It is a crystal-clear day when I take my seat in the dining room at Grove Park Inn’s new Vue 1913, a more casual take on farm-to-table dining than the venue’s previous installment, Horizons. I’ve come here for a chef’s tasting, and the fact that the inn even has a chef’s tasting is a good sign that, despite having a burger on the menu, there might be a little more fine dining going on here than meets the eye.
“It’s a lighter menu for summer and springtime,” says the chef, James Lumley, of his new tasting menu, “I tried to get vegetables on there that would start to get everyone out of that winter funk.”
The amuse bouche is served, and it is the chef’s fun riff on the Southern classic shrimp and grits. This interpretation, however, sets a crispy grit cake in a splash of red pepper-thyme oil and tops it with a chilled shrimp-and-crab salad and fresh, local flowers — a single bite that is astoundingly clean.
Lumley, his wife and their 3-year-old relocated to Asheville last summer from Naples, Fla., where he had worked for years as chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and other resorts. Just months after being hired as Horizons’ chef, Omni changed the restaurant to Vue 1913, and the differences are significant. Gone are the formal white tablecloths and austere music, now replaced with beautiful hardwood tables and questionably cheesy adult contemporary Muzak. The menu has prices on it now, and is surely less intimidating than the opulent fine dining entrees of Horizons.
Lumley explains that after the transition to Vue, “Once you took the white tablecloths away, automatically people felt a little more comfortable just to walk in.”
The first course arrives: spring squash bisque with local smoked trout, creme fraiche and local trout roe. It is creamy, rich and bursting with flavor.
“The restaurant is a lot more casual than Horizons was,” Lumley says, “but I think we can give some diners that want to really dine a little bit more of that [fine dining] experience.”
The second course arrives just as we are pulling our noses out of our wine glasses, which have been filled with an astoundingly good Slovenian Pullus pinot grigio rosé. Our sommelier, Ralph Lonow, has paired it with the chef’s salad of compressed melon and house-made charcuterie, set on a bed of Jolley Farms petite greens and drizzled with a lavender-scented vinaigrette.
The flavors are as crisp and bright as the sun that illuminates our tranquil and incredible view of the city, giving the evening a leisurely, almost lazy feeling — a perfect chance to get comfortable for the remaining four courses.
Lumley seems enlivened, as though the relocation from Florida has sparked a flame of inspiration. “Where I come from, we didn’t have this culture. I started cooking in Florida, and I had a lot of master chefs I worked under, but there was no connection for me to the products and where they were originally from. But when I come here and I taste the beers that are made right here on the corner or I try local cheeses made around here … that’s my goal, to get the guest excited about the food they’re eating and show them that it’s coming from right around here.”
The plates are cleared, and we are presented with our third course, North Carolina amberjack served with a colorful succotash and Benton’s bacon lardons swimming in a pressed red pepper jus that is sparkling with Sambuca.
“Being with Omni, I’ve now been with two big corporations,” Lumley continues. “With my restaurant now, there’s a lot less oversight, and I’m really able to do things the way I want. … So it’s like having my own restaurant within a bigger company. … I have a lot more freedom now.”
By the time the intermezzo of thyme and lemon sorbet arrives, we’re still not stuffed, which is a great sign in a chef’s tasting, where one is often gorged to the point of explosion, like some twisted human foie gras experiment.
The main course is what may be the most tender and perfectly prepared roasted duck I’ve had in this town all year served atop the fantastic Anson Mills blue corn grits with a baby vegetable ragout and a black currant demi-glace.
“When you eat in Italy, they’ll tell you, everything is from ‘right here,’ and their food is bad-ass, and that’s because it is so fresh,” says Lumley. “That’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s really about us being able to get a little more creative, to tie in locally and create that feeling of what Asheville really is. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that yet. I’m still working at it, but we’ll get there.””
And finally, we are served dessert, all rich with chocolate ganache on a crispy, coated brownie with local blueberries — a decadent ending to a perfectly made meal.
“When I came to the Grove Park Inn, I just thought, ‘Wow, there is so much history here.’ I feel like I’m part of something that is way bigger than anything I’ve done before because of that history,” Lumley says.
I highly recommend Lumley’s tasting menu, and one would be remiss to ignore the amazing wine pairings arranged by one of the restaurant’s three sommeliers. However, if you prefer to be a stick-in-the-mud, there is a standard appetizer and entree menu as well that is sure to please everyone.
Vue 1913 is in the Sammons Wing of the Omni Grove Park Inn and is open 5-10 p.m. daily.