I admit it. I’ve lived in Asheville for almost seven years, and I’ve yet to spend any substantial time in Hendersonville. The same goes for my Picky Companion. So, with the feeling of mild excitement that comes from exploring new, albeit local, territories, we recently headed south to Hendersonville, armed only with our 7 o’clock reservation at Sparacino’s.
We arrived there a good hour-and-a-half early to explore our surroundings. The town itself can be quiet and quaint, but there was the sense that Hendersonville is beginning to awaken. A crowd of people sat outside the Black Bear Coffee Company at 318 N. Main St., chattering animatedly, sucking down frothy caffeinated concoctions and clearly enjoying themselves.
We strolled further down the street and came across the Purple Sage, a shop that boasts gourmet cookware, a fine wine cellar and a sign promising that something good to taste can always be found inside. To our disappointment (as we’re always up for something tasty), the shop and cellar were closed. Unfortunately, as we were to learn, on Mondays, Hendersonville tends to be a bit sleepy, and, as in Asheville, many restaurants and shops there are closed.
As the town clock announced 6 o’clock, we descended below street level to the Cypress Cellar at 321 N. Main St. An interesting little spot, this Cajun-influenced restaurant and pub has a sunken outdoor patio with a fountain and room for a large crowd. The place was almost empty, but again, it was Monday. We sat at the bar and chatted with the bartender a bit, while sampling a pint or two of the Allagash White, a witbier by Allagash Brewing Company in Maine. With a hint of orange zest and coriander, this is a delicious warm-weather brew, but I’ve heard the quality suffers when it’s not on tap.
Linens and linguine
At five minutes till 7, we wandered across the street to the Iron Gate Marketplace, following the main corridor toward the upscale gift shop where Sparacino’s Ristorante is housed. It’s somewhat surreal to walk through furniture, linens and knick-knacks to find a restaurant, and I was momentarily reminded of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
The restaurant itself is intimately lit and attractive. Our waiter sprang into action; as there was only one other occupied table, we were fortunate enough to have his (nearly) undivided attention. He disappeared in a flash and reemerged with some wine.
Sparacino’s, the waiter told us while pouring the wine, has an award-winning wine list that features a wide assortment of wines by the glass. Of the two whites we tasted, I preferred the single-vineyard “Villa Bianchi” Verdicchio Classico Superiore, a delightful, fruity white with notes of apricot, fresh fig and honeysuckle.
We sampled two of the waiter’s favorite salads: a blue cheese spinach salad and the Insalata Mista – young spring greens with buffalo mozzarella, marinated grape tomatoes, oranges and “aged balsamic vecchio essence.” Both of the salads were fresh and delicious, if perhaps a bit overwhelming in the cheese department.
Next, we tried a sample platter of selected appetizers, including the Fritto e Calamari, the Funghi Capodimonte (grilled mushrooms) and the Bruschetta di Sparacino, a delicious take on the classic bruschetta with the addition of an olive tapenade and marinated cherry tomatoes.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the appetizers. The calamari looked suspiciously like frozen onion rings, but turned out to be excellent; the waiter explained that the squid was marinated overnight in cream, a technique that helps tenderize the meat. And while I expected to be bored with the mushroom dish, I found that the aged balsamic vinegar, quality olive oil, garlic and smokiness imparted from the grill made for a classic and extremely satisfying mix of flavors.
We sampled several of the entrees – a ravioli or two, some veal saltimbocca, some risotto – and a few more nice selections from the wine list. The overall effect was solid and classically Italian. Nothing overwhelmed the palate, nothing bent over backward to demand attention solely for the sake of being avant-garde. As Picky Companion put it, Sparacino’s does simple things very well.
Better late than never
Down the street from Sparacino’s, at 114 N. Main St. we found Expressions, a two-story restaurant with a dining room downstairs, where diners can enjoy a full menu, and a wine bar upstairs offering “small plates.” As we had perhaps overindulged a bit at Sparacino’s, we headed upstairs toward the lighter fare.
The Wine Bar at Expressions offers flights of wine, individual selections from an expansive wine list and a full bar that features a decent selection of single-malt Scotch whiskies. The bartender was surprisingly knowledgeable, given that he looked as though he couldn’t have been drinking legally for very long.
The menu looked intriguing, with goat-cheese and truffle-oil bruschetta, seared yellowfin tuna on wantons with pickled ginger, sauerkraut pancakes with grilled kielbasa, and an assortment of entrees in miniature, such as mini lamb chops with sun-dried tomato tapenade.
We opted for one of the three pizza selections, a smoked-duck pie with Gorgonzola and sun-dried cherries. This is a well-appointed combination of flavors, and it worked well on a pizza. The cherries were sparsely scattered, so that each bite revealed only an occasional burst of sweetness as a foil for the pungent sharpness of the Gorgonzola.
The description of the Warm Dark Cove Goat Cheesecake, with molasses-onion jam and bruschetta, was vaguely misleading; the dessert seemed more a small slab of goat cheese with over-toasted crostini. The dish was quite good, just a bit disappointing, in that we were expecting a savory cake.
We sat and talked for a while with one of the owners and learned that the wine bar hosts live music on Fridays and Saturdays, and that the restaurant holds regular wine dinners and the occasional Scotch tasting – which both sound wonderful.
To cap off our evening, Picky Companion and I decided to visit the surprisingly active and crowded Hannah Flanagan’s at 300 N. Main St. Through some random chain of thought, it occurred to me that I had yet to pay the proper respects to the recently departed Hunter S. Thompson. We ordered two glasses of Chivas and offered a silent toast. It was then that I realized the theme of our evening jaunt to Hendersonville: better late than never.