I have two reviews for you this week, and in both cases I did something I almost never do.
First I went to party. And it was actually fun!
Next I asked for special treatment, and received it! And THAT was fucking fun as FUCK.
GRITVEGAS PARTY – The Social Lounge & Tapas – Broadway, Downtown Asheville
I get invited to a lot of parties. Or, at least I used to, until all my friends figured out that I never show up. I fucking hate parties, but when Dawn and I got invited to the Asheville Grit launch party — because I contribute to Ashvegas — I wanted to at least show up and be like, “Yeah, Man! Here I am, making the scene, rubbing elbows, eating free grub. I love your dress, by the way.”
One thing I like almost as much if not more than food is fashion. Believe it or not, I’m very into cute fashions! I gotta give it up to the ladies of Asheville: You guys rock. For real. I love the way the women in Asheville attire themselves, and the attendees at the party were no exception.
There were a lot of cute dresses, good hair, pretty accessories, and just an abundance of really nice women. I loved it! There were men there too, and some of them were probably dressed-up nicely, but for the most part it’s always the same old shit with you guys: t-shirts, jorts, and Tevas. Golf shirts, chinos, and sneakers. Blue, white, & tan. Yaaawww(excuse me while I pause halfway through this yawn for another yawn: YAWN!)aawwwnnn.
I wore black. Always. Black shoes, black pants, black sunglasses, and a black, pearl-snap, cowboy shirt with my name embroidered on it. I am Stu motherfuckin’ Helm, and no thank you, I do not need a name tag. Name tags are for suckers. Dawn looked awesome in her black dress, and giant sunglasses. She rules. We totally rule together. FTW. Stu and Dawn at a partay! Whoo!
Okay, whatever. I realize that all of the above is completely useless information to most of you, so here’s the real reason I’m even mentioning this party: The food was fuckin’ aye good, Yo!
I showed-up really hungry, and started eating food the minute I got there. It was being offered on trays by roaming servers and I made dang sure that those servers roamed over towards my hands and mouth. I’m not too proud to gesticulate if that needs to happen.
The venue was the Social Lounge downtown which used to be Sazeracs and is not to be confused with The Social out on whateverthefuck road. The basic decor and set-up have remained almost exactly the same, which is good, because I always found it to be a nice place, if somewhat small in area, and narrow in layout. When I used to drink, I used to drink there occasionally. The upstairs is even smaller, but also nice, and when the doors are open to the rooftop, it’s much bigger and REALLY nice. One of the best outdoor venues in downtown Asheville, I’d say. It was blazing fucking sunny and hot the day of the Gritvegas party, but there were some very merciful awnings, and a pretty nice breeze going. If you’re looking for quiet, pleasant, outdoor seating, and well made drinks, it’s a good place for that.
The food was all hors d’oeuvres style, provided by the house, and I scarfed it the fuck DOWN. There were bacon wrapped figs with goat cheese, there were little (steamed?) mussels with creme fraiche, there were tiny little pastry cups with fresh berries and Nutella or some such. I was too busy shoving it all in my facehole with both hands to write any of this shit down, so I’m kinda winging it here, but nothing wasn’t good. The servers were awesome too, mostly because they kept it coming, but also because they were all very nice, friendly, professional, and attractive. One male bartender started out a little cooler-than-thou, but Dawn said he got better with time… or maybe she just felt that way because of the drinks. I ain’t sayin’.
Did you know: The Social Lounge is now owned and operated by Anthony, who owns Strada right next door? I did not know that until Anthony himself told me so. It was great to see him! He is a REALLY nice guy. I used to book Punk Rock Sundays at Fred’s when they were still around, and got to know Anthony and his Dad a little bit. Then some shit went down, and Fred’s and Fiore’s (Anthony’s other restaurant) closed down abruptly. Bummer. But then, not too long after that, Anthony opened Strada, and has now annexed The Social Lounge. Ya gotta love this guy!!! Go see him at Strada and The Social Lounge and tell him Stu says hi!
Thanks, Anthony, Ashvegas, Asheville Grit, and everyone involved with throwing the party. If I’m gonna go to party, I’m glad you guys were there. With food and cute dresses.
