If you’ve ever wondered what makes the Asheville food scene so special, wonder no longer: It’s the people, Dumbass. The chefs, the cooks, the restaurateurs, the servers, the bartenders, the farmers, the makers, the bakers, and even us, the eaters. We are what makes the scene so special. All of us, collectively, and as individuals, working together and separately, to create something cool and unique, with integrity and meaning, that we can all be proud of. When it’s at its very best Asheville’s creative food scene produces great culinary experiences, for the kitchen and staff as much as for the patron. Memorable nights, spent among friends and professionals, giving and receiving hospitality. Memories that are every bit as much about the people as they are about the food. I had just such a memorable experience recently at The Junction, one of Asheville’s true hidden gems in the (increasingly less) lonely South Side of The River Arts District.
The Junction is small… and by small I mean tiny… wee, cozy, intimate, cute as fuck. It also has one of the best, most creative, and most whimsical menus that I’ve ever seen. The executive chef, and Asheville native, David Van Tassel is always in the kitchen, and Charles Triber — who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Tanya — can be found at the hosts’ stand, when he’s not visiting each table to personally check in, or running food and drinks himself when the rushes hit. The Junction is all about the personal experience for me, and it doesn’t really get any more personal that doing the “Chef’s Tasting Table,” a five-course, tailor-made, one-of-a-kind dining experience that is served directly to you, by Chef David himself, from the window of the kitchen.
I was super-fortunate to receive an invitation to try the Chef’s table from Charles one evening, and he even asked me to bring a media-friend to join me. Of course the first person I thought of was my good friend Stephan Pruitt from Dig Local Asheville. DLA isn’t exactly media, but Stephan’s personal social media reach is great, and his word of mouth network is fantastic. Anyone who knows Stephan knows that he is always enthusiastic when it comes to eating, taking pictures of, and talking about food. He’s what I call a “good eater,” and also he’s good company and pleasure to dine with.
Since The Junction is right around the corner from my house, I met Stephan there, and Charles lead us to the Chef’s table, where our server Teresa took over, and took great care of us for the next five courses. With our backs to the room, facing the tiny, busy, well-staffed kitchen was fun, and we chatted intermittently with prep cook Tony, while David devoted his attention to cooking a totally, 100 % unique meal, that was just for us, and nobody else. In fact, word got back to my friend Derek, who happen to be sitting nearby that Stephan and I ate the last two soft-shell crabs in the house, and I had to hear him berate me for it on my way out. Sorry, Derek! Maybe you should have opted to be the “food fan” instead the “beer lawyer.‘ Although… that sounds like a super-fun gig too… and I’m sure the money is a lot better… but… ugh, lawyering looks like a lot of work… on TV anyways…
Aaaaaanyhoodles…. Derek, you and everyone else can make a reservation for the Chef’s tasting table at The Junction, and I guarantee you… I fucking GUARANTEE… that it will be a special dining experience. There’s no way it won’t be. No fucking way. Here’s what-all Stephan and I ate that night…
Chef David loves to show off his “curiosities,” as I call them. Strange food items. Freaky, hard to find treasures. Culinary rarities and oddities that reflect his own sophisticated, yet slightly twisted sense of humor. I was afraid he might serve us his infamous “porchetta di testa” which translates as “head of the pig” and seems to be his favorite menu-monstrosity to show the eaters in his diner. Honestly, it is not my favorite thing on Earth, so I was relieved to see that this evening’s big show-piece was a large wedge of cheese. I like cheese. And sure enough, this “Challerhocker” cheese was really fucking good and according to Chef David, it was very difficult for him to procure from his cheese monger, as it was the very last wheel left in a certain batch, and by the time he got done weaving the tale of the cheese, I was ready for it to be the most magical piece of cheese in the history of the fucking world, and y’know what… I was not disappointed. Holy. Fuck. That was some damn good cheese, yo.
First Course: A small wedge of Challerhocker cheese perched atop a very delicate salad, paired to contrast with both the crunchiness of the corn-nuts, as well as getting us off to a good start with David’s trade-mark mixture of high-end and low-brow ingredients.
