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Hello, Asheville!

How you doin’? Good? Good. I’m doing good too, thanks. In fact, I’m doing kind of awesome. I recently had a very amazing and unique experience. Unique to me, that is. I have a feeling that some of the other lucky people who had this experience with me were not as new to it as I was.

I’m talking about my very first “Media Dinner.” It was hosted by the Grand Bohemian Hotel and their Red Stag Grill restaurant in Biltmore Village.

As always, I shall endeavor to tell you my story, my personal experience, from my own point of view. I will list the food and give it a review of course, but this piece of writing is also about being an outsider on the inside, a food writer who has only been writing about food for a very short time, who has no formal training as either a writer or a gourmand, and doesn’t even own a pair of shoes not made by Converse, who got invited to a very fancified dinner event for food-savvy media types.  Let’s just say, I was feeling a little out of place when I stepped out of my taxi-cab into the lavish entryway courtyard of the Grand Bohemian Hotel.

Sure, I’d been there before, twice’t already. I had dinner at the Red Stag Grill with Dawn, and went again for lunch with my mom not long afterward. Both times I felt awk as fuck, enjoyed about 3/4’s of the food, and wrote a review of both experiences that was half-panny-half-praisey, so I wasn’t sure if they’d be all mad at me or what. I was nervous. I comforted myself by doing something familiar to me: I started taking selfies.

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“Selfie with stag statue,” as seen on Instagram. Please follow me at @stuhelm33

Ahhh… better. Doing familiar things helps center me.  When I walked in the door of the GBH, I was immediately greeted by a sweet sounding duet of female voices asking, “Are you Stu Helm?”  Yes. Yes I am. I took another selfie.

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Andrea and Ashleigh were two of our hosts for the evening.

These two women were expecting me.  One of them — Ashleigh — had invited me.  She and Andrea were two of the several professional hospitality people who hosted us that evening, and they were awesome. I was lucky enough to be seated next to Ashleigh during dinner, and she is very charming, natural, up-beat, and gracious. There was no lull in conversation. I hate lulls. Lulls are for suckers. On the other side of me was M., a fellow writer. She was equally adept at the art of conversation, so I had a very lovely time at dinner, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

After our selfie, Ashleigh and Andrea escorted me to the lobby, where we were greeted by John, who is the General Manager of the hotel, who told me later that he’d been working in hospitality for his entire professional career. John is very good at his job, and I liked him immediately. Tall, handsome, friendly, smart, and thoughtful. What’s not to like? His people-skills are excellent, without being phony, and he immediately put me at ease, letting me know that he had read my previous review of the Red Stag by cajoling me about having some “game meat” later on, referencing a very tough piece of boar that I had complained about in my review. I joked back that the stuffed boar in the lobby was the same one that I had been served that night. I may have taken the joke too far. My own social skills are not as good as John’s. He let it slide.

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John told us this boar is called “Zsa Zsa the Boar,” but I’d already started calling it “Herman Boering” in my mind, so that’s what I’m sticking with. Güten tag, Herman!

John directed me, along with Ashleigh and Andrea, to the hotel Art gallery, where the rest of my media compadres were already gathering for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Yeah, man. Food. I started to feel that weird food-panic thing that I have described in recent columns. My mind becomes so focused on “Gotta get me some” that I have a hard time concentrating on anything else. As I made a bee-line for the Art gallery, I also braced myself for what I expected to be some gawd-awful artworks.

To be sure — in my humble opinion as an Art snob — some of it surely was… not… good. Photo-realistic paintings of giraffes… or wine bottles… do absolutely nothing for me. At all. Period. End of story. There was art by a local painter named Chris Sedgwick, however, that I liked very much, and some by a French fella named Jean Claude Roy that I also enjoyed. Sedwick’s work is in a sort of medieval / Dutch-renaissance style that is very well executed, contains cryptic symbology, and has a slightly creepy feel to it. The french guy paints a lot of effed-up landscapes with square suns.

Speaking of squares… I also ran into my friend and fellow food writer, Jonathan Ammons. I kid I kid!  Jonathan is my buddy, we’re always at the same food events, having the time of our fucking lives. “Hey-ey! John-a-thaaaan!”

I apologized for being “weird” at the Mountain Cheese Fest (I had the food mania), and he assured me “You were fine!” When the cameras came out, he announced to the crowd, “I feel like photo-bombing every picture!” and I said “DO IT!” He did. Who invited these guys?

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Ashleigh holds my drink while I snap a few pics, and Jonathan Ammons bombs away. My drink was “virgin.” Jonathan’s was not.