NIGHTBELL – South Lexington Ave, Downtown Asheville
Holy shit. SO GOOOD!!! I could just leave it at that, tell you the hours, and say “Go, Motherfuckers, GO!!!” And that should be enough to make you go.
I should also be able to say, “This is Katie Button’s new place,” and THAT should be MORE than enough to prompt you off your asses, out the door, and over to Nightbell. Katie Button is an awesome chef!!! Holy fucking shit. I do not have enough swearwords in my vocabulary to describe how good her food is, or how diggity-dang NICE she is. You know her from Curate, which is — IMHO — the best, most consistent, well run, friendly, and professional restaurant in Downtown Asheville. Dawn and I love it, and I also go there on my own for lunch when I can. I gave it a couple of Stoobie awards last year.
So, one day, Dawn and I are settin’ at the Curate bar for Sunday brunch — fresh grapefruit mimosas with cava and lemon air for Dawn, the best fuckin’ Americano in A-town for me, plus torrijas and tortilla española for both of us — when I swear to God, I heard one chef tell the rest of the kitchen staff that “The Food Critic” was sitting behind them. They all turned around and looked at me, and the next thing I know, Katie Button pops up from nowhere and says hi to us! Whoa. Rock star. I mean, we’s Facebook friends ‘n’ shit, but meeting her in person was a real treat for me, let me tell ya. The best part: She’s awesome. Super friendly and down to Earth, she invited us to her new venue on South Lexington called Nightbell, and suggested that we let her know beforehand that we’re coming in. I don’t usually do that, but in this case… uh… FUCK YES!!!
I’d been wanting to check out Nightbell. I’d heard good things, and I knew they had a lot of tasty items on the menu, including some nonalcoholic cocktails that I wanted to try. I didn’t want to over-indulge though, so I asked Katie if Dawn and I could get a sampling of small bites, and she was very open to the idea! I made the reservation, and Katie said to “Just tell the hostess to let me know when you arrive.”
I didn’t mind asking for special treatment, because I know that no matter who you are, you’re going to get the same level of excellence from Katie and her staff. The hostess met us with a very friendly smile, welcomed us, and led us upstairs into the main room. She would do it exactly the same for you, or anyone else. They don’t judge on appearance at Curate, so I wouldn’t expect them to at Nightbell.
The decor at Nightbell is a little hard to describe without getting into a lot of detail. I’ll just say it was awesome. Dark and comfy with a modern salon-style approach to the furniture, which consisted of very comfy couches, low tables, overstuffed chairs, glass lampshades, colored lights, billowing curtains, original wood floors, high ceilings, and a super-awesome sound system with music that was perfect for dining, and got a little louder and more upbeat as the night went on. Huh, whataya know. I did describe it. Good for me.
We enjoyed the atmosphere quite a bit. I noted to Dawn that it was an added bonus — as someone with a case of screaming tinnitus — for me to be able to eat somewhere that doesn’t have concrete floors and stark metal furniture reverberating and amplifying every sound made in every corner of the room. Ahhh… I could actually hear Dawn and Katie talking. Nice.
We had two servers that night: Angela, who was totally awesome, and Katie Button herself who brought out the cutest little parade of bite-sized incredibleness I have ever been witness to in my frickin’ life. It came straight outta the kitchen and onto our table in the hands of this world class chef, and she described each dish to us in detail. We kept telling her how great everything was, because, yeah, it was really fucking great. There was a lot of it, and I could write a fucking novel about each item, but I’ll just bullet point it for you:
• Deviled Eggs – Dawn hates deviled eggs. I love them! She won’t eat them, ever. I’ll eat every dang deviled egg at the party! So, I looked at Dawn, I looked at her deviled egg, I looked back at her, and was like, “whatcha gonna do?” That’s when she said the sentence that was the theme of the evening. “I’ll eat anything this chef puts in front of me.” These deviled eggs were so fucking good, I coulda peed on the couch right then and there out of happiness, and Dawn LOVED hers. First of all, they are a far cry from that mayonaissy thing with a sprinkle of paprika on top that we all see in our minds when we think of deviled eggs. These were warm, served in the shell with the top broken off, like a tiny bowl, that we ate out of with a tiny spoon. They were creamy, not solid, almost the consistency of a thick chowder, and had so many rich and comforting flavors going on we were kinda moaning and stuff while we ate them. Sweet, savory, smooth, smoky… holy shit, I’m not kidding, I could have eaten a bucket of them. Dawn agreed.
