Somehow, Paddy and I got invited to a fancy-pants media dinner at Isa’s last week. Paddy, of course, is my friend and fellow food tour guide, Patrick Riels, with Asheville Food Tours, and he and I are just about the most unlikely looking pair of people to ever be seated among the elite of Asheville’s food & media world, but none the less, there we were, in the spacious, elegant setting of Isa’s Bistro — now Isa’s French Bistro — in the historic Haywood Park Hotel aka the Bon Marche building. Sacre bleu! That’s a lot of Fanciness packed into one night for a couple of rubes like me and P-daddy.
“I’m calling to ask what you’re going to wear to this dinner thing,” he asked me over the phone the day before the event, “I wanna make sure we don’t show up in the same outfit.”
“Ha! There’s no danger of that,” I replied, “Just wear your Paddy uniform. I’m wearing my traditional Stu-gear.”
Paddy is the only other person I know who wears the exact same outfit every single day: Plaid, short-sleeve, “dad” shirt; Tan, below-the-knee, “dad” shorts; Brown, comfy, “dad” shoes… you get the picture. Think: Dad. Me: I always wear black jeans, black T-shirt, black hoodie, black hat, black Chuck Taylors… y’know… black… pretty much. Always.
“You don’t think I need to dress-up, do you? The wife says I might want to dress up.” Awww, Paddy was turning to me as the expert on how to dress for fancy dinners, poor thing.
“Fuck, no!” I asserted.
Anyhoo… Paddy and I were under-dressed to say the least, but we managed to eat, smile, chat, and nod our way through the evening (the photo above is not representative of Paddy’s usual pained grimace, er… charming smile), and we may have even made a new friend or two.
Because I write about cheeseburgers for a living, I already knew most of the nice media folks with which we found ourselves sharing a table, and the conversation was relatively easy from my point of view, because it was mostly about food, which I can talk to death, forever and ever… and ever… for eternity. Sorry, Melissa! I’m sure that was WAY more food-talk-with-eff-bombs than you were counting on.
“This salmon is fucking good!”
“The oysters are slightly over cooked, so they’s all shranked-up, but the flavor is still killer!”
“What do you think that is? Butter? Is that butter? I think it’s butter. No? Not butter. What the fuck is it?!? Fuck it. I’m gonna go with butter.”
There seemed to be about 20-30 other invited guests from local and regional media. We started with appetizers of cheese, crackers, and beef tartar in the incredible, multi-room, historic event space downstairs, as we all listened to the history of the building and met the Fraga family, Tony, Isa, and Alex, who own the hotel, building and restaurant. Throughout the evening we learned about the new menu and re-brand of Isa’s, as a strictly French restaurant, as in: NBFF. (Nothin’ But French Food) Except for the Duane Burger, of course, which they had to leave on the menu, because of the impending riots in the streets if they take it off. The owners chuckled and shrugged about that situation, seeming to imply, “Hey, we don’t get it, but there it is.” Smart move in my opinion! If you’ve got a hit song, play it, I say, and the famous Duane Burger is a hit for sure. I’ve eaten many. Now I want one.
Paddy and I took a little tour on our own of the downstairs space, which I had never seen before. Holy fuck, it’s nice down there! I’m telling you what. There are four different spaces, and each is totally unique & more awesome than the next. My favorites were the Red Room and the Wine Cellar. Paddy and I were impressed, and immediately started scheming on how to use the space for food tours. (That’s all we ever think about.) If you haven’t had a chance to see the downstairs space at Isa’s, ask them if you can. It’s like The Shining down there. And I mean that as a high compliment.
Anyhoo, after a little while, we all rode the massive elevator back up to the main dining room, Paddy and I took a seat at one of the grown-up tables, and proceeded to eat the fuck out of some French food like the pros that we are. Here’s the menu for the evening…
Cutting straight to the chase, Paddy and I agreed afterward that the duck confit was some of the best that either of us has ever had, and that’s kind of a pretty big deal, because, believe me, Paddy and I have both eaten our fair share of muhfuckin’ duck confit in this town. It seems like everybody is doing it, and as expected, some venues are doing it better than others. If you don’t trust me and Paddy’s humble opinion on duck confit, because we are peasants, one of the legit food critics at the table was all, like, “This duck fucking rüles!” (I paraphrase of course.)
