Flavor: High-end bistro
Ambiance: Looks like the “after” on a kitchen makeover show
The thoroughly appealing notion behind StoveTrotters, the chi-chi bistro that opened last September at the location of the former Polar Bar on the outskirts of Biltmore Village, is that its meals are meant to satisfy the palate and stimulate the mind.
While the restaurant serves lunch and dinner five days a week, chef/owner Jenny Kommit routinely commandeers the kitchen bar for cooking classes, wine dinners and her popular “Dinner and a Chef” programs, featuring expert commentary on every dish that crosses the counter. Even when the space hasn’t been annexed for an organized event, Kommit isn’t shy about circling the dining room to chat with customers about where she buys her fish and how her head chef is saucing his chicken. The kitchen-in-the-round arrangement echoes this insistent emphasis on learning by the forkful, subtly urging diners to improve their knife skills by leaning in to observe the chef’s proper grip.
Still, there are times when the restaurant comes across as more of a student than as a master of cuisine. Some of StoveTrotters’ shortfalls mimic bad scholastic habits, from failing to heed deadlines to leaning too heavily on cutesy presentations.
I’m thinking here of the mite-too-mushy shrimp cakes, thickly slathered with a faint aioli, which were plated by threes and served as slider “trios,” even though all the little sandwiches were singing the same tune. And the chocolate fondue that defined rococo excess: The much-heralded dessert was served in an O-scale three-car glass train that looked like it should have held a winder to play “Chatanooga Choo-Choo” rather than mangoes, pineapple and blocks of sweet pound cake.
The kitchen’s more serious stabs at presentation, elaborate plates with herbs and vegetable shavings poked and curled into submission, sometimes come off as the stuff of culinary academia and upscale-hotel banquets: Many of the dishes look fit to photograph alongside a sea-horse ice sculpture. Such belabored presentations don’t compensate for when the kitchen gets overwhelmed, though—weekday dinners I attended spilled over the two-hour mark.
Still, like most eager students, it’s clear that StoveTrotters has the very best intentions. The spanking-new interior is gorgeous, painted in neutral colors and bathed in supremely flattering light. The centerpiece of the tastefully minimalist room is the expansive open kitchen, surrounded by an L-shaped marble counter furnished with cocoa-colored leather high-backed stools.
(That said, the back-of-the-house staff at StoveTrotters hasn’t yet embraced the inherent dramatic qualities of the setting. None of the frills and decorative thrills that characterize the kitchen’s plates are apparent in the line cooks’ performances, for those who are looking for Emeril Lagasse-style flourishes.)
To the restaurant’s credit, the servers seem quite attuned to creating a positive dining experience, even when there are kinks. On one occasion, when my five-onion soup showed up insufficiently warm, our server noticed the problem at 10 paces, hurrying over to say, “I saw there wasn’t any steam coming from your soup.” (Although she didn’t propose any solutions, her concern was comforting.)
The same server was remarkably good-natured about our table’s drink order, which included a Manhattan on the rocks. She returned to explain that the restaurant had only recently added liquor to its menu, and that nobody on staff knew how to make a proper Manhattan. But, she assured us, somebody was consulting a bartenders’ manual, and the cocktail would be ready shortly. A few minutes later, she regretfully confessed that the bar didn’t stock bitters. “If you want, we could go to the store and get some,” she generously offered. We didn’t, so the kitchen instead produced a Manhattan-inspired fruit-salad-like concoction and gave it to us for free.
StoveTrotters seems to struggle with its liquid offerings: As we parsed the Manhattan issue with our server, diners at a nearby table lamented their apparently mangled martinis. On another visit, we decided to stick with wine, and selected a Californian red-wine special by the glass, which our server touted. She didn’t mention the price (at $14, the selection rang up at nearly twice as much as every other glass on the list), an oversight that became harder to swallow when the glass was nearly drained: There was a tablespoon of sediment collected at the bottom. Of course, many bottles worth drinking have sediment, but no glasses do: There’s no reason not to decant such a wine, or, at the very least, express sincere apologies for forgetting to do so.
None of the food I sampled was nearly so problematic. True, a highly recommended meatloaf, plated with oozy mashed potatoes and over-oiled vegetables, was disappointingly tough, and a pair of gently seasoned lamb chops and a pan-seared filet were cooked correctly, but the meat itself was dry and lean. But a grilled shrimp paired with a magenta-hued beet risotto was lovely.
Lunches might be the restaurant’s strongest suit. On a recent Saturday, a colleague tells me, StoveTrotters was full to capacity but humming along nicely. His order was taken within 10 minutes of seating, and the food arrived in less than 20 minutes. A $7 artisan-cheese plate, featuring five imported varieties with small samplings of fruit and olives, he says, was spot on and a fair bargain to boot. The tuna-salad sandwich, on fresh-based bread, likewise. “But the best was the hot garlic potato chips,” he enthused. “Just the right amount of garlic, oil and heat made it the perfect sandwich side.”
So until they hit their dinner stride, lunch-time offerings might be the more reliable bet. That said, with the restaurant’s luscious interior and deft service, StoveTrotters has shown that, like a good student, it’s serious about succeeding.