• Steak Tartar w/ horseradish air – Dawn HATES horseradish. Oh my God. She gets angry at it. I don’t eat steak tartar. It’s RAW steak, for fuck’s sake. But as previously stated: Anything from this chef. We tucked into our little individual crispy cones, filled with steak tartar and topped with this delicious, subtle, but bright horseradish air, and… yeah… so fucking good. We both loved it. There are pictures of all this stuff on my Facebook page. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Stu-Helm-The-Food-Critic/177099939155507)
• Raw Oysters — Some of you may recall my whole journey with raw oysters from a while back… I went from nearly vomiting at the very idea to pretty much loving them in a matter of months with the help of The Oysterhouse in West Asheville, contest winner Santa, and reader James, who told me how to eat them. Dawn had still never tried one, so I told her what James told me : “Slide it in, bite down once or twice, maybe three times, get that briny good flavor, and swallow that fucker before you start to think about it too much.” (I added the last part) The oysters were served with “tinctures” of cumin, lemon, ginger, and horseradish. I learned about myself that I’m still learning to love oysters, because although I enjoyed them, they were a little tough for me get down this time. Dawn enjoyed them too, but we agreed that we both still need time to develop our palettes.
• Boneless Chicken Wings with Blue Cheese Air – Dawn hates blue cheese, and most of the time, she doesn’t eat deep fried things. She ate the shit out of her wing-ding, and loved it! I ate mine so fast, I was sad it was gone before I even swallowed the last bite. The wings were cooked perfectly, the blue cheese air and the wee pickled topping were perfection on top of perfection.
• Caesar Salad – This was a very cute dish and one of the stars of the evening. It was a “taco,” in that the salad was served in a large, thin slice of jicama. That touch was awesome, and unique, and Dawn and I agreed that it elevated the salad to another level in its cleverness, and by adding flavor, crunch, and just the right amount of natural sweetness. Each taco had a big ol’ anchovy on top. Dawn and I both hate anchovies. This anchovy was fucking awesome. When we told Katie that, she commented — and we agreed — that the quality of ingredients makes all the difference in the world. “You can’t get these anchovies at a grocery store,” she said. You know where you can get them, though? At Nightbell. YUM!!!
• Grilled Cheese – Kid food, right? Well, if you were the most spoiled little rich kid brat that ever lived, maybe your live-in chef made you these grilled cheese sandwiches. Ho-oh-oh-oly fuck they were good. And decadent. And good. Really good. Very crispy, crustless bread filled with amazing fondue cheese, and fresh herbs. We detected a small amount of dill, and Italian parsley? Maybe. We were guessing. There was some truffle oil involved, and thankfully it was very very subtle. Holy fuck with the truffle oil, People. One drop is enough to truffle-ize a whole fucking meal, if not the world. Katie, of course, knows how to use that shit with a delicate touch and it was perfect.
• Mini Lobster Rolls – Good gawd. At this point we were started to feel slightly like Roman nobility, but fuck it! More food! More wine! More dancing girls! There were no dancing girls, unfortch, but the wine list was impressive, and they serve it by the half glass, so even you lowly plebes can sip the good shit without spending an entire month’s wages. The lobster roll was a-fucking -mazing, and that ain’t no joke. The bread was house made, soft, sweet, and buttery. The filling was incredible. Plenty of lobster, poached to perfection, and no nasty-ass raw onions or giant globs of mayonnaise to fuck everything up. Five stars.
