Flavor: Seasonal, global
Ambiance: Warm, welcoming
Service: Laid back (in a good way)
In its relatively short life on Eagle Street in Asheville, Bearly Edible became known as a bit of a party spot. So says owner Mark Ware, who closed the eatery this winter and gave it a facelift and a new name. I paid him a visit while he was busy transforming the space into its current incarnation, the more sophisticated Ophelia’s World Café and Bar. As he stood amid the shambles, Ware shouted over the whine of power drills and other construction noises, explaining that part of the goal of creating Ophelia’s was to “shake off our party stigma.”
For a restaurant whose very beginnings lie rooted in the gypsy circus that is the jam-band festival/tour circuit, I figured, shaking off that reputation would be a challenge. Bearly Edible, the restaurant, took its name from Bearly Edible, the cheap-eats mobile kitchen that set up shop in the parking lots of Grateful Dead shows. Ware and crew cranked out grilled cheeses, quesadillas and the like for a minimal cost, and were well known for it. Eventually, Bearly set up shop at 15 Eagle Street, where some confusion, not to mention a few jokes, ensued over the name – which, presumably, comes from the dancing bear of Grateful Dead lore.
Even with all the changes, some ghosts of tours past still inhabit the restaurant, and not just the occasionally dreadlocked clientele. The quesadillas are still on the menu, though they seem to have grown up a bit as well. The Pesto Mozzadilla, for example, has whole-milk mozzarella and a Genovese pesto sauce, and can be supplemented with chicken, tofu or organic tempeh. And while customers don’t exactly pay parking-lot prices for the quesadillas anymore, they’re still quite cheap. The most expensive – the delicious-sounding Habanero Pulled Pork Quesadilla – is still a steal at only $8.95. The grilled cheese made famous on Shakedown Street – touted in hyperbolic fashion as the “world’s greatest” – is gone for now (though I’ll bet it might resurface for the kids). In its place (at lunchtime only) is the much more worldly South Street Special, with steak, onions, peppers and provolone baked in a French bread roll for only $6.45.
Though Ophelia’s seems all grown up when compared to Bearly Edible, it is by no means stuffy. The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and quite comfortable. The dark red walls, the low yet adequate lighting, and the dark wood accents give the place a friendly, neighborhood-tavern feel.
One highlight is the cold beer, which is served in chilled glasses. The small yet mighty beer list includes Titan IPA and Ska True Blonde Ale on tap, and Wolaver’s organic brews and a couple of Rogues among the bottles. The wine list consists mostly of inexpensive and mid-range bottles, with about a half dozen available by the glass. Although also somewhat limited, the list manages to cover plenty of ground.
Dinnertime diners receive two menus. The first is the basic core menu; the second features a selection of rotating specials that are created to utilize “local meats, local veggies and what we can get for that particular season from local farmers,” Ware says. The core menu consists of light fare (such as the aforementioned quesadillas), a trio of salads, a handful of appetizers and three entrees: a Middle Eastern platter and two chimichangas. The more creative of the two deep-fried creations is the Tropical Jerk chimichanga, filled with fruit salsa, pineapple and an assortment of veggies with a house-made jerk sauce and a choice of proteins. Everything on the core menu is priced almost astoundingly low for a downtown restaurant; most of the dishes cost less than $9, save the Middle Eastern platter (which, at $10.95, is still a bargain, and could easily be shared).
On a recent visit, my dining partner and I tried one of the specials, the broccoli cakes, which were served on a bed of fresh sprouts and escarole then topped with whipped, locally made yogurt cheese. This one needs a bit of tweaking, as it was difficult to pick out the flavor of the broccoli, but it’s a warming and hearty appetizer all the same.
Craving some good fries, we ordered a side of the hand-cut organic pommes. Continuing a feast of appetizers, we tried both the tofu triangles over a ginger/sesame udon salad, and the Vegetable Melange, an English cucumber “boat” stuffed with artichoke, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and roasted garlic. The stuffed cucumber was sliced into sushi-sized rounds, then served atop a fresh spinach and sprout salad, and finished with a red pepper coulis and yogurt tahini sauce for a lovely presentation. The tofu dish was well received; the salad was arguably the most delicious thing that appeared on our table. The triangles were quite good as well, though a good pre-roll in cornstarch would have made them a bit crisper.
The sole entree we sampled, the poblano pork enchiladas ($13.95), was garnished with a cumin sour cream and presented over wilted mustard greens, the bitterness of which meshed wonderfully with an almost chocolaty sauce that was a bit reminiscent of a molé (this, we assumed, was the odd-sounding “pork broth chili reduction”). The enchiladas were also a satisfying and hearty dish, though they were much milder than what the description had led us to expect; with chilies both inside the enchiladas and in the sauce, one might expect a tear or two, perhaps a bead of sweat.
After all that food, we had no room left for dessert, which was a shame. That evening, the featured dessert was a chilled pear soup with a frozen banana mousse and goat-cheese fritters. For the time being, we reasoned, dessert would be a good excuse to return to Ophelia’s – not that we need another reason. The restaurant’s atmosphere is great, the staff is pleasant, the beer is good and cold, and the food is fairly inexpensive and made with excellent ingredients.
True, much of what we tried wanted only for something to make the flavors “pop” – a kick, zip, zest or what-have-you. We liked everything, but the need for tweaks is par for the course with any new restaurant. Overall, Ophelia seems poised to weather its growing pains with ease. Like an aging Deadhead, it may not party as hard as it used to, but it has retained a relaxed yet vibrant spirit.