We all met several more nice hotel people in the gallery, including its director Constance, and the food and beverage manager Peter, who introduced himself, and described the cocktail he’d concocted to start the evening. It sounded great.

Made with Troy & Sons “Blonde” whiskey, Bee Charmer honey, muddled mint, it even had a crazy mint foam floating on top. I felt slightly envious of the others and their minty beverages, until Peter was kind enough to hand me one that was made with no whiskey. What?!? No way. Really?!? Dude. So cool. It was very tasty & refreshing, and I enjoyed it very much. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying their whiskey-laced versions very much as well, and that was all good, but I was still super-focused on and distracted by the promise of food.

As I began to describe my obsessive thoughts and behavior to one of my fellow media types, the first tray arrived… I broke off mid-sentence and moved towards it… too late! There was already a wall of humanity between me and the goods… but.. oddly… no one was grabbing for the actual grub.  They were all taking pictures of it instead! (Except for Jonathan who took pictures of people taking pictures.) It was a weird paparazzi-esque moment where the food was the celebrity. Me? Although I kinda wanted to stage-dive the crowd and land on the tray, I reigned in my mania, played it cool, and tried to act like I saw the others acting. Aaall caaasual, like.

“Yeah, Man, it’s just me, Mr. press reporter media guy, I do this shit all the tiiime, no big dea…  snarf, chomp, bite, scaff, growl…”

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Food and photo frenzy!

It didn’t work. Who am I foolin’? Nobody. I got my arm in there eventually, and ate the first few things so fast that I had to ask if I could take pictures of the other people’s food. Sorry, other people. I know that I’m annoying. The food looked too fucking gooood though, and tasted even better.

I’m going to spare you — the busy reader-on-the-go — any undue wasted time, by cutting to the chase: Nearly every bite of food I ate during this entire evening was outstandingly good, and most of it is going to be on the new Spring menu, conceived by the recently arrived Chef at The Red Stag Grill, Scott Ostrander. Chef Ostrander is an amazing cook, of that I have absolutely no doubt.  His food this night was excellent, and I trust the same will be true for you should you decide to dine at Red Stag during the Spring 2015 season. There you have it. That’s the BID on the food. Don’t bother to read any further if that’s all you wanted to know. Go to the Red Stag Grill, order food, and put your trust in Chef Ostrander.

If you wish to hear deets about the meal, and the hotel, and the evening in general, please continue…

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Wild NC cherrystone clams, with bacon and spring onions served on a wee tiny wooden spoon. I ate mine so fast, I had to ask one of my fellow food writers if I could take a picture of hers. She graciously obliged.

There were three hors d’oeuvres served in the gallery, and all three were excellent. The cherry clams on a wooden spoon with bacon were warm and tasty, and had a wonderful texture that was exactly right. I grew-up eating baked clams with bacon in New England, and this was a very nice take on the classic flavors I’m still so fond of. It was also nicely moist, which is not always the case, because there is a tendency for these li’l guys to dry out in the baking process.

The pork shoulder bite was likewise very moist, flavorful, and good. I ate it all at once, in one mouthful, and it was the perfect size, and combination of ingredients for doing so. Very satisfying and delicious, with a nice crispiness to the slaw, and a crunch to the toast that worked very well with the stringy, pulled texture of the pork shoulder.

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PORK!!! More specifically, Hickory Nut Gap pork shoulder. It was effing good, Yo.

My favorite of the trio of hors d’oeuvres that we sampled in the gallery were the deviled eggs with house-smoked tasso and pickled shrimp. They were fan-fucking-tastic and when I saw that there was one left on the tray, being politely ignored by everyone else, I helped myself to secondsies. The consistency of the hard-boiled egg was perfect, the yolk-whip-stuffing was also perfect. Not too moist, not too stiff or dry, and subtle in the flavorings, which complimented but did not compete with the true star of the show: The pickled shrimp. There was even a micro green on top. So CUTE!!! I <3 micro greens.

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I managed to suppress my need to feed long enough to snap a pretty good picture of the deviled eggs.

As I said above, from what I understand, all three of these appetizers are, or soon will be, available to the public, perhaps in slightly different portions and preparations. I recommend all three.

After our introductory cocktails and apps, John gave us a tour of the hotel, that included details about the lobby, as well as a look at a really rare piano constructed all from one tree, and a trip to one of the suites, where I took a bathroom mirror selfie after everyone else left the room. That was one fancy-pantsy bathroom, I’ll tell you what. But not the fanciest! Not by far. Our tour concluded with a glimpse into one of the men’s rooms, which was like a neo-rococo man-cave meets gilded bordello. I wanted to live in there. The ladies took a peek at the ladies’ room and they were equally impressed. Actually, can I live in there instead? Stu Helm! Behave yourself now.

