Gather ’round the Rhubarb

The main reason to visit Rhubarb may not be the most obvious.

People will tell you about the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner, John Fleer. They'll mention his background, which includes a 14-year stint as head chef at Blackberry Farm, an exclusive resort in east Tennessee where one night’s stay could easily cost four figures

They might even paint him as a culinary rebel, eschewing the Southern tradition he supported for so long in favor of something a little more "naturalistic," as he calls it.

All those credentials are noteworthy, and maybe they're even interesting. But what's special about Rhubarb isn't especially unusual — most people have these in their own homes at one time or another.

Every weeknight, Rhubarb, following its projected Oct. 7 opening, will host what Fleer calls a family meal during the early hours of the evening. The three-course service is designed for families and socialites alike. The point, Fleer explains, is to make people uncomfortable — but in a good way.

"Discomfort's not a very good marketing word," Fleer says with a laugh. But then, he's not the marketing sort. He's palpably honest, bold but not showy, with a neighborly personality. He's easier to imagine as a soccer coach than a chef, and in fact, he has coached soccer, a sport his three sons play.

Transportive, he decides, is a better term for the family meal. It should feel like taking a trip without leaving town. "When you're exposed to the other — what is off of your own island — I think your mind broadens," he says. "It's about realizing that sitting at the table is not just a function to take in calories but that it has an amazing socializing impact on everybody involved," he says. "If you start with the children, then your impact is going to be greater."

Here's how the concept works in practice: Diners arrive early in the evening at about the same time. They're seated at three, eight-top tables, so two families of four might be grouped together, depending on attendance.

Food is served in three courses: snack, entree and dessert. ("I like the word snack — it will be on the regular menu as well,"Fleer says. "I love its informality.")

The menus are announced in advance, so picky eaters won’t have to confront any surprises. The fare will be vegetable-heavy, although familiar proteins will also make appearance. Expect accessible flavors with a little something extra, a culinary twist here and there.

Fleer says the whole meal will cost $13 to $15 per person and take 45 minutes to an hour. "It won't be a great investment of time,” he says. "I would be overcome with joy if two hours later, one of those tables was still sitting there. Maybe not the businessman in me, but the idealist in me would be really happy that we might have inspired something."

He imagines diners becoming fast friends. Then again, he anticipates some personality conflicts. Those difficulties are simply part of learning to live with others, he explains.

Of course, Rhubarb hosts more conventional dining as well. In the past, Fleer has been known for his Appalachian dishes, both at Blackberry Farm and Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, where he's been chef for the past several years.

Rhubarb, however, will depart somewhat from that tradition. "I've got to be clear that that's part of me," Fleer says. "I do love collard greens, and I do love sorghum, and I do love all of these things that I've cooked with for a long time. But I don't think it will feel prescribed Southern."

"I think my target right now — I'm not sure the right way to express this — is trying to create a restaurant where no one feels like they're excluded," he says. "That is not only an economic thing. It's actually probably more of an age thing. That's really the deal with the family meal."

The late-night crowd will find a gathering spot that, like the family meal, seeks to tailor the dining experience to the needs of a specific audience. "We're going to have fun with desserts," he says. "We're trying to take the same feel of the family meal and do something at night after regular service with some kind of a dessert gathering."

Pastry chef Ashley Capps, formerly of MG Road and an instructor at A-B Tech, will help him in that quarter. He's still working out the details of that plan, but he's thinking about a beer-and-donut service, which he jokingly calls Dunkel Doughnuts.

Rhubarb, 1 Pack Square, opens in mid-October. For more information, visit rhubarbasheville.com. To learn about the family meal or make a reservation, call 785-1503.

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