REVIEW: Vivian, Asheville, Serious French Food in The River Arts District


Vivian offers Asheville serious French food in The River Arts District



That’s it. That’s it right there. Vivian is as good as it fucking gets. I can’t say much more than that. I’ve been there a lot since they first opened their doors in early January 2018, and I’m telling you what… if you want to eat some seriously world class food, head on down to the River Arts District and go to Vivian right now. Go! Now! Go before it’s discovered by literally everyone else, and becomes impossible to get a seat at. I am not exaggerating when I say that I feel 100% sure that Vivian is going to be featured in every regional and national food blog and publication from Eater to Bon Appetit, and by then… yeah, no… Shmoes like you & me, we’re gonna be SOLAF.

Short story: Vivian is about to blow the fuck up.

I’m weird. I suffer from something I call “food panic.” It happens whenever I think that everyone else is going to get all the food and there won’t be any left for me. It’s true! It’s a real thing, and I actually felt a slight amount of food panic on my most recent walk to Vivian. My mind started racing, Has it already been discovered? Will it be crowded as fuck? Am I gonna have to cap an old lady just to get a fucking seat at the bar?!? I will do that!

Then panic turned into depression. I was certain it was already all over for me. That I would walk into Vivian, and be lost, a forgotten local nobody among the crush of elite foodies and big-city celebs. “Emeril? Cher? Andy Warhol, is that you? I thought you were deeeaaad, Bro! What? It’s me! Stu! Stu Helm? Food… fan… guy?” Next thing ya know I’m in the alley eating scraps off a trash can lid with Top Cat and the gang. But, nope, I walked in the door, all a’panic for nothing, as I was practically the only one there. “Stu!” said Shannon, “You’re back… again!” Yerp.

I Ferkin’ lerv Frernch Ferd.

Oyster Stew avec house-made butter crackers and a scallop querrellllsomething. – photo by Stu Helm

Shannon McGaughey is a co-owner of Vivian along with her husband Chef Josiah McGaughey. Josiah is trained as a French Chef, and it just so happens that classic French food is my absolute favorite category of cooking. I’ve mentioned several thousands of times in my writing and in my personal life that I like sauce, that I’m a sauce person, “sauce me,” I say. Well, hello? Gettafuckincluesville calling anybody who doesn’t know that classic French food is the sauce-lovers’ dream cuisine! Delicate sauces. Heavy sauces. Tangy sauces. Subtle sauces. Sauces that make you wonder if you’ve died and gone to some sort of saucy heaven. Do you see that big orange thing in the pictures above & below? That’s a fucking scallop “dumpling” swimming in fucking lobster sauce. Yeah. That’s right. I said: Lobster. Sauce. #fuckinglobstersauce Inject it into my face with a giant cartoon syringe, please.

Okay, I am not kidding, I really have been eating at Vivian a lot, and I’ve decided to eat my way through the current menu if I can. It’s bound to change soon, because Josiah is a seasonal Chef, and an adventurous soul, but the house has assured me that it will always have a French bent to it! Yay! French Bent! French Bent! French Bent!

Let’s dive into the deliciousness…

Photo Disclaimer: Some of my pictures are shitty & grainy and some of them are nice & clear. Sorry! It was all about which table I was at on my various visits, and how much light was hitting those tables. Every single atomic particle of edible material visible in all of these pictures was exquisite.

Piping hot. Insanely rich. Unbelievably delicious. – photo by Stu Helm

Let’s start with the most insane dish of them all, which I’ve already referred to, and can be seen both above and below.  On the menu it’s called “Scallop Quenelle, classic Lyonnaise style creamed seafood dumpling,” but, to call this thing by the English word, “dumpling,” is like pointing at a cloud and calling it play-doh.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like English dumplings as much as the next pasty, snaggletoothed person of British descent, but this thing — this quenelle —  was a light, fluffy, dreamy, intense, French delight, nothing at all like the dense ball of dough we might think of when we imagine English dumplings.

Typically made with creamed seafood, bread crumbs, and a light egg binder, a traditional “quenelle” is to a dumpling what a peacock is to a pigeon.

When I cut into it, this quenelle broke apart easily, and mixed into that lobster sauce to become the richest, creamiest, sea-foodiest plate of awesomeness ever. I closed my eyes and died a little bit with each bite. The fresh sprig of unknown green thingy-dingy wilting on top was the coup d’grace. I wish I knew what it was. It had a slight fennel-y or celery-y taste to it. I dunno, I suck at trying to figure shit out, but this whole dish was deep in flavor, had a very nice texture, and showed up to my table piping hot. Take my word for it, this is a star dish. PS – Everything I know about quenelles I learned on Wikipedia, like, two minutes ago.

