Flavor: Global, emphasizing grilled meats and fish
Ambiance: Beautifully decorated interior; classy yet casual vibe
To me, little can be done to a piece of meat that makes it more alluring than smoking or grilling it over wood. The sensuous depth of flavor that smoke imparts is nigh impossible to replicate over a gas flame. Wood smoke is what turns plain pork belly (which is very good in its own right) into the divine offering that is bacon.
With the promise of the scent and flavor of slowly smoldering wood beckoning on a cold, late-winter night, my companion and I headed off to Hendersonville to sample the cuisine of Flight Wood Grill and Wine Bar.
The restaurant is located in a former 1920s bank building that has been beautifully remodeled. The interior is urban and modern while somehow retaining a bit of art-deco period charm. The kitchen is open, which allows for a good view of the goings-on in it, especially from the restaurant’s spacious balcony. Sound carries incredibly well up to that spot, which is a bonus if you’re the nosy sort (like me), and you’d like to hear what the chefs had for dinner the previous night. But even when the restaurant is crowded, which seems to be quite often, the noise is not a problem.
The balcony is an excellent spot to sit regardless of your degree of respect – or lack thereof – for the privacy of others. There is something especially appealing to me about eating on high (unless, of course, I happen to be in an airplane). When seated next to one of the massive windows that line the front of the restaurant, a diner can, as we did, watch the sky darken over Main Street. If you are so inclined, it’s a lovely place for a little romance, especially with a couple of glasses of wine from the restaurant’s rather extensive list. Flight prides itself on that list, which offers more than 30 selections by the glass and at least 100 in the bottle. The wines are housed in a temperature-controlled vault that is actually one of the bank’s old vaults.
The service is charming and friendly, if a bit under-prepared. Both times we visited, the servers had to run down the balcony stairs to retrieve answers to our various questions, such as the identity of the intriguing “chef’s wild game choice of the day.” Nor had they been informed of the nature of what the menu lists as the “appropriate sauces” for the mixed grill items. What the servers lacked in menu knowledge, they certainly made up for in tolerance and cheerfully positive attitude – not a one showed a touch of annoyance for having to scale those stairs so many times.
The menu does indeed take “flight,” meandering through several different cultures without straying too far into left field. The kitchen turns out Southern-comfort specialties like shrimp and grits, dabbles in Italian flavors with dishes such as veal picatta or Cannelloni Florentine, or goes East with pan-Asian flavors – the coconut and lemongrass flavors that accompany grilled Mahi, for example. The kitchen seems to do best with preparations that lean toward the simpler side, such as a delicious appetizer of duck-confit spring rolls with goat cheese and julienned vegetables. The duck was moist and succulent, the goat cheese sparingly applied, the wrapper crisp and not at all oily. The garishly hued plum sauce that came with it added more color than flavor to the dish, though it certainly did not detract from the roll, which we inhaled with great fervor.
The star attraction at Flight is the wood grill, and the restaurant devotes an entire section of its menu to wood-grilled meats and fish, though what osso bucco – a braised veal dish – is doing in that particular category is beyond me. One can choose from a selection of meats and seafood to build a mixed-grill meal – for example, a Tristan lobster tail and the petite filet mignon if you’re feeling fancy (and rich, since the combo will run you about $37) – or choose items from the “specialties” section like a 10-ounce sirloin steak or lamb chops with a roasted tomato/mint feta butter. I sampled the lamb and thoroughly enjoyed it and its accompaniment, but found it wanting when it came to the smokiness I was looking forward to.
We sampled a wild game mixed grill that included a venison chop, antelope sausage and quail with a trio of those aforementioned “appropriate sauces.” This is a dish that remains a constant on the menu, though the selection of wild game changes. Sometimes the restaurant uses wild boar and sometimes bison, but it’s always a piece of meat that won’t “freak people out,” says general manager Dylan Gotesky. He acknowledges that many diners have gotten to the point where they are ready to eat outside the box, so to speak, although few are ready to leave their culinary comfort zone too far behind.
We also sampled an artichoke pizza with goat cheese and spinach from the section of the menu entitled “wood-grilled pizzas.” We were again disappointed with a lack of smokiness that one would expect from a wood-grilled pizza. As it turned out, the pizzas are not wood-grilled, but baked in an oven that employs a combination of gas flame and wood smoke for baking, according to Gotesky.
“In the actual pizza oven, we don’t use wood because it gets ashy – we use a smoker box that is off to the right of the oven where we put the chips and the splinters from when we’re cutting up the big logs for the grill,” he explained. “That’s how we get the smoked flavor for the pizzas.”
When I told him that I couldn’t detect much smokiness in much of the food, including the pizza, he explained that the apple wood Flight uses has a less distinct flavor than say, mesquite or hickory.
“It has a subtlety to it,” he said. “With this style of restaurant, you want to taste the food more – you just want to have a hint that it’s come off a wood grill.”
Some of the subtlety in flavor is due to the treatment of the wood – a good sound soaking overnight – and also the proximity of the wood to the food, according to Gotesky. The grills that the restaurant uses are custom-made and employ a combination of gas flame and wood.
If subtle flavor is what you’re looking for, get thee to Flight. There’s plenty there to delight in, especially if you’re a carnivore and a wine lover. I did miss a certain degree of smokiness that I had wanted and expected, but I enjoyed the ambiance and my experience. When I woke up the next morning, however, the first thing I did after putting water on for coffee was throw some thick-cut bacon in a frying pan to fill my home with the delicious and incomparable aroma of smoky pork fat.