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Left: Bathroom mirror selfie. Right: BUSTED! Drinkin’ in the boys room. Identities have been obscured to protect the innocent.

Back in the lobby, John informed me that all of the artifacts are authentic, all of the artwork is real, not reproductions, and even the columns are hand carved wooden antiques imported from India.  Fuckin’ aye. I like that. I was also told that many — though not all — of the 100’s of dead animal heads, sets of horns, and skulls and such that adorn the walls, mantels, and corners of this Hunting Lodge motif Boutique Hotel were actually hunted by the owner, Richard KesslerWhoa. Um. Okay. That’s… Neat? Weird? Grizzly, gruesome, horrifying… choose your own reaction to that tid-bit of info. I chose at the time to stop reacting at “whoa.” I have to admit that I do like taxidermy, and I do eat a lot of animals, so I am not in any position to judge on moral grounds, but I know it’s a touchy and somewhat controversial area, so please have your own feelings, and make your own dining decisions accordingly. Hey, maybe Mr. Kessler actually eats all that deer meat? And boar meat? And.. fox meat? I dunno if he even hunted that fox for sure, and like I said… I suppressed my human emotions at whoa.

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Hello there!

Before I move on to the dinner, I want to make note of the music, which I liked. When I was alone in the lobby for a few mins, it caught my ear and I had this thought, “Gosh, this music is surprisingly contemporary and hip for a hotel.” (Yes, I do say, “Gosh,” to myself.) Later GM John told me that music is soops importles (my words) to the owner, and that he persoanlly gives a shit (again, my words) about it being unique and enjoyable in his hotels. Well, I did indeed find it to be both unique and enjoyable. Some techno loungey type stuff.

After the tour, John lead us all to the “Black Forest Room” located in the back corner of the Red Stag Grill for dinner.

From this point on, I ceased to be a member of normal society, and stepped into an area of existence that I had previously not known. Once the doors to the Black Forest Room closed behind us, we were separate from the riffraff on the other side. They were out there. We were nestled in here. The inner sanctum. Later, when I got up to go to the restroom, I had to walk through the regular dining hall — which is lavish to be sure — and it felt like stepping out of a dream and into… reality.

The reality is that my media friends and I got very special treatment that night, and you will likely not get the same treatment that we did… ever. Instead you will get the regular treatment. My previous experiences as a regular person at the Red Stag involved some really great food, some not -so-great food (Verfluche dich, Herman Beoring!), being ignored at the host’s stand, being seated in a crappy section, having a really great waiter, and also a not-as-great waiter. In other words: It was a mixed bag.

When I wrote about these experiences at least one reader reported back to me that they received a similarly chilly reception at the front, and were also seated in the exact same sketchy section that I had described. I have hope in my heart that those negative aspects were a fluke, or that any persistent problems have been addressed and no longer exist. After the dinner, John did tell me that they stopped serving their lemon custard dessert in a water glass after I made fun of it in my review, so maybe that’s not the only effect my piece had.

Anyhoo, now back to my new reality, inside the Black Forest Room. A reality which involved six courses of very effing good food, and service out the whaaaaah-ahh-ahh-zooo. In addition to several servers attending to our every drop of water and scrap of food, the chef himself came out of the kitchen several times throughout the meal and described each dish for us. So was each new wine likewise described by F’n’B manager Peter.

The wine was flowing, and people seemed to be enjoying it. The food was lovingly crafted and presented with subtle beauty. There was a photo station set up in the corner, where an extra plate of each dish was placed under a bright halogen light so that we could all get decent pics for a change.  You’ll be able to see the difference in the pics I took at the table and the ones I took at the photo station.

At the end of the evening, we each got a parting gift (AKA Schwag Bag) that had a large bottle of whiskey, a small bottle of honey, a Red Stag Grill cutting board, and what looks for all the world like a silver drinking cup. We got the royal emeffin treatment from start to finish, up and down and all around, with a swoosh on top. I left the dinner table feeling super-full, and very spoiled, and pretty dang lucky, and for some reason… probably because I was raised by a protestant minister… I felt slightly guilty and kind of self-conscious. Did all that really just happen? To me?!? Weird.

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A symphony in blonde. I took this picture of the contents of my schwag bag after I got home. The scroll has a drink recipe on it. I kinda wish it was my knighthood, or something really cool like that.