One last picture of the scallop quenelle with lobster sauce. Yes, those are chunks of lobster in the sauce. – photo by Stu Helm

So, if the scallop quenelle is a star performer, this next dish is the mad diva super star dish-delish of them all. On the menu it is simply called a “Souffle Omelette,” with crab newburg & herbs. Omelettes & souffles don’t excite me, mostly because I’ve spent a life-time eating the heavy-handed Anglo-Americanized version of both of those things. This 100% French style omelette souffle from Vivian fucking excites me, and is a break-away dish, in my opinion, leaping out to the very head of the culinary scene in Asheville as a “top bite” and a “must eat” menu item, city-wide. In fact, it was after eating this dish on my very first visit to Vivian that I knew this restaurant was going to be something different, something special. Several visits later, I can confirm that my first instinct was correct. The omelette (pictured below) was as light as a kite, and as fluffy as a little kitten… covered in crab newburg. The flavor of the omelette was subtle, and served as the perfect balance with the rich, creamy, decadent crab newburg on top. The micro greens, and edible flowers added a well-placed touch of color, as well as bit of freshness, a very slight textural contrast, and their own small but powerful bursts of flavor.

It looks slightly like it was drawn by a child, but holy fucknuts, this thing was insanely good. – photo by Stu Helm

So, those are two super-star dishes so far, and now here’s one more that was not just a metaphorical star, but an actual star! As in: It was shaped like a star. Well, not at first, but when I cut into it, BOOM, it broke apart, and collapsed into a star-shape! Fucking aye! It was a total surprise, that I was very amused by, and then of course, I ate every bit of it, and I wanted to lick the fucking plate.

Let’s Skip Ahead to Dessert

This thing is called an Apple Charlotte, and it is unreal. – photo by Stu Helm

I’ve eaten three desserts at Vivian so far, and the first one didn’t do much for me… Truth: I didn’t like it. That one was called something like “Rice and Spice,” and you can skip it in my opinion. Instead, go straight for this fucking thing, which is called an “Apple Charlotte.” The description on the menu is deceptively minimal: “pastry cream, apple purée, Rhu bakery pullman loaf.” There is so much going on here that those mere words can’t convey.  Including this…

I decided to attack this thing from the top with my fork, and when I pressed down on the hard, caramelized sugar “cap,” the whole thing went FLOOF, and flattened into a sun-burst, or whatever on my plate. I was like, “Whoa,” and at first, for a second, “Oh fuck, I broke it!” But, then, “Ohhhh, wait, I get it. Cool.” And finally I ate every fucking scrap of it all by myself. It’s definitely a dessert you could split with a loved one, but when it comes to something this good, I have no love for anyone. The pieces of bread from The Rhu were so insanely crispy, they were at least an 11 on the crisp-o-meter. (someone really needs to make a meter that goes up to 12.) The apple puree was neither too tart nor too sweet, and the pastry cream was, like, out of this fucking world. I wasn’t sure WTF it was, at first, and had to ask my server. I kinda still have no fucking idea what “pastry cream” is, but it’s my favorite thing on Earth now.

This dessert is an early contender for “Dessert of the Year 2018.”

I’ve been tagging all of my Vivian Instagram posts with #bestofasheville2018 because these guys are also early contenders for Best New Restaurant, Best Restaurant, Favorite Restaurant, Restaurant of the Year, and why not Meal of the Year too? No, I’m not just Stoobie-Happy after writing them for five weeks, I am genuinely honestly, that impressed with everything I’ve eaten at Vivian so far, and I plan on going back very often, until they run out of room for me, and I’m left standing outside with my face pressed up against the window while Andy and Cher stuff their faces with exquisitely made, traditional French food and I chew on an old tire that I fished out of the river. C’est la vie, Cats!

Here are more pictures with basic menu descriptions. Again, everything pictured was insanely good, and I not one tiny ort was left behind. Go to Vivian soon, reservations are recommended.

Oysters Rosé – 4 raw sweet jesus oysters (MD) topped with caviar, served with black peeper, shallot & sparkling Rosé

Smoked Pork Tenderloin – Thinly sliced, pickled vegetables, sumac aioli

Langostine w/ house-cured city ham, perigord truffles, dry vermouth & Farm and Sparrow bakery grits.

Close-up: Langostine w/ house-cured city ham, perigord truffles, dry vermouth & Farm and Sparrow bakery grits.

Oyster Stew – east coast oysters & their liquor, cream, house-made butter cracker

Close-up: Oyster Stew – east coast oysters & their liquor, cream

Saucisson au Vin – housemade smoked pork sausage, onions braised in white wine, fingerling potatoes

Close-up: Saucisson au Vin – housemade smoked pork sausage, onions braised in white wine, fingerling potatoes

Clementine Cake – chocolate ganache, candied orange peel, whipped cream

Apple Charlotte – pastry cream, apple purée, rhu bakery pullman loaf

— END —

From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O'SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM

From left: Chef Jacob Sessoms of Table; Chef William Dissen, The Market Place; Chef Steven Goff, Standard Foods; Chef Katie Button, Curate; Chef Joe Scully, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen; Stu Helm; Chef John Fleer, Rhubarb; Chef Karen Donatelli, Donatelli Bakery; Chef Peter Pollay, Posana Cafe; and Chef Matt Dawes, Bull & Beggar./ Photo by STEWART O’SHIELDS for ASHVEGAS.COM

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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1 Comment

  1. Ginger February 2, 2018

    I really dislike French food, and I don’t plan to go to Vivian, but I really enjoyed this post 🙂


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