• Duck and Waffles – Again, some of you may recall my ordeal with Chicken ‘n’ Waffles at (the currently closed) Lex 18. Too sweet and trashy for me. Katie’s duck ‘n’ waffles was neither of those things. It was savory, and fucking amazing. The duck confit was heavy duty, Man, but the waffles were the lightest waffles I’ve ever eaten in my life. This dish was satisfying on several levels. Warm, salty, crispy, greasy… I’ve been kind of craving it ever since.
• SCOOP! – In between the duck and dessert, Katie sat down with us and told us some of her reasons for opening Nightbell, and her plans for the future. Basically, as I understood it, she and her partners wanted to open another venue, but they weren’t sure they would have the time and energy to take on another full-service restaurant, so they opened up a lounge, with creative cocktails and a limited “bar food” menu as a way to test the waters. Having now developed that menu — based on Katie’s love of American food — she told us that she’s having a lot of fun in the kitchen at Nightbell and it’s time to make that leap! Starting this Summer, Nightbell will be transforming from its current bar/lounge/bites menu and hours, to a full service restaurant featuring, as she said, “a modern interpretation of traditional American food served small-plate style!” She said the stuff that’s currently on the menu will remain, but more things will be added. YAYYY!!!
• Dessert – Holy… have I already said “holy fuck?” Geeze, I need a thesaurus for this review. Holy Crapperdoodles!!! SOOOO many good things! The mascarpone cheesecake with cherry glaze (I’m guessing at terminology here) and pistachio dust… chocolate sticks… pebbles… and stuff… yeah, I need to learn more dessert terms… it was incredible, and so were the other little bombs and bites that Pastry Chef Carmen Vaquera brought to our table. Truly amazing and very creative. Another chef in town had told me that Carmen is the best in Asheville, so I knew in advance dessert would be special, and it was. Personally, I’m still sweet on Karen Donatelli as best in A-Town, but Carmen is definitely head and shoulders above the pack.
• Oh shit, I totally forgot to mention that Dawn got a super-awesome cocktail called Cold Roses that she said was fantastic, and I got two of their “mocktails” that were also very tasty! I said to Dawn that if I was a young person, full of the vim and vigor of life, I would totally hang out at Nightbell late at night and drink these “mocktails” while my friends all got wasted. Oh, sorry friends, I can’t be your designated driver. I don’t drive! HA HA HA! I have to admit that I do not like saying the word “mocktail.” It’s just not a word that makes me feel cool when I say it. Fonzy wouldn’t say “mocktail.”
• Dawn also got two of those half-glasses of wine. Katie explained that they have a super-special system for extracting wine from the bottles without opening them, so that they can serve very high-end wine by the glass or half-glass without the rest of the bottle going stale. Katie seems like she’s very into good equipment. I like that. As an artist, I always say cheap materials make shitty art. You gotta have good brushes, like you gotta have good kitchen hardware. Katie showed us her “Combi-Oven.” It was about the size of, though slightly more technologically advanced than R2D2. It bakes, broils, steams…. does convection…ing? I took a picture.
Okay, so anyhoodles, sorry for the REALLY long review, but dang it, I left out a lot of details too! You’ll just have to go to Nightbell to see for yourself.
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.
I agree with you about both Curate and Nightbell….these establishments are some of the best in Asheville. Another excellent write-up, Stu! I look forward to your next offering.
Why no mention that Nightbell not open on Monday or Tuesday? Those are nights off for some of us. Very unfair and should have been pointed out.
Let’s see- “popmous jerk”, “troll”, “cowardly”, “mainstream”, “disgrace”- does that about cover the terms you use to describe a poster who disagrees with a point made on your little corner of the webs?
I still don’t mind the actual review-ey part of said restaurants, but the extra ‘unorthodox” fluff is painful to read. I think a few other posters pointed this out too. Writing on Facebook is still the literary equivalent of flooding your friends with selfies, though I will concede that Hemmingway, Tolstoy and Whitman got their start there.
The name is an allusion to kayaking, by the way.
Painful is right, these reviews and Stu’s comments towards his critics are increasingly cringe-worthy.
It is a shame that when it all goes up in flames, the author’s name will be tied to all this crap forever.
I can only imagine how many folks that he doesn’t even know have major beef with him.