While I was waiting for my taxi, John came outside and we chit-chatted for quite a little while. I wanna say again: I like John, and you guys know that I do figure-in the “likeabilty” of the human beings involved with any experience when I am assessing that experience and reporting it back to you. John’s presence made a difference. He truly made me feel like a special guest of the hotel, and I have confidence that he would endeavor to do the same for you, or anyone who happen to be registered for a stay at the GBH. I do stay in super-fancy hotels sometimes, and I would stay at the G-Boho if given the chance. It’s effing pricey as fuck though, so… we’ll just have to see about that.

The staff at The Grand Bohemian did acknowledge several times that they respected the readership I have here on Ashvegas, so they knew that you guys were gonna find out all about the deets of this evening. That I would give you a glimpse of the good life from my schmoe’s-eye view, and tell it like I see it. They knew full-well that I might not like everything I ate, and that I would be honest with you guys about that.

Soops fortch for them, and for me and all of my media chums sitting at the giant table in the Black Forest Room, the food was excellent.  Here’s what we had…

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Gittin’ bisquey wid it… or gazpacho-y???

1st: Chilled Watercress Bisque w/ blue crab, cucumber, & horseradish –  I ate every molecule of of this dish. It was really really good. The crab was cooked perfectly, and had a subtle sweetness to it that went very well with the earthiness of the watercress, freshness of the cuke, and the tiny sting of the horseradish. My personal preference might have been to try this soup at room temp or even slightly warm, though not hot. Served chilled, it was kinda more like a gazpacho to me than bisque, and I’m personally a bigger fan of the latter, because I feel like the flavors come forward just a little bit more in warm food.

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Wahhh-goo! Or Wagyu if you insist on spelling and pronouncing things correctly.

2nd: Wagyu Carpaccio w/ Lusty Monk mustard and New River micro greens –  Um, what to say about this dish…  how about… ho-o-o-ly shit it was goood!  I lost contact with Earth while I ate this dish, and I was left floating in outer space, eyes closed, not giving a shit about anything else in the fucking universe except the super-nova going on in my mouth right at that moment. Wagyu is a certain kind of beef. Chef Ostrander essplained it all to us, but you guys can Google it if you want more deets. I’ll just say it was sliced insanely thin, thinner than any carpaccio I’ve ever seen, to the point where upon first sight of it, I wondered, “Is this some kind of edible paper?” True story. The warm, creamy, toned-down sauce was a very nice treatment of the Lusty Monk mustard, and of course I loved the micro greens on top. I’m not sure, but I think that there were also some deep-fried capers in the mix. Whatever those crispy, black, salty bits were, they were excellent. Again, I scraped every speck of food off of this plate. I may have even eaten a few specks of the plate itself.

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That li’ll guy on top of this amazing dish is a fingerling potato chip. Can you say KEWWWWWWT!!! I love cute things.

3rd: Sea Scallop w/ lobster, corn, fava beans, & golden beet butter – To paraphrase a movie I’ve never seen, “You had me at golden beet butter.” Actually you had me at sea scallop, and you had me again at lobster. You almost lost me at fava beans, but when I actually bit into this dish, the fava/corn combo made for an amazing, fresh, sort of high-end succotashiness that complimented the sea food and beet butter very well. If any of you had seen my face and heard the sounds coming out of my mouth while I was eating this dish you would have stopped your server to say, “I’ll have what he’s having.” I’ve never seen that movie either.

Anyhoo…

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This photo does not even begin to relate how good this dish of fish tasted to me.

4th: Sunburst Trout w/ carrot puree, sugar snap peas, and maitake mushrooms – I never order trout when I go out to eat. I’m not sure why. Like a lot of dudes, I gravitate towards beef and pork and chicken. But Dawn gets trout on the semi-regs, and when she does, I always taste it and I usually like it. The point of my story? I fucking tore into this piece o’ fish like a Paleolithic aplha predator. I think I ate it all in three bites. It was really tasty and good! I even ate the skin, which I usually don’t do, because… ew. This fish skin was where it was at, though. Slightly crispy, heavily seasoned, thin and delicious, it made the dish. The maitakes were cooked perfectly and had a wonderful flavor and texture that went well with the trout and the fresh snap peas ‘n’ greens. I was batting 1,000 as a member of the Clean Plate Club, so far and I wanted to lick the carrot puree off of this one… for realz… but I didn’t. 🙁

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Not until I got this photo home and on my computer did I notice that the food is shaped like a li’l airplane. Neeerow neerow! Jet bomer! Ackackackack! Kids, don’t play with your food.

