Flavor: Californian/Mexican
Ambiance: Classy yet comfortable
Service: Professional and personable

On a recent dreary weeknight, I stepped into the inviting, cozy atmosphere of Limones, a new restaurant on Eagle Street — and was immediately enveloped by the warmth of the space. The old cherry floors and lacquered wood tables were bathed in light just strong enough to read the menu by. The feeling was one of modest, unassuming elegance, foreshadowing the meal to come.

I’d already heard quite a bit of buzz about Limones, downtown Asheville’s new hot spot for Californian/Mexican cuisine. The word was that chef and owner Hugo Ramirez, a native of Mexico, graces his ever-evolving menu with local, organic vegetables, hormone-free meats and wild seafood, to excellent effect.

Joining me on this mission to see if Limones is indeed buzzworthy was my date, hereafter known as my “Picky Companion,” for his tendency to make insightful yet impossibly persnickety observations.

Since it was our job to conduct a thorough review, we decided we could hardly serve the public’s interest without sampling some of the innovative cocktails on the drink menu. The Jalapeno Martini piqued my interest, but I settled on the Blood Orange Margarita, a concoction of Herradura Silver, Gran Marnier and blood-orange and lime juices. The drink proved tangy and tart, and it evidenced no dearth of tequila. Not usually a fan of mixed drinks, I was surprised by how much I loved this one. Picky Companion ordered the Jamaica Flower Margarita and immediately declared that it tasted “like hibiscus Kool-Aid” — but I noticed he had no trouble finishing it.

For appetizers, we selected the scallop ceviche and the trio of corn sopes. As we waited, we munched on bread that Picky Companion judged “not sexy” for its lack of texture, though the blood-orange-flavored oil that accompanied it had plenty of character.

As requested, the ceviche arrived first. Nestled in a large martini glass and crowned with fresh avocado, the appetizer looked and tasted fresh, with a nice texture and pleasant olive-oil flavor. But it had no bite: Its acidity was underwhelming, and the dish was completely devoid of heat. When Picky Companion proclaimed it “good, but unremarkable,” I had to agree.

As we waited for our second appetizer, we perused the wine list, which was not lengthy but offered a few gems, such as the Caymus Conundrum, one of my favorite whites. The prices were reasonable, but we decided that the cocktail menu still deserved some, uh, research. I ordered the Pomegranate Margarita, and my date opted for a classic, unadorned margarita. Both drinks were fabulous.

The trio of corn sopes arrived topped with house-made chorizo and three different sauces. The little handmade tortillas had nice body, with a slight crunch and soft interior, and all of the accompaniments were fresh and intriguing.

All of the entrees on the menu looked thoughtfully planned, but none of them initially excited us. Our well-informed waiter assured us that it would be nearly impossible to make a mistake, since everything was good. We settled on the lamb taquitos and the more interesting of the two vegetarian options, the mole poblano enchiladas with butternut, fennel and eggplant caviar.

I was wary of the vegetarian mole, since I consider meat stock an integral part of this classic and complex sauce. But Limones’ recipe turned out to be delicious, its spiciness a perfect foil for the sweetness of the butternut squash and the crisp freshness of the pico de gallo and crema fresca. Unfortunately, however, the mole was slightly overpowering, causing the flavors of the eggplant and fennel to get lost in the mix.


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