recently to get a little more ten-year anniversary celebratin’ done.
When I first moved to Ashetown, the GPI had a special “locals” rate in January that was only $100 per night. The only catch: You had to stay in the “old” building. What?!? That’s not a catch, that’s what we wanted! Fuck those “new” rooms. We can stay in a generic hotel room anywhere in America. Only the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville, North Cackalacky, has the classic rooms of that awesome, quirky, quazy, original structure. Each room is unique, very cozy, and I think, very romantic. Kinda tiny, but fuck it. Tiny rooms have a higher degree of cuddle-ability.
Okay, so, now some review-type-stuff for you guys…
MARKET PLACE – GPI
Inside the GPI there is a small convenience store / gift shop called Market Place. You can get all manner of overpriced weird crap there like Santa mugs (seemingly year-round), ceramic pigs, souvenir cutting boards, etc etc… yawn… who cares, right? Not me, that’s for fucking sure. I only care about one thing that Market Place has to offer: COFFEE!!!!
It’s Peet’s coffee, which I like, and Market Place is the first venue in the GPI complex to open and start serving delicious, hot, fresh, medium and dark roast coffee every morning. I’m an early riser, so I like to visit Marketplace first thing in the AM, get my coffee to go, and then wander off to a secluded corner of another part of the compound for solitude and caffeine… two of my fave things on Earth.
Uh, the romance part is that I let Dawn sleep-in while I go get my coffee, rather than subject her to all the ricka-racka of the in-room coffee maker.
With the doughnut craze that’s sweeping A-town lately, I couldn’t help but try one of the “house made” doughnuts in the case at Market Place. It. Was. Awful. It was labeled as a “cake” donut, but in the end neither Dawn or I could decide if it was cake or raised, or something in between. Texture fail. The flavor was as generic and cloying as anything from Dunkin’ Donuts, and we decided it was actually even worse. Flavor fail. The biggest FAIL of all was the fact that it was, what we like to call a, “repeater doughnut.” As in: We tasted that motherfuckin’ doughnut all fuckin’ day. Booo. God damn repeater doughnut. Later I learned from a secret source that these “house made” doughnuts come from a mix. Booo again. Super fail.
Doughnut – Bad!
Other Crap – Who cares?
GROVE WOOD CAFE – GPI Adjacent
Here’s another “have you ever” place. Have you ever been to the Grovewood Cafe? It’s odd, to say the least. From what I understand, it is not part of the GPI, but is privately owned by another party entirely. I hate researching boring shit like that, so if anyone knows the full story, please feel free to berate me below for my sloppy journalism, and then set the record straight.
When the weather is nice, it’s really pleasant to sit outside on the multi-level porches at The Grovewood Cafe, set among the trees, like a super-cool tree-fort, or an Ewok village. It’s kinda worth a trip to the cafe, just to have that Ewoky experience.
The indoor seating leaves a lot to be desired... as in… it pretty much sucks. It has less personality than an airport cafe, and all the ambience of a waiting room at a car dealership. The furniture, the carpeting, the tableware, and the lighting are all completely generic and really awful. Like, the cheapest crap straight out of a catalogue for Super-8 hotels, or some shit like that. It’s a total and utter fail, and what makes it worse is the high-potential for cuteness that was completely lost on whoever decorated and outfitted this place. A space that could be insanely quaint and cute and adorable, is cold, bland, boring and depressing instead.
The food is equally generic, and I could be just as easily convinced that it was also ordered out of a furniture catalog.
On this most recent visit there, I had soup, 1/2 a sandwich, and fruit salad. Dawn had an egg-white omelet.
The Sandwich was roasted chicken on wheat bread, and it was borrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiing. There was absolutely nothing special about this sandwich at all, period, end of sentence. The highest praise I can give it would be that it was edible, and not disgusting. The chicken was not horrible, and seemed to come from off of a bird, rather than out of a package, so at least there was that.