5th: Hickory Rabbit Loin & Rabbit Confit w/ white asparagus & pickled rhubarb – I am not the biggest fan of rabbit, so this was actually not my favorite dish of the evening. Oh, make no mistake, every hippity-hoppity bit of this li’l guy jumped straight into my gullet. It’s not that it was bad. It just wasn’t as good as the rest of the dishes in my opinion, and it was the one dish that I would not wish to try again. I preferred the sides on this plate to the protein: The asparagus, the rhubarb, the micro greens and the sauce were all really good! I’m sure the rabbit was really good too, but yeah… like I said. Not my fave.

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Not a great picture of some really great pieces o’ meat.

6th: Apple Brandy Rib Eye w/ vidalia onion, heirloom tomatoes, and herb chimichurri – This dish was thee bomb diggity ass bomb dish of the night for me. I mean, that sea scallop was fanfuckingtastic fer shizzle, Yo, but this beef was heavenly.  Like cutting-up and eating strips of magical buttery velvet made out of a cow. You can’t see the chimichurri sauce in the picture, but it was really good, with a fresh, herby taste, and a very pleasant oily, almost creamy texture that very much enhanced the magic cow strips. The heirloom tomatoes and side salad were also very good and once more, I ate every thing on my plate, except one small piece of pure fat. Normally, I would have popped ol’ Mr. Fat Piece into my gaping face hole, but as this was the 6th and… final? …course I was getting full, and in danger of turning into a little piece of pure fat myself if I didn’t start to chillax already with this food mania. Then came cheese…

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Would you like some cheese in between your huge meal and huge dessert, Sir?

Cheese Course –  Cheese course? Dang it! I forgot all about cheese course. Fancy people like to have a cheese course in-between dinner and dessert. They’s crazy that way. Anyhoo, I heart cheese, so I happily tucked into the very good, high quality, Looking Glass Dairy “Ellington” cheese on my plate, along with the tiny, delicious, frozen-but-melting strawberry-rhubarb preserve, and a looong piece of bread. It was all great, and I thought that I had saved enough room for dessert… until I saw that dessert actually consisted of three desserts.

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By far the worst picture I took all night, but these three desserts were sooooo yummy!

Dessert: Pecan carrot cake, salted caramel chocolate torte, & blueberry mascarpone cheesecake – It’s been over a week since I had this meal, and still feel actual feelings of regret that I didn’t finish these three incredibly yummy desserts. I don’t even like carrot cake, or pecans, and I friggin’ loved the little pecan carrot cake that Chef Ostrander brought out.  It was so wee, and cute, and looked like something that might have come out of an easy-bake oven in 1973, but it tasted like what it was: A very high end piece of moist, delicious yum. I ate about 1/2 of the chocolate torte, even though chocolate gives me terrible headaches, but I wanted it, so I ate it and I took a bunch of Advil later. I was fine. The torte was amazing. I took the risk. I got the reward. The cheesecake was a close-your-eyes-and-go-to-heaven dessert for me. I love mascarpone, and I love blueberries and dairy together, so it was my fave of the three. Like I said, my only regret is that I left behind some of each one of this trio of super-yummy little desserts. I wish I could eat those left-behind bits right NOW. God they were good.

Okay, so there you go, People. That’s my report from my very first Media Dinner, where I was treated like a little king.

From my point of view, it was AWWWESOMMME. From your point of view… well, go try some of the dishes I raved about, and please take note of the level of service and special attention you might receive, as an ordinary diner. I hope that John and his crew are as nice to you guys are as they were to me and Jonathan and the rest of the food writers that were at this media dinner.

I know that the Grand Bohemian Hotel and Red Stag Grill want to be a part of the Asheville community. They want the locals to like them. The wanna fit in, and stand out at the same time as a really great part of the culinary scene here. I think they really could too! If they keep in mind that some of the locals look a little scruffy, or even weird, or even just average. We’s alll people, and we all want the level of service that anyone would receive if they were a special guest of the hotel.

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stu_helm_2013Stu 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 about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook 

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3 Comments

  1. Please stop.

  2. So here’s the takeaway. If you’re invited to Red Stag for a special event, everything will be effin fantastic. If you’re part of the riffraff (read normal folks)), the food is a mixed bag of good and bad, you may end up in a lousy section with a lousy server. At those prices? No thank you. This is the first write up of yours that I actually got something out of. Thanks.

  3. Sean Lally says:

    As always thanks for writing. Sounds like a great time. I need to get over there.
    (also, don’t say ‘trio’ ;^)

    Sean

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