After being open for less than two months, Lex 18 closed in early June only to re-emerge on June 14 flaunting some significant changes. Although the restaurant’s interior maintains the same rich, vintage Jazz Age décor, and the bar still highlights the upscale moonshine and classic cocktails touted at its first opening in March, a shift of ownership has resulted in an eatery with a completely reinvented culinary direction.
Lex 18′s original manifestation with its breakfast and lunch service and accessible, Southern comfort-food menu was a collaboration between Suwana’s Thai Orchid owner Suwana Cry and a local partnership called Jack & Masters. When Cry sold her share of the business to Jack & Masters on June 6, Edwin Bloodworth was brought on board as executive chef and a new venture began taking shape — a supper club serving four-course, prix-fixe meals that feature Bloodworth’s signature brand of Appalachian-inspired cuisine.
Co-owner Georgia Malki says the restaurant’s new tenor is in keeping with her own vision for the space and her desire to honor and highlight its rich history. The building has been owned by the O’Donnell family for generations and during the Prohibition years housed a real speakeasy, the Eureka Saloon.
Malki is also proud that the new menu highlights mountain food traditions. “We knew we wanted to introduce something that was very regional and authentic, yet innovative, and that was already [Bloodworth's] vision and experience. It’s what he grew up with,” she says.
Bloodworth, known for his recent work as chef de cuisine at the Gamekeeper in Boone and sous chef under John Shields at Town House in Chilhowie, Va., says he was looking for an opportunity in Asheville where he could run the kitchen, and his wife, Jeannie, could work front of house. He says he had reservations about the Lex 18 job being a good fit for him based on the restaurant’s previous focus on Southern food, but after several long interviews with the owners, they both saw a definite synchronicity.
“Both parties felt like my focus on Appalachian cuisine fit with the history of this space, and the whole moonshine theme obviously originated in Appalachia as well,” Bloodworth says. “And we both had that interest in the historical aspects of food and drink — I think that was the deciding factor on teaming up.”
“We met him three different times, for four- to five-hour interviews,” says Malki. “We talked about his vision and what inspired him, and after the third major inteview, I said ‘I would like to make you an offer.’” Malki says she is also delighted to have brought Jeannie Bloodworth on to manage front-of-house concerns.
For Edwin Bloodworth, “Appalachian cuisine” means foraging wild edibles to create dishes grounded in the traditions of the region that often come with some unexpected twists. A recent chef’s tasting at Lex 18 revealed courses with a familiar feel, such as a creamy mushroom soup and mountain trout with grits, accented with fresh-from-the-landscape items, including lemon balm leaves, daylily flowers, pea blossoms and wax myrtle. Following an amuse-bouche of house-made seaweed crackers, diners were even encouraged by the wait staff to eat what many had assumed was the garnish — a red-clover blossom.
Originally from Sparta, N.C., a small town about an hour north of Boone, Bloodworth has no formal training but has been working in kitchens since he took his first job the day he turned 14. He attributes the origins of his interest in Appalachian food traditions and foraged edibles to his time spent working under Shields at Town House. But he also acknowledges that his culinary leanings spring from a deeper place.
“It’s my roots. I used to forage for ginseng with my dad when I was young. … I used to chew on birch trees as a kid for the minty flavor, I used to eat wild sorrel as a kid because it was so tart — we used to call it rabbit food.When I think about it, I’ve been doing it for a long time. I just never thought about putting it on a plate until the last couple years when John Shilelds started to put it on plates, and then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I recognize that!’”
Diners at the chef’s tasting seemed intrigued by the addition of wildflowers and leaves to their meal, and many commented on the flavors of the plants and how they complemented the other ingredients. Some said it was the first time they had ever thought to eat some of the items, many of which are more commonly observed on the grounds of a local park than on a dinner plate. But this reaction, according to Bloodworth, speaks to an important responsibility of his profession.
“I feel like as a chef, it’s kind of [my] job to explore new flavors and new foods. The American public has fallen into this rut of what’s acceptable and what’s weird [when it comes to food]. … All this foraging stuff that people say is so cool and so new and so progressive and all that … it’s like, ‘Well, not really.’ Our grandparents and great-grandparents all survived on this stuff, and it’s kind of been forgotten about. I feel like as responsible humans we’re supposed to know these things. It’s supposed to be in our genetics to live off the land and be aware of what’s out there.”
Lex 18 is at 18 Lexington Ave. A four-course supper with finale is served 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. The moonshine bar is open 3 p.m.-late Tuesday-Sunday. Brunch is served 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Live jazz, blues and more happens starting at 9 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Lex18avl.com