The soup was fish chowder, and again it was totally 100% edible, and not disgusting, so I guess I was two-for-two with this meal so far. The fruit salad consisted of 3 slices of apple, 3 grapes, a portion of a slice of pear, 1/2 a strawberry, 1 slice of kiwi, and oddly, a dried apricot. Two of the grapes were soft. This sad little pile of stuff was fruit, that much is true, but I think the term “salad” is a stretch. It was more like something a harried parent would pack for their third grader’s field trip, in one of those short little 1/2-sized ziplock bags. It would have paired nicely with a juice box and a nap.
According to Dawn, her egg-white omelet was… “fine.”
So, in conclusion…
Outdoor seating = Good
Indoor seating = Bad
Food = Edible / Fine / Boring
Opportunity to run a really cute, personable, locally-flavored cafe right next to one of the great landmarks of the area = Missed
VUE 1913 – GPI
Now… hold on to your hats… here comes a review that is going to make you so fucking jealous, you’re gonna wanna kill me, dress-up in my skin, hair, and clothing, and pretend to be me for the rest of your life, just so that you can tell people you ate this meal. It was that good.
Vue 1913 is located on the Lobby Level of the far South Eastern corner of the “Sammons Wing,” which is one of the hideous new buildings… actually, y’know what? The Sammons wing is only hideous on the outside. The interior is pretty nice, and it’s one of my fave areas to chillax when I’m on my own in the GPI, mostly because it’s usually abandoned, and has a very “Stanely Kubrik presents The Shining” feel to it when you’re all alone in there. I love that.
Anhoo… Vue 1913… so fucking good in every single way. Here’s the bullet points…
• SERVICE – Erik, our waiter was topnotch. Totally one hundred percent professional, well dressed & coifed, clean, and personable, with just the right amount of friendly. We were uncharacteristically chatty the night we were dining at Vue 1913, and it was slow (at first) so he was polite enough to indulge our banter, and then excuse himself when he could see that we were ready to eat again.
• FOOD – I’m gonna have to sub-bullet point the fuck out of the food portion of this review…
• Amuse Bouche – The chef sent out an amuse bouche, and Erik the waiter informed us that the kitchen was going to send out a few other things for us to try, in addition to what we ordered. I’m honestly not sure if this was something they did for everyone that night, or if it was because they knew it was our 10 Year Anniversary, or if they even knew that The Muhfuckin’ Food Critic was in the house. We did tell the GPI it was our anniversary, we did not tell them I’m that famous asshole from Ashvegas, but I did make the dinner reservations under my own name, and I was posting on FaceBook about repeater doughnuts and such at the GPI, so… whatever the reason for sending it out, this li’l amuse bouche was fucking awesome. It came in a wee glass, about the size of a shot glass, with a teeny tiny spoon which one used to dig down into a really soft, cool, creamy layer of a very subtle and delicious basil mousse, to find a nice little portion of cold, succulent crab meat, and then a funny little disc of something like a basil jelly button on the bottom, that was also very subtle and delish. There were tiny tomatoes, and micro greens involved too. This thing was so fucking cute, I wanted to die, and so tasty and complex without being over-complicated, that Dawn and I were immediately impressed, and very much looking forward to the rest of the meal.
Melon & Charcuterie – This was a Dawn dish. She loves a good charcuterie! Me? I can take it or leave it, but let me tell you, this was something special. The meat was razor thin, very tasty, and melt-in-your-mouthy. The melon was likewise very good and the “compressed” method of preparation worked really well with the texture of the meat, and the crunch of the mixed greens that came with. The presentation was beautiful, and the dish was very good in general. As good, or better, than anything like it that we’ve had in Asheville, or anywhere else. (When I read this part out loud to Dawn, she said, “Well, except for in Rome.” ._. Was my response.)
Prawn – The chef sent this out as well, and wow, am I ever grateful to him for the chance to taste it. It was out-fucking-standing. A large, perfectly cooked prawn (in-the-shell, head-on) with just thee most succulent texture and savory flavor that one could ever fucking hope for. The chef deserves a real hand for the preparation of the prawn and for this dish in general, which also had (among other things) a nice, hot, crispy, and delicious fritter of some kind, and a bed of creamy grits underneath it all. The crowning touch was a TINY piece of micro green on top that had an intensely earthy flavor to it. It was like eating a clod of dirt, except it was super-yummy, and not gross, like eating an actual clod of dirt would be. This little dish was one of the stars of the night. Thanks, Chef!
