Flavor: Fine-dining amuse-bouches writ slightly larger
Ambiance: Coolly cosmopolitan
Where: 109 Broadway
Web site: www.scratchasheville.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Late night menu served after 10 p.m. Sunday brunch, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
It’s worth knowing that restaurateur Eric Backer briefly considered christening his new downtown eatery “Menlo Park,” in homage to the lab where Thomas Edison and his merry band of tinkerers worked. And it’s equally worth knowing that he nixed the name because he didn’t think diners would get the reference.
Every element of the restaurant that came to be called Scratch has been carefully thought out, rethought and rethought again. The shenanigans that prevailed at Menlo Park, where the resident crew of very male inventors kept a pet black bear and invited a brass band to parade through the factory’s halls, surely wouldn’t fly at the curiously prim Scratch.
For a restaurant that purports to celebrate creativity, Scratch is remarkably unzany: The background music hovers at exactly the right decibel level. The servers, clad in black, are briskly efficient. The keyhole-backed chairs and matching wooden tables are arranged in three neat rows. Told the restaurant seems meticulously planned, Backer beams: “That makes me very happy. That makes me very happy.”
The punctiliousness on which Backer prides himself—“If it were haphazard, it wouldn’t be about the diner’s experience,” he adds—lends the dining room a tightly controlled air that probably relaxes anxious diners faster than a fistful of Paxil. But it can also come across as overly rigid and slightly arrogant.
All this matters because Scratch is selling ambiance. While other restaurant owners are greeting the recession by piling on bigger portions, luring diners with promotions featuring more food for less money, Backer’s juked left.
The centerpiece of Scratch’s dinner menu is a series of dainty small plates made for sharing, featuring such culinary-school-approved preparations as crisped pork belly, duck confit and seared scallops dusted with fennel, priced between $6 and $12. Perhaps there are people who could satisfy themselves with two or three such dishes, but I was still hungry four plates in. Clearly a visit to Scratch is intended to be about something more than just filling one’s belly.
“I want people to have an opportunity to showcase their talents,” Backer tells me. “We have people here who are true artists—visionaries, I guess. I don’t mean to be uppity or snooty, but (executive chef) Matt (Lineback)‘s amazing. I do set some boundaries, but they’re free to create. My role is as a facilitator. What I really want to do is create an environment for them.”
Backer frowns, obviously unsure I’m correctly transcribing his words. “Is that clear enough? Does it make sense?”
Indeed it does. But it also makes for a fairly daunting proposition for the kitchen wizards on the receiving end of Backer’s directive.
“It’s hard to keep up when you’re changing everything on a constant basis,” admits general manager Justin Crawford, who curated the restaurant’s impressive wine and cocktail lists (and cleverly replaced the standard jarred maraschinos in Scratch’s signature Manhattan with house-brandied black cherries.)
“We’re passionate people,” Crawford says. “And we’re stress junkies to the utmost sense of the word.”
Of all the stressful moments associated with opening Scratch, Lineback, 27, was perhaps most shaken by Backer’s announcement of the new restaurant’s name.
“When he first mentioned it to me, I was almost intimidated,” confesses Lineback, who joined Backer’s crew five years ago, after finishing his culinary studies at A-B Tech. “What do we mean by ‘Scratch’? Are we going to be making everything from scratch?”
Much to Lineback’s relief, his nightmarish visions of turning cane into sugar and squeezing olives for oil were unfounded: For instance, “We make our own aioli, but we purchase mayonnaise,” Lineback explains. “We do make our own sauerkraut from scratch. It takes weeks to ferment. We make our own ketchup, but don’t necessarily use it at lunch.”
Lineback also makes the lightly gingered apple butter, which appeared alongside the most stunning dish I tasted at Scratch: a brawny, bone-in pork chop served with wintry braised red cabbage and grilled sweet potato fries. The dish is listed as an entrée, a category largely ignored by the many Scratch diners blinded by the variety of the small plate section. The pork was supremely flavorful, as only meat cooked on the bone can be. While the fries were a tad undercooked, the dish achieved a lovely coherence sadly missing from some of the wispier small plates.
“I was born and raised in North Carolina, so, obviously, one of my favorite things is pork,” Lineback says. “I’m definitely into Southern cooking.”
But Scratch isn’t a Southern restaurant. It doesn’t specialize in Italian or French or any other cuisine for which there’s a readily available textbook.
“It was kind of tough, because we had the creativity concept, but there wasn’t any concept of what we were,” Lineback sighs. “I can tell you, start-up was tough.”
Lineback began his mandated experimentation while still at 28806, Backer’s first local venture, which morphed from a counter-service deli to a serious chi-chi restaurant during its tenure in West Asheville. In preparation for 28806’s farewell dinner last year, Lineback started “playing around with agar agar. It’s different than gelatin, because you can heat it up.” He emerged with the dish now sold as a scallop and avocado “panna cotta.”
“We started out calling it a terrine,” says Lineback. “It’s creamy, it’s spicy, you can spread it on a crostini.”
Which is where Backer thinks it belongs: “It’s super rich,” he says. “It’s a full-on mousse.”
The jiggly mint-hued loaf—which, admittedly, is fabulously retro—is essentially a scallop pudding, crammed full of cilantro leaves and jalapeno slivers. Its odor can most charitably be described as “fish forward”: Think just-opened can of tuna. My server told me farewell dinner guests paused when the panna cotta appeared: “They were like, ‘Really? All this with a spoon?’ It’s intense.”
The panna cotta is probably the most inventive of the small plates, but perhaps not the most successful. I had better luck with the beet salad, a wonderfully simple presentation that nailed the essential nuttiness of the featured roasted beets and buttermilk blue cheese. A plate of perfectly seasoned broccolini, spritzed with pine nuts and garlic, was lovely. And the warm, beefy mushroom broth laden with fresh red onions that accompanied the duck-filled crispy fried wontons made for a terrific cold-weather treat.
The supporting players often outshone the featured ingredients on the small plates I sampled. I doted on the mess of lentils that hugged the salty seared salmon, and loved the sprightly bok choy that was served with the slightly fatty short ribs.
“One thing they taught me in culinary school is if you’re going to put it on the plate, it should be good,” Lineback explains. “In general, the whole idea of a garnish on the plate is kind of passé.”
Passé or not, garnishes are so not Scratch, where every visible element is apparently subject to relentless scrutiny: Is it good? Is it needed? Does it enhance the diner’s experience?
“Eric’s a very particular person,” Lineback says, stating what’s obvious to anyone who settles into one of the room’s chocolate-leather banquettes. “He’s very attentive to detail.”
Backer, who very much wishes he could do something about the glare from two bright streetlights on North Lexington Avenue, says: “I look at food like jazz. There’s a massive amount of structure, but there’s room to play. … You come in here, and there’s creativity, passion and love.”
Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.