It’s pretty easy to get trapped in the bubble of Asheville, which boasts enough bars, restaurants, galleries and assorted other offerings to entertain a city twice its size. And it’s easy to forget about some of the smaller cities and towns around Asheville that have a lot to offer as well. Less than an hour’s drive south, and just down the road from DuPont State Forest, Brevard is a popular stomping ground for hikers, campers and kayakers. But there’s also plenty to occupy the casual daytripper.
The quaint downtown is picturesque. Historic stone buildings and brick sidewalks line the streets, and even the alleyways are packed with shops, restaurants and pubs. On a cool Tuesday evening, the sidewalks are sparsely dotted with a mix of tourists and locals, rushing off to dinner or drinks, or merely heading home.
My guides, Sarah Baker and Karen Pucino, exemplify Brevard’s changing face. Sarah, a Colorado transplant, is a paralegal who went to college here and wound up sticking when her husband, Aaron Baker, landed a job as the marketing manager at Oskar Blues. Karen, originally from Maryland, has a similar story: She came to town when her spouse, David Morris, was hired as the brewery’s laboratory manager.
We begin our tour at Oskar Blues. In 2012, the Colorado-based brewery added an Eastern branch, which now supplies beer to 22 states and employs over 40 people. An expansion is in the works, and over a newly released pint of white stout in the tasting room, Aaron explains that the Brevard location will soon service half the United States. Meanwhile, the brewery itself draws a steady stream of visitors — a significant boost to tourism in a little town like Brevard, the population of which slides in just under 8,000.
Back downtown, there’s a jazz trio playing at Jaime’s Creole Brasserie. The dulcet saxophone reverberates through the dining room, and on the table there’s a nice spread of bone marrow topped with raspberries drizzled with a bourbon bordelaise. Although Brevard College accounts for nearly 10 percent of the town’s population, notes Sarah, this isn’t really a college town, due to the tourist traffic and other part-time residents. Just then, a distractingly sexy cassoulet of rabbit, Southern beans and Benton’s bacon with ginger chowchow arrives — so distracting, in fact, that it almost overshadows the turtle soup. Not to mention the better-than-expected cocktail list: The Ole Slack Sazerac (Bulleit Rye, Herbsaint and hibiscus bitters) is definitely worth a sip or three.
New Orleans transplant Jaime Hernandez opened Jaime’s in October 2014. Packing up his crew at Pork & Pie in Marshall, Hernandez moved from one small dot on a map to another. But where Pork & Pie had barely a dozen tables, the sprawling Jaime’s, with private dining rooms and a patio, seats over 150. Leaning heavily on Creole classics, the menu seems to detour to include Neapolitan pizza, but when you have a wood-fired oven, why wouldn’t you? Also notable is the cochon de lait, a whole roasted, boneless pig that serves 12 and must be ordered two weeks in advance.
By the book
Around the corner and down the alley sits Downtown Chocolates. When George Williams and his partners were planning the shop, Williams had no idea how to make chocolate. So when his partners pulled out at the last minute because “it wasn’t God’s plan for their lives,” Williams explains, he had to learn fast. You’d never know it, though, from the varied spread of intricately crafted treats on offer: truffles, caramels and ganache galore. “No one taught him how to do this: He learned it all from books,” Sarah says.
Across the alley at The Square Root, chef Adam Wilson has prepared a menu sampler for us. Wilson’s background (he’s a graduate of the Art Institute of Atlanta and a former Ritz-Carlton chef in Atlanta and Palm Beach, Fla.) is readily apparent in both presentation and flavors.
Southern staples are deconstructed and draped across the plate: hushpuppies with pimento cheese; tomato-basil bisque with onion jam; a solitary scallop perched atop a butternut squash-and-bacon risotto with sage brown butter sauce, crispy corn and leeks; chipotle barbecued osso bucco served with apple-and-cabbage slaw and Parmesan-and-Gouda grits. For dessert, there’s Irish coffee creme brulee with cinnamon whipped cream, a flourless chocolate torte and powdered Nutella with wild berry sorbet, each one drawn across the plate like a piece of modern art. Good, thick, rich flavors.
“This isn’t even giving you the breadth of what he does,” says Sarah. “He does a really awesome curry as well.” The international menu, I’m told, is a nod to Wilson’s wife and business partner, a well-traveled South African expat and accomplished cook.
Our last stop is the Jordan Street Café. A longtime favorite of staffers at the area’s many summer camps, the café seems to have taken on the role of neighborhood pub. When we arrive around 9, the place is already full.
Behind the bar is bearded legend Will Chamberlain, known simply as Oatmeal. There’s no cocktail menu: Instead, Oatmeal recites the roster of libations he’s prepared for the night, which seems to change as ingredients run out, forcing him to cook up something new. I try a variation on a tequila sunrise that uses Anderson Valley’s Blood Orange Gose. Karen’s drink involves flaming marshmallows, and the New Year’s menu includes pudding shots and sorbet Champagne floats. Clearly, this is Oatmeal’s world, and we’re all just tourists in it.
And as the lights begin to blur and the voices in the crowded bar wash over us like waves on a hazy shore, I think about how much I’m still missing. Bracken Mountain Bakery is known for its pastries, and the venerable Cardinal Drive-In is famous for hosting hot rod shows. But those are for another day, and happily, Brevard is just a stone’s throw away.