Here’s a description of the Challerhocker cheese from a website called MurraysCheese.com:
“Challerhocker is washed in wine and spices and then aged for a minimum of 10 months, providing a remarkable depth of flavor. Firm yet creamy, [Challerhocker] has the rich aroma of cooked custard, the flavor of slowly roasted nuts, and a lingering almost fruity finish…. a flavor veering more in the butterscotchy direction, with more nuttiness and less fruit… Close your eyes and you will sense the mountains around you and smell the alpine flowers.”
Corn nuts taste like corn nuts. The two were fantastic together, especially with the sticky, faintly-earthy sweetness of the beet marmalade and the mild tang of the maple vinaigrette on the fancy lettuce. Not for nothin’, the corn, beets, and maple, made this dish slyly Autumnal in motif, without beating us over the head with it. The kitchen at The Junction is very clever that way.
Next course: Praaawwwnnn! I love prawn. These prawn were expertly prepared and served head-on, with a beautiful, complex, savory sauce that was made with miso & carrot, and there was also a… deep fried chicken skin! There’s that high / low combo again. The prawn where perfect: Sweet, succulent, salty, buttery, and Old Bay-y. That’s right, they were “Butter’d ‘n Bay’d” according to the chef’s hand-written menu. Again, high end / low brow, done with a sense of humor, comfort, fun, excellence, and adventurousness that are all the hallmarks of The Junction’s kitchen. This dish tasted incredible and I ate every bit of it.
Just in case you missed it, the miso + prawn + chicken make this dish a distant relative of the classic lobster and chicken combo — sometimes called “dragon and pheonix” — found in Chinese-American restaurants all over the country, while the carrot kept one toe in the Autumn theme.
Next course: Oh… just the best soft shell crab I’ve eaten in my fucking life. That’s all. No big whoop.
Just in case you’ve never had soft shell crab, “soft” can be a relative term, and the texture can sometimes skew towards a flat pine cone, or a deep fried baseball mitt. Such was not the case with ol’ “Softie,” as it was labeled on David’s menu.
I’m no novice. I’ve eaten some soft shell crabs, Yo. Here, there, and everywhere, they’re one of my fave things ever, and I’ll be eaten’ ’em just about any time they’re on the specials board of a decent joint. I’ve eaten soft shell crab in Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans, and this was the best soft shell crab I’ve ever eaten in my life, served to me inside of a tiny, orange, cinder-block box, right around the corner from my own house. Holy fuck-a-moly. Gah! I don’t know what-all Chef David did to make these shits taste so fuckin’ good to me… actually he totally explained it to us, but I was too busy foaming at the mouth to retain word he said. I’ll just say this was a reallllly nice crab. The shell was actually soft, except for that it had been perfectly crisped in ass-loads of butter, the contents were meaty, and again very succulent and that awesome combination of sea-food-sweet-n-salty. The bacon shallot jam was every fucking bit as awesome as it sounds, the wee bed of baby arugula was the perfect edible garnish, and of course, the healthy portion of ranch dressing was the low-brow pièce de résistance.
Next Course: An iron skillet hangar steak, served “Pittsburg rare” (alternatively called “Pittsburgh black“) which means that it was cooked at a very high temperature, very quickly, so that it was charred on the outside but still rare / raw on the inside.
