The mighty plank of wood sailed through the air before docking atop my table. On it, two iron burners protected small fires in their depths. Armored red legs rested in a tangle in the middle and architecturally interesting shapes rose from the edges, forming a tantalizing city. The new pupu platter from Ben’s Tune Up had arrived.
The legs were chili crab; the iron pots, warmers to heat your food (because there ain’t no one making it through this food festival in a hurry); and the different shapes were a variety of finger foods. The whole assemblage is emblematic of the new menu at Ben’s Tune Up as conceived by new head chef Jake Whitman: fun Asian fare cooked to perfection and designed for sharing.
The bacon dumplings were appropriately chewy, with a sweet drizzle of ton katsu sauce (sort of a sweetened Worcestershire sauce) perfectly balancing the salty, spicy meat inside. Shredded barbecue pork shoulder was topped with house-pickled white kimchi and served on charred mini-pitas. The barbecue chicken egg-rolls sport flaky, moist wrappers surrounding super-juicy filling with hints of pineapple and five spice.
Most fun of all was what came before and after the meal. Firing things up at the beginning was the Love Boat for 2, a Hawaiian-style bowl filled with sake and fruit juice, with a shot of Bacardi 151 flaming from a perch in the middle. And afterward, the sorghum soy sauce ice cream made by The Hop especially for Ben’s was a salty, sweet and creamy soother after the fire and spice of the platter.
It would be hard to eat here, even in the darkest depths of winter, and not undergo serious mood improvement. To find out more about the new food-as-fun menu, we sat down with Whitman, along with general manager Amelia Lindsey and sous chef Brad Mess.
Mountain Xpress: So tell me a little bit about Jake and his arrival at Ben’s.
Amelia Lindsey: Jake has a lot of characteristics that are hard to find in the kitchen. He’s very calm, he’s very dedicated and does things the hard way. No cutting corners in the kitchen. He’s really passionate about Japanese food, and fish in particular, and enjoys the whole breadth of Asian cuisine. It’s nice to see that passion, especially at a young age.
Jake Whitman: I moved to Asheville when I was eight and went to culinary school at A-B Tech. After that, I started working at Zambra and was there for about 2 1/2 to three years. Then I did a job out in Lake Lure for about half a year, and then a buddy of mine got me a job at the Admiral, and that’s how I got hooked up with Jonathan [Robinson] and everyone over here.
How would you describe the menu?
Whitman: It’s trying to be playful with Asian cuisine, trying to be more American with it. I also use some French techniques, as I have a lot of experience with that. Asian food’s always been my passion, especially sushi. I guess my earliest memory of it is watching “Iron Chef Japan” with my grandmother every night.
Lindsey: We’re kind of like a beer garden/sake garden here, so we were looking to find the right fit with that food-wise. It’s fun, and there’s all sorts of food on there. We’re not trying to be an authentic Japanese restaurant. Obviously, none of us has spent 10 years watching the master while we took the trash out or anything like that. But everyone's very passionate about exploring this kind of food. We’re a fun Asheville fusion of all of these different inspirations together.
Where are you sourcing your ingredients from?
Whitman: We do a lot from Foods in Season; they bring in all the stuff from California, and they source it from all over the world. We order a lot of food from Honolulu Fish, all fish from the Pacific Ocean. And then we try to do everything else as local as possible. We ended up buying local shiso leaves, and we were getting local edamame in the spring.
Then we do lots of our sauces in house. We make our own ponzu, duck sauce and green sriracha using jalapeños. We’d make our own soy sauce in house too if we could, but it’s not really cost-effective to do that.
Brad Mess: One of the things we’re really proud of is the pickle program. These are kimchi daikons (pointing at the pupu platter), these are fermented beets, these are fermented pickles over here, and then our fermented white kimchi is on a lot of our dishes. It’s on our burger, our ramen and a couple of other things.
You have said your new menu appeals to groups, especially families. Is this a big shift from the old menu?
Whitman: Yes. In the beginning we did a lot of smaller plates, trying to be more like an izakaya (casual Japanese restaurant that serves drinks and small plates). And now we’re focusing more on larger dishes.
Mess: There is a shift. Less on smaller plates and tapas style, more into family-style meals. We have a steak for two now, for example. We even have a kids menu.
Lindsey: It’s been really, really fun to watch groups come in and share these platters together. They’re having fun — not just enjoying each other’s company, but having fun with the food.
You mentioned that you’re going to start making your own sake soon. When will that be ready?
Lindsey: We’re starting this week. Jonathan is back there right now prepping the tanks. It’s going to be made with American rice, so it will be Ben’s All American Sake. There’s just a few places right now that are doing that.
Even now, the cocktail list has a significant sake section.
Lindsey: That’s right. We’ve expanded our sake list and dropped the prices to encourage people to try lots of different sakes. A lot of the bottles are smaller than a whole bottle of wine, so it’s a nice way for you to taste some different sakes.
What’s been a big hit so far food-wise?
Whitman: We’ve been doing a barbecue platter because we get whole pigs in from Foothills. And when we save up enough trotters and ears and tails, we’ll turn that into a barbecue plate for the weekend. And that’s been a big hit. We do it in the style of the pupu platter. The Grand Palace (platter) has been a big one too. It says it serves four, but there’s a lot of food on there. I like to do it as a chef’s surprise for the table.