What made it so good to me, was that the meat fell right off the bone & was tender as fuck; the skin was crispy & savory; and all of the copious fat had been melted away, then sort of reabsorbed back into the drumstick, I guess, so that the whole thing was moist but not greasy, decadent without being unctuous, and had an edibility factor of ten-out-of-ten. The herbs & salt involved were just heavy-handed enough in my opinion to contend with, while not attempting to compete with the powerful ducky flavor.
Maybe even more impressive than the duck itself was the white bean cassoulet underneath it. I’m not even kidding when I say these may actually be the best beans I’ve ever eaten in my life. Which is crazy, because… who gives a fuck about beans?!? But hey, do them right and beans are really good. Do ’em like this cassoulet, and they are the star food element of the evening for me. Yay, beans. Who knew?
I thought the bouillabaisse was really tasty, attractive, and well executed, although it suffered slightly from a mild case of catered-event-ness, the symptoms of which are easy to spot by a hardened veteran of scarfing gratis grub at social functions like me.
At any event where 25 or more seated guests are all being served the same thing at the same time, some of the plates are going to be hotter & better looking than others, that’s a fact. Some plates may even be slightly over-worked by the heat-lamps by the time they get to your table. Or might be a little sloppy around the edges. That’s just life. I ain’t gonna lose my shit over it, but I certainly wouldn’t expect those issues to persist during regular service.
Looking past the expected limitations and challenges of a catered-event, I thought the bouillabaisse was truly delish, and I really did rave about the salmon to Melissa, it was excellent, but yes, I did also note that the oysters were a little bit shranked-up. I’m still not sure if that was butter or not on the toast, but I’m going to go with “some form of butter” as my final answer. Whatever it was, it was fucking great. Again, in terms of edibility, this dish was a grand slam, and as proof of that, I slammed every gram of it into my hungry hippo-hole. Except for the shells. Shells are not for eating. Stu.
Paddy frickin’ lerved the onion goat cheese tart, and later on he re-iterated enthusiastically how great he thought it was, and even doubled down by saying that it was his favorite part of the whole meal, and that he would definitely go back for it, and even pay real money. Nice! Paddy knows stuff, so you can take that endorsement to the bank. For my part, I loved it also, but I was a little surprised that it was served as a cold dish, because it looks an awful lot like quiche, which I love, but is usually served warm. “Do you think they’d serve you warm by request?” I asked the plate itself, and upon receiving no answer, I decided to go back in to get lunch by myself sometime soon, and see what they can do for me. Warm or cold, the flavor and texture of this tart were awesome, if you like goat cheese, which I do. It was creamy as fuck, very goat-cheesy, and oniony for sure, but not raw-oniony.
The crust was flaky and delicate, the crispy onions on top were a great touch to counter the texture of the tart itself, and the wee little side salad was simple but fun, and just the right size: teeny-tiny.
So, that was the fancy-pantsy media dinner that Paddy and I went to. Just in case you missed it: The point of the dinner was to announce the re-brand of Isa’s Bistro as Isa’s French Bistro, and to share the new NBFF menu with professional gourmets, including, somehow, a couple of hard-core gourmands like me and Paddy, who both gave it the thumbs-up. More importantly, the actual legit food critics and writers in the room also seemed to dig it, and Melissa agree with me that that was probably butter… in some form.
I scarfed down a few chocolate truffles for dessert, and left the drinkers to enjoy the rest of their evening. Thanks to everyone involved, it was a fun night, and the food was great! I’ll be back to try more! Despite the fact that I am a provincial punk who can’t dress himself properly for a party, I am no stranger to French food, and will be looking forward to eating my way through the menu.
FYI – At this dinner, we learned that the Cambria Hotel (also owned by the Fraga family) should be completed by Jan 2018. It will, of course, have a restaurant in it, called Hemingway’s Cuba, that is inspired by Tony Fraga’s own Cuban heritage. We also learned that the family is planning to open a third restaurant soon, with a focus on seafood. We found out that Executive Chef Duane Fernandez will be moving up the ladder to over-see all three restaurants, and that Chef de Cuisine Armen Vladimirovich will be stepping up to run the kitchen at Isa’s French Bistro.
It was a fun, informative, enjoyable, delicious dinner, and the next time we get invited somewhere, Paddy and I will be sure to dress… exactly the same as we always do. See ya then!
Isa’s French Bistro
“Isa’s French Bistro is located in the heart of downtown Asheville at One Battery Park Avenue. Our 90 seat dining room is complimented by a wine cellar event space that can accommodate from 10-120 guests. Isa’s also boasts a lively sidewalk patio on one of Asheville’s most interesting intersections.”
Address: 1 Battery Park Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
Phone: (828) 575-9636
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.
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