The Market Place

Flavor: World-influenced, with a focus on regional, seasonal ingredients
Ambiance: Lovely and intimate
Service: Generally professional and well-informed

“One of the joys of life is that special marriage between food and wine,” proclaims the Web site of the Market Place, the Asheville fixture that chef Mark Rosenstein has operated since 1979 – and I couldn’t agree more.

The restaurant has garnered praise in and out of Asheville. Rosenstein has been featured in Food and Wine magazine as one of the “All Star Chefs of America,” and there’s no doubt that his is a highly talented crew with a willingness to please. My previous outings to the Market Place have gone quite well, and for all these reasons my Picky Companion and I attended a recent wine dinner there with high expectations.

“Wine on Wednesdays” is a collaborative project between Rosenstein and wine manager Steve Powell that features eight wines paired with multicourse meals, all planned around a theme. On that night, March 2, the dinner showcased wines and flavors of the Pacific Northwest.

The room was intimately lit, and each place was set with the first two wines and some delectable house-made rolls. I have a serious weakness for these Lilliputian loaves, which are crunchy on the outside, soft and hot on the inside, and served with a ramekin of creamy butter.

Our host placed a piece of paper in front of us, a list of the wines we would sample. We were informed that the wines were listed in the order they were to be served; this proved to be some of the only information voluntarily offered by the staff during the dinner. The first course was placed before us with barely a word, and there was no explanation of the relationship between the wine and the food.

No matter – the salad was simple yet fantastic. The baby greens were flawless – each leaf looked carefully handpicked – and had a crispness that suggested not only freshness but love for the product. The lettuces were not the usual mix of field greens; I believe I detected tatsoi. The salad rested on a bed of thinly shaved green apples, which resonated nicely with both wines. Of the two, I preferred the A to Z Pinot Gris, a luscious wine with an ambrosial nose and a well-balanced citrus/apple flavor. The salad’s toasted walnuts and citrusy goat-cheese dressing struck a chord with the other wine offering, the Amity Pinot Blanc, a deliciously fruity yet crisp white from Oregon, with a hint of honeysuckle and a pleasant finish.

We were served the next two wines well before the second course arrived, which was no tragedy, as the company was entertaining, and even by themselves, the two wines inspired conversation. The Waterbrook Sauvignon Blanc was delightfully complex, with notes of tart pear and a zingy mineral finish. The favorite turned out to be the Argyle Chardonnay, a beautiful specimen than doesn’t assault you with overt buttered toast like some American Chardonnays tend to do.

As we considered our beverages, a diner flagged down a passing staff member to inquire about the next course. Here is where things turned a bit surreal: “Tuna,” the man answered. As it became obvious that further information was desired, the staff member added, “A piece of fish” (causing Picky Companion to wonder how the kitchen staff might feel about entire courses being reduced to such perfunctory descriptions).

The food, not surprisingly, outshone its description. As promised, the “piece of fish” was indeed tuna – but tuna resting on a bed of hazelnut bok choy, drizzled with a ginger beurre blanc, and finished with a buttery pear sauce. (I learned some of these details by pestering a member of the staff until he disappeared into the kitchen, re-emerging with descriptions of the courses scrawled in orange marker. Finally, some progress.) Again, the food was wonderful, and the food and wine pairings were right on the nose.

The next course (described first by a server simply as “beef,” and then, after further entreaties, as “filet”) was equally good. The meat was served with herbed potatoes, a particularly tender local kale, and a sumptuous port-wine sauce with dried cherries, to excellent effect. Both of the wines – the spicy and dry Hogue Cab Sav and the fruity Novelty Hill Merlot – found a home with different aspects of this dish.

Picky Companion dubbed the final installment “the wine, dessert and time to go” course. The A to Z Pinot Noir, and the big, bold Tamarack Firehouse red were served with a perplexing match of house-made butter-pecan ice cream with caramel and bananas – which was, by itself, a phenomenal dessert.

But, as my equally confused dining partner noted, “If you want to make wine taste awful, this is how you do it.” Indeed, we felt the pairing reduced two very good wines to nothing but tannins. Our solution was to enjoy everything separately.

Though I thoroughly delighted in my experience at the Market Place, and look forward to attending other wine dinners there, I was confused by the lack of communication from the staff. There was, however, a certain degree of fun in trying to identify what we were tasting without the bias that can occur when one is told what to expect – especially when the whole table got in on it. And perhaps the restaurant simply intended for the food, the wine and the intermingling dance of flavors to speak for themselves.

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