City lights and global cuisine: Nightbell’s playful and evolving menu

CREATIVE COHORTS: Partners both in business and life, Felix Meana and Katie Button use their backgrounds in world-class cuisine and hospitality to craft a dining experience at Nightbell that is unique in Western North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Heirloom Hospitality Group

Let’s make something very clear: Nightbell is not Cúrate. And that uniqueness has been both a blessing and a curse for the restaurant in its first two years in operation.

On one hand, there are endless opportunities at Nightbell (which focuses on reinventing standard American dishes and bar classics) for wild creativity and experimentation. The restaurant provides an open canvas for chef Katie Button to utilize the fun molecular gastronomy magic tricks she learned from world-renown chef Ferran Adrià during her time at El Bulli in Spain — something that isn’t really an option within the confines of Cúrate’s rustic tapas concept.

On the other hand, Nightbell is not Cúrate. And damn the man who tries something new when people love what he (or she) is already doing.

When Nightbell opened, it was to mixed reviews locally, but that had nothing to do with the food. Button and her husband and business partner, Felix Meana, have close ties to culinary icon and former El Bulli sous chef José Andrés. Meana, who helped manage the front-of-house at El Bulli, helped Andrés open his now-famous The Bazaar in both Hollywood and South Beach, Calif., as well as Barmini in Washington DC, and he brought the same over-the-top posh, urban look of those iconic places to Nightbell.

So imagine an Ashevillean who has grown accustomed to Cúrate’s laid-back, rustic look walking up dimly lit, carpeted stairs to a mostly teal, green and blue room speckled with all the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles. Instead of Cúrate’s blue jeans-clad servers and familiar decor of warm, fall colors and natural woods with hipster indie rock churning away in the background, Nightbell sports high-backed crystal chairs; abstract, technicolored chandeliers that look like props from the Capitol in The Hunger Games and a disc jockey delivering dance beats to blinking club lights.

It was not what anyone was expecting, and unless you’d been to The Bazaar — which is even more garish and posh, with neon lights in the tables and video portraits of Victorian-era men that slowly morph into chimpanzees in suits and ties — it might have been hard to process the contrast between the two restaurants.

“We wanted Nightbell to be a modern speakeasy, a new kind of club,” Meana explains. “But that was too much for some people.” Now he and Button have shifted the venue’s theme to more closely resemble a sit-down restaurant. They’ve moved out the lavish Hollywood couches and glass coffee table and replaced them with elegant tables and chairs. It is still has a very modern, urban look, but it’s one that perhaps fits in a bit better in a growing city in the Appalachian mountains, rather than in a bustling metropolis.

The dance beats continue as do the late-night parties, but now they are being arranged by Ephraim Dean of local progressive house music DJ troupe In Plain Sight.

Something that has never been misjudged at Nightbell is the food. To look at the menu is to see standard American cuisine — deviled eggs, grilled cheese, chowder — reinvented in ways that are unexpected. Think of a creamy, devilishly good soup of corn sabayon, Sunburst Trout Farms trout gravlax and spices whipped to perfection settled in the hollowed-out shell of an egg and topped with crab roe. Or crispy, paper-thin bread wrapped around luxuriously gooey Gruyere and Comté cheesed and truffle butter. Or a single spoon that holds a warm and inviting bite of rich chowder mousse topped with crispy lardons and charred corn.

“At Cúrate, Katie cooks Spanish food,” Meana explains. “But here, she cooks her own food.”

My date for a recent dinner at Nightbell is a lifelong pescaterian and ate veal for the first time in her life at our meal. But Button’s 48-hour braised veal cheek with red wine marrow sauce and smoked truffle potato purée is enough to convert even the most ardent veg-head. My date even went back for seconds.

“The nice thing about cooking American food is that you can make anything from anywhere in the world,” says Meana. “America is such a melting pot.”

Shakshuka is traditionally a Northern African dish prepared just across the water from Spain. Button’s interpretation features harissa-spiced bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms topped with a 63-degree egg. Break the egg and let the yolk run like a sauce over the ratatouille-like dish, then scoop it onto the accompanying farm and sparrow bread. It’s simply otherworldly.

Longtime Cúrate chef Chad Holmes was recently named chef de cuisine at Nightbell. “Chad has really surprised me with this menu change,” says Button. “There are quite a few dishes that he’s come up with that I’m just in love with.

“It’s always a back and forth,” she continues, explaining how most of the dishes are developed within her kitchen. “He came to me and said, ‘I want to do a grilled maitake mushroom dish.’ And I said, ‘Great, we do need to use the grill more, but what if we glaze it in a fish sauce?’ And then the next thing you know, he’s come up with this amazing mushroom dish glazed in fish sauce and honey and mushroom stock finished with garlic and a mushroom purée.”

When that dish arrives at the table, there is a notable flavor of orange zest and togarashi. The garlic cream sauce is prominent, but not enough to overwhelm the umami of the fish sauce and the sweetness of the honey — it’s a sweet, savory and sour kind of thing.

When Button staged at El Bulli, considered by most every authority in food to be the finest restaurant in the world for more than 40 years, she did so as a pastry chef. So needless to say, one would be remiss to pass on dessert at her establishments.

“I could not live without Carmen Vaquera, our pastry chef,” says Button. “She’s extremely talented and classically trained, but she is also trained in art and has this great creative eye. I had worked pastry at El Bulli and got to introduce her to some of the techniques that I learned there, and she has just run with it and created the desserts at Nightbell.”

With the Nightbell menu, you have to throw any idea of how the listed ingredient should be served out the window. The goal here is to experience things you’ve grown accustomed to in a new way — familiar flavors in a uniquely original presentation. our final course is served, it is delivered in a cigar box. Inside, are two sets of three desserts: bite- (or two) sized servings of liquid blueberry cobbler that burst in your mouth, a key lime pie ice cream cup and a riff on s’mores with smoked marshmallow and a crispy shell.

We also tried something that was listed on the menu as a root beer float. But what came to the table was served on a plate. A large shell of what appeared to be ice cream but cracked upon contact, sat perched atop a soft tart with cherry and house-made root beer syrup drizzled with bourbon. The shell was actually a vanilla-bourbon ice cream hardened with nitrogen to alter the texture. It was both cool and crispy and was as fascinating as it was tasty.

While Cúrate is clearly an Asheville translation of Button’s experiences with Spain’s local fare, Nightbell is a direct and distinctly American response to what she saw and learned at El Bulli. As a result, it is a unique experience for those used to what she serves at Cúrate. That is not a bad thing at all.

In order to have most of the foods prepared in a lot of her dishes at Nightbell one would have to travel to major cities like Washington DC, Los Angeles, Barcelona or Madrid. But Button brings an explicitly regional flavor to Nightbell’s defiantly international interpretations of American cuisine. Techniques picked up at Noma in Copenhagen or El Bulli in Spain, are now beautifully and lavishly displayed in our small mountain city. I don’t recommend passing it by.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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