It would have been tough to beat that soft-shell crab, but this hangar steak was not only so well-cooked, and perfectly seasoned, with heat and sea salt, but it was also different enough in texture, flavor, preparation, and profile that it matched and complimented both of the previous sea-food dishes, and brought the meal full circle, back to the salad course, with warm, comforting, familiar Autumn flavors. The nutty notes of the Challer cheese and slight-earthiness of the beet marmalade of the salad were now book-ended by the nutty, earthy flavor of the truffle, while the maple vinaigrette tang of the salad was brought back, even more strongly with the cured egg yolk and horse-radishy mead mustard. The smooth bone-morrow-whipped sweet potatoes, combined nicely with the edgy, slightly bitter, blackened broccolinni, and sealed the deal on the Autumnal theme. The whole dish had a “steak house” feel to it — especially if you consider that it turned the entire meal into a take on the old school “surf and turf” theme that is so popular in such places — and it was the only dish on the menu that was not humorous in any way, nor did it have any low-brow element to it. I appreciated a slight turn in a more serious direction. David doesn’t need to be funny in order to be excellent or unique, and I like it when he plays it straight, so to speak, while really showing off his chops. Cured, crated, egg yolk? Who does that? This dish solid, filling, interesting, impressive, and tasty, but not funny, and that was fine! I knew the real punch line would be coming with dessert. David has the most fun with dessert of just about any chef I know.
Final Course: As I expected, dessert was a show-case of David’s talents and humor, and it was also a show-boat of presentation, in that it looked as if a very clever and talented circus clown had concocted this confection for us. Bright, colorful, fun, and a little bit zany, and of course — as always — it contained a combination of items from the high-end and low-brow spectrum, all prepped, cooked, plated, and served with the utmost skill and style. It was essentially a house-made doughnut, topped with icing, caramel, fresh apple slices, foie gras, and… Apple Jacks.
For personal reasons, I no longer eat foie gras, so I was unable to get the full effect of this dessert, and that was a bit of a shame, as the foie was undoubtedly an integral part of the over-all experience. I gave my bit of foie gras to Stephan — he had never eaten it before — and he loved it. He doesn’t usually eat sweets but he powered down this dessert, so that should tell you how good it was. I do usually eat sweets, but I left a small portion of mine behind. It was slightly dry, but I know that would have been helped a lot by the foie gras, which would have added an element of liquid fat and flavor to moisten-up the doughnut, and tone-down the sugar of the glaze, caramel, and Apple Jacks. I ate all of the apples and most of the doughnut, and then I tapped-out, full.
TIP! When I made the reservation, I certainly could have asked Chef Van Tassel to forego the foie gras, but it slipped my mind at the time, and I decided to roll with the punches when we arrived for dinner. I thought about eating that little ol’ piece of foie when I saw it balanced atop my dessert, but in the end, I decided to stick to my guns, and pass. The right move for my personal integrity, but definitely a sacrifice for my taste-buds. We all have to make those types of decisions every day, it’s no biggie, but when you make reservations at The Junction or just about anywhere else, please feel free to let the house know about any dietary restrictions ahead of time. I know that some chefs — David among them — enjoy the challenge of preparing a meal within parameters. Just try not to drop an “I don’t like eggs / I’m lactose intolerant / I can’t eat anything cooked in the same building as a peanut or I’ll die” bomb on them moments before your meal begins.
David Van Tassle. Charles and Tanya Triber. Me, Stephan, Teresa, Tony the prep cook. Even Derek and his crew made this a fun evening out. Getting together for a unique and intimate meal with friends at restaurant in Asheville can feel like getting together with the professionals too. Chefs, cooks, owners, hosts, and servers, we are all there to enjoy the experience of giving and receiving… and that, my friends, is fucking special.
There are tasting tables happening all over town in various restaurants and venues, and of course all over the country in some of the fanciest restaurants imaginable. I’ve done a couple of the super-fancy ones — usually with my GF Dawn — and this one at The Junction compared very favorably to any of them, while remaining uniquely Asheville in every single way.
I’m going to straight-up recommend that you book a meal with friends and/or family at the Chef’s Tasting Table facing the kitchen at The Junction. It seats up to 5 people, maybe 6 if all of you are relatively small people. To me, it’s perfect for two, and if Stephan had been Dawn instead of Stephan, it would have been a very romantic experience as well. Sorry, Stephan, not sayin’ I didn’t have fun… just tellin’ the readers that there’s potential for romance.
“Farm-fresh Southern cooking served in an artsy indoor/outdoor space separated by a garage door.
Address: 348 Depot St #190, Asheville, NC 28801″
Phone: (828) 225-3497
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