12 Hour Bison Brisket – This was a sort of very high-end, deconstructed slider type of thing, that was very very very good. The flat bread on bottom was light, crispy, and delicious, the bison brisket was tender as fuck, and moist, and flavorful. The fresh “slaw’ on top was perfect! Crisp, crunchy, refreshing, and packed with the flavor of the Earth. At first we were a little bit like, “why did we order this? We’re not all that into sliders,” but of course this is to a slider what the muhfuckin’ Mona Lisa is to a paint-by-numbers.
Seared Tuna w/ Arugula & Pickled Fennel – This was another Dawn dish, and she loved it. She pretty much said it was awesome, and (again) as good or better than any of her other favorite raw-or-partially-cooked fish dishes that she’s all about in our usual haunts downtown. You guys might think I’m a little harsh in my critique at times, but I’m a pussy-cat compared to Dawn. If she says this dish was good, it was fuckin’ good. I guarantee it.
Lobster & Pasta w/ Seared Scallops – Erik informed us at the beginning of our meal that the kitchen had some very nice, fresh scallops in house, and that seared scallops could be added to any dish on the menu. He further suggested that they went particularly well with the lobster and pasta. I love him now. This dish had, like, a thousand different amazing things going on at the same time, and each individual ingredient was incredible on it’s own, as well as in conjunction with every other ingredient. The lobster tail was cooked to perfection. I grew up in New England and I’ve been eating lobster for my entire life. This lobster tail was as good as, or better than (there’s a theme here) any lobster I’d ever had anywhere. True story. The scallops were likewise cooked with extreme care and expertise. Seared to caramelized perfection on the very outer surface, and tender, sweet, succulent, and melt-in-your-mouthy inside, they were exactly what a seared scallop should be. The hand-shaped, house-made, cheese ravioli was cooked exactly right, and added just the right amount of heft to the dish. Likewise did the green beans have just exactly the right amount of snap left in them, and the other green stuff which I could not identify was very tasty, and reduced to a beautiful, almost silky texture. Spinach? Maybe? Dunno. Sorry. The cream sauce was to fucking die for. As in: Now I can fuckin’ die. This was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had, in my life, no kidding. I was totally blown away.
Creme Brulee with Mandarin Orange Ice Cream, Mandarin Orange slices, & White Chocolate Snow – This was dessert of course, and maaaaaan, it was fuckin’ good. The crust on top was perfectly done, and the Mandarin orange flavor went well with, and added some tang to, the vanilla creme and ice cream. The white chocolate snow was a really nice touch, and it added a really great texture to the mix that was somewhere inbetween the crust and the creme. And you know I loved the wee little micro green on top! CUTENESSES!!! Five stars for this dessert.
A Little Something Extra – The kitchen sent out few last things after dessert: Two chocolate ganache cubes, two glasses of champagne, plus a rose, a candle, and the words “Happy Anniversary” on the giant plate. Whoa. They totally went above and beyond the call of duty with that move. Unfortch… I am allergic to chocolate and I don’t drink alcohol, baahhhht they had no way of knowing that, so I really appreciate the effort! It looked so good in fact, that I decided to risk getting a killer headache, and eat the ganache, and I’m glad I did! It was dreamy. Not too sweet, nice and dense, and chocolaty… Gawd, I love chocolate. I paid for it the next day, but I do not care! Gim!
I’m going to have to give this whole experience five stars. Five out of five. A perfect score. Vue 1913 nailed every single thing. Service, food, presentation, atmosphere… oh dang it! I nearly forgot to mention one of the best parts! Our reservation was for 5:15, so it was still light out when we sat down. Over the next two hours, we watched the sun go down behind the mountains, and the city lights come on downtown. Holy shit. So fucking gorgeous.
I love you, Asheville!!!
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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
Excerpt: “…chicken wire, Styrofoam, human remains… almost anything can be covered in fondant and presented as food.”