I concur- kind of a shame when a food critic types more words defending a writing style geared to 15 year old girls and the ‘Portlandia’ set than actually reviewing food. My online crime was pointing this out as I had some outtatowner friends visiting who wanted some local flavor. My outtatowners ended up reading this review and hit a locally owned selfie-free kickarse restaurant off Tunnel Rd. instead.
Na na na na na!.
Hey Jason can I get a spot on your blog. I’m hungry, will call myself a critic, and will promise to write great reviews on the free food I receive around town. I too use to write book reports in the 5th grade. Therefore, I qualify as a serious writer also. Please help a fellow hungry, goateed, man in black writer that is hungry. I love free food! Also, I promise to ride a bike if your readers buy that for me too. Heck I may make my own free cartoons if someone will supply the crayons. Thanks!!
Ok. But do you solemnly swear to positively review the food at parties where you are an invited guest, and restaurants that allow you to be photographed with the celebrity chef? And do you further promise to slam restaurants who normally have lines out the door because they choose to give themselves and their staff a break on Sundays? And if you will do all of these and accept Stu Helm as your Lord and Savior, you are in.
Oh fuck off.
“If you are truly confident about something, you welcome honest questions about it.” – Peter Kreeft
CLARIFICATION: In the third paragraph of the Nightbell review, when I wrote “Rock star,” I’m referring to Katie Button, not myself… this time.
I like the pic when you can’t see as much of stu.
Huh, I never would have guessed from the author’s style that he began his writing career on Facebook.
I’m not quite sure what your comment is supposed to mean, but the truth is I started writing long before Facebook, or the even the internet was invented. I’m 47 years old. I published my first “newspaper” in 5th grade. So, yeah, if that was supposed to be a dig at me… you’re wrong. So there.
I thought it was pretty clear what my comment meant. I’m saying that Facebook isn’t know for its wonderful writing style it has spawned, whether one is a pre or post Internet writer. This is my opinion of course, but I also laugh when Quentin Tarantino lists his movie biz street saying he worked at a video store. There’s got to be a better way to plug yourself as a writer.
The writing style you’ve adopted might be called ‘edgy’ or ‘epic’ or whatever social media addicts call it, but I read it with the intention of reading a casual review of a restaurant- the parts about one’s girlfriend, what clothes other patrons wore, the anyhoodles, f bombs and other stuff not so much. The part about actually describing the food was ok and gave me a sense of what dining at a place you reviewed would be like. In that respect- mission accomplished.
oops- I didn’t proof that- the Quentin comment should read ‘movie biz street cred’ the other spelling error, well it happens.
Okay, now I get it. You’re one of those people who reads my column even though you don’t like it. That’s terrific.
I find your theory that Facebook and its ilk are somehow responsible for a proliferation of swear words in the written medium to be half-baked.
Some writers swear a lot. Others don’t. Some music contains lots of swear words. Some doesn’t. Some comedians employ curses in order to enhance their comedic statements… and guess what? People laugh at that. My reviews are intended to amuse and inform, in that order. If you’re not amused, that’s unfortunate, but what can I do about that? Not a ding-dang thang. At least you like the food descriptions… maybe you should switch to reading online menus instead of my column?
Personally, I’ve been writing this way since back in the day when we used to put together “zines” with exacto blades and hot wax rollers, so I reject entirely your supposition that my own writing style is born of social media.
The name “Facebook Food Critic” is intended to be both self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing at the same time — for comedic effect — and because I did specifically start writing food reviews for my friends on Facebook . The style I write in, however, has nothing to do with the medium in which it appears.
If I was to categorize my writing style, I would like to think of it as being “gonzo,” in the vein of one of my writing heroes, Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not trying to say I’m at the same level as Thompson, I’m just saying that the style of writing in which the writer involves him or herself, and tells a story from their own point of view, no matter how crazy that point of view is, is called “gonzo.” (Not my term, BTW, please look up “gonzo journalism” on wikipedia)
Your Tarentino analysis is a poor comparison, because making movies and working at a video store are two entirely different endeavors, while writing is writing is writing no matter where it’s published in the end; online, or in a newspaper, or in a book. It’s all writing.
