Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Asheville's pretty awesome.

It feels like years since I was in North Carolina. I got swept away in a jungly utopia in southern Georgia for more than a week, more or less ignoring technology but meeting wonderful people and learning a lot about food and sustainability. (Much more on that later!) Since Asheville I’ve stopped in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Savannah, and Brunswick. Now I’m in the sunshine state, eating fresh oranges with sand in my hair. But for now, I’ll jump back in time to Asheville…

What a lovely town Asheville is, all elegant turn-of-the-century architecture and mom-and-pop joints, the Blue Ridge majestic in the distance. Asheville felt familiar, with an outdoorsy-crunchy vibe that instantly brought Burlington to mind. The city seemed to outdo even Burlington in the localvore department; the newspaper was crammed with ads for restaurants specializing in locally-sourced veggies and mountain trout. I suffered through a brutal stomach bug my first day there but ate as well as I could when I felt better. My first meal was pan-fried mountain trout and grits at the Early Girl Eatery, a sunny, cozy spot with homey, eclectic décor, bad art by local artists and chalkboard specials—eerily reminiscent of my beloved Penny Cluse in Burlington. Then, lo and behold! Biscuits with herb cream gravy, just like at the Cluse. The trout was tender and pink, mild enough for my delicate stomach to take. I asked where the eggs came from and the server didn’t know. “I know they’re organic and all that good stuff,” she said. The restaurant manager in me suppressed mild irritation with her nonchalance; the Vermont in me suppressed mild disgust at the Sysco butter. Then the generous populist in me wagged its finger at the pompous ass in me. I was still a little bit grumpy and sick. The place was cute, though, and I’m sure I’d be a regular if I stayed in Asheville longer.

That afternoon I drove to the Biltmore Estate on the edge of town. The largest private home in the United States, the Biltmore was of particular interest to me because of its Shelburne Farms connection—both are former Vanderbilt mansions landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead. Both estates were initially conceived as self-sufficient and both continue to grow vegetables and raise livestock for their restaurants. I took the audio tour, and the house really was impressive. It’s four acres inside! At Shelburne Farms it was always a joke that the mansion was the family’s summer cottage, but the Biltmore made Shelburne look quaint. I drove to the winery, formerly a dairy that provided milk to hundreds of families in the Asheville area. I tasted six wines. More than ninety acres of vitis vinifera are planted on the estate’s west side, but only two of the wines were estate-grown. The 2006 Chardonnay was overpoweringly oaky, with apple and apricot flavors and a bitter finish. In the “premium” room, I tried a North Carolina Blanc de Blancs. With nice, soft bubbles but no toastiness, the sparkler really wasn’t bad. I made my way over to the bistro for lunch. Four miles from the beautiful house, the restaurant looks like an Olive Garden inside, with leatherette banquettes and fake wrought-iron chairs. When I asked the waiter, a smirking flirt with a goatee, what entrees were sourced from the property, he recommended a lamb special. The plate looked a little dated, with slices of lamb sitting atop a bowl of oily orzo dotted with pearl onions, sautéed spinach and cubed turnip and red pepper. The sliced lamb was good, a satisfying mid-winter lunch, but the Biltmore is definitely a tourist trap and not a dining destination—anyone from anywhere in America would feel right at home there, and the menu isn’t pushing any culinary boundaries. After lunch I poked around the garden a bit. Greens were just getting started in the hoophouse. I thought they would be producing hearty winter greens all year in the Carolinas, but then again, I really know nothing about growing vegetables down here.

Vegetarian folks I met at punk rock karaoke the night before recommended Rosetta’s Kitchen for local eats. By dinnertime I could think of nothing more appealing than a simple vegan meal. Ascending the stairs to Rosetta’s, I was greeted by the familiar smell of hot nutritional yeast. The same Farm Sanctuary pamphlets that I handed out in my vegan days were stacked at the top of the stairs. My favorite Johnny Thunders record from high school was playing on the stereo, and the clientele mostly looked like versions of my younger self. The menu was just the kind of stuff I wanted to serve when I dreamed of a vegan restaurant years ago—fake ribs, vegan mac and cheese, and other processed versions of traditional foods, with some healthier curries and salads. I ordered the (local) kale and cornbread bowl with veggie gravy. The huge hunk of cornbread was tasty, with some nice grit to it, but the kale was cooked down to a muddy brown, the gravy a thinned-out nutritional yeast and miso dealie that gave the dish a homogenous, lingering saltiness that didn’t allow me to finish it. I always want places like this to succeed, and in college towns like Asheville they often can. This kind of processed vegan stuff just isn’t for me anymore—give me Angelica Kitchen any day.

I hoped to hit up the farmer’s market on the way out of town, but found that it shuts down in winter. What a bummer—even Burlington has an indoor farmer’s market now. So I hit the road, on my way to Myrtle Beach. Tomorrow I’ll write about Myrtle Beach and Charleston. I hope to get caught up before I meet up with Cristin in Miami.

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