No, actually that would be only the second review I’ve read from you. I was curious as to what said restaurants had to offer. Perhaps today’s special is ‘critique de peau mince’?
If gonzo is how you see yourself, that’s great. I personally don’t care if you swear or not- it’s something we’ve all heard in a rated R movie anyway (and yes, Hunter is the man). I’ll just be skipping over the fluff in subsequent reviews and seeing what any new restaurant has to offer in terms of actual food. Too bad an online menu doesn’t give details about portions, preparation, presentation,etc- that requires a warm body writing about it. Then again I’m glad you see the ‘Facebook critic label’ as tongue in cheek.
Okay, so now I have “thin skin” because I defend myself and my writing from pompous jerks like you? Typical troll tactic: pick a fight and then act like the other person is overly sensitive when they defend themselves.
These comment sections allow people like you to say whatever you want, with little or no fear of consequences. You don’t even use your real name for cripes sake. My name is Stu Helm. Call me thin-skinned if you want, but I will counter that by calling you cowardly.
Also… what kind of “boatrocker” gets upset by unorthodox writing, and then tries to blame that new-fangled internet social media for it? You might want to change your anonymous screen name to “paddlesinthemainstream”
You’re a disgrace to all real boat rockers everywhere.
Way too light and fluffy bunny.
Stu – how do you reconcile complaining about other dudes wearing the same, old attire while you admit to always wearing all black? Do you know how many people in this town wear all-black, all-the-time? I’m a tshirt, shorts and sandals guy but at least my shorts and shirts are different colors and have different drawings and words and stuff on them. I can’t even imagine opening a closet to solely back shirts and pants/jeans every effing day.
Great review of both venues. I also enjoyed the pictures on Facebook.
How do you think a vegetarian/vegan would fare at Nightbell?
The wifey and I tried Nightbell a couple of nights ago largely because of your Facebook posts, and we LOVED it. Just fabulous, and I’m excited to see how it evolves.
Oh, and “out on whateverthefuck road” cracked me up, but c’mon, man – show East Asheville a little more love than that!
Have you been to the Social Lounge for a regular (non-event) meal? I went with 2 girlfriends recently and we had awful service – the food was fine, but our girl was not pro and not friendly. We’re all easy going and even forgiving (we’ve all been servers before) and this was bad. Not once were we asked, “how is everything, do you need anything else, would you like another glass of wine…” (after our first glasses were all empty and we were still eating – we probably would have stayed for a few more drinks after dinner if she’d asked). Maybe it was just her, maybe she was having a bad night, but it was a huge turn-off. The food wasn’t that amazing that I’d sacrifice good (or even just better) service for it. Afterward, we went somewhere nearby for a drink and talked to the bartender about it, who said she’d heard similar things recently. Too bad, as it is an awesome rooftop.
Love you, Stu, in both this column and what you do professionally, so don’t take this the wrong way. Should this still be considered “food criticism?” There’s nothing wrong with being a food writer, but I think the critic part has been compromised.
Geez, ya think?
Stop being a snob. It’s good to have some opinion that is more “man on the street” than “man from Wall Street”.
If you want “real” food criticism, go pay for a magazine subscription.
Thanks for the love Guys! It’s mutual. Yay Orbit!
While the “Food Critic” moniker is intended to be somewhat tongue in cheek, not all critique needs to be negative. There is such a thing as positive criticism, and I’m not one to go looking for negative things to write about just to be that way. If I have an enjoyable evening, with great food and service, I feel just as obligated to write about that as I do if I had an awful experience.
As far as compromising myself goes, I’m going to assume that you mean because I’m friendly with some of the restaurant owners in this town? It’s a small town after all, and I’m a very friendly person, so it would be difficult, and somewhat disingenuous for me to try to remain aloof and anonymous.
I thought it over, and in the end, I was totally Okay with letting Katie Button and her staff know we were coming to Nightbell, because as I wrote above, I felt 100 percent confident that the level of food and service would be consistent across the board for anyone who walked in the door to dine there!
Please go and see for yourselves! I hope you’ll agree that it’s amazing.