Horizons

Flavor: Inventive continental
Ambiance: White tablecloths, a piano player and the region’s longest wine list
Price: $10-$39
Where: 290 Macon Ave.
Contact: 252-2711
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 6 -9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6-9:30 p.m.

Even the oysters at Horizons have come out of their shells.

I can’t recall if Horizons, the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa’s signature fine-dining restaurant, ever offered oysters Rockefeller. But it’s a fair bet that if they didn’t, customers could be forgiven for feeling shorted. The Horizons of yore—that is, the prix-fixe Horizons that for many years defined high-cotton eating in Asheville—specialized in straight-up luxe classics like lobster thermidor and chilled smoked salmom.

Diners at the revamped Horizons would be hard-pressed to find a single dish as predictable, gratuitously rich and tradition-bound as oysters Rockefeller. Instead, the oysters have been liberated from their shells for a rustic ragout featuring the plump bivalves swimming in a pool of pork-scented brown gravy, ornamented with diced bell peppers and served over a clump of Dijon-laced polenta.

And as go the oysters, so goes the menu, which has been carefully purged of indefensible “gourmet” preparations and freed from its prix-fixe constraints. To the delight of veteran eaters, chef Duane Fernandes has created a smart, au courant small-plates spot in the guise of a staid, white-table-clothed destination. Imagination appears to have supplanted indulgence at Horizons.

“Times have changed,” Fernandes explains. “Not a lot of people want to have their night fully involved with a drawn-out dining experience.”

Fine dining has been one of the first casualties of the recession, with even the wealthiest diners wondering about the wisdom and propriety of triple-digit dinners. Some customers, of course, don’t bother to wonder: Their reaction to a four-course meal, which was once Horizons’ calling card, is, “Nah. Sounds expensive.” Luxury has become a liability.

“We have a Four Diamond Award, but we’re certainly not flaunting that anymore,” Fernandes says.

“Being Four Diamond doesn’t mean expensive,” Horizons’ manager Todd Phillips rushes to add. Phillips worked closely with Fernandes to reconceptualize the restaurant, and says, “We’ve changed a lot, but we’re still an upscale restaurant.”

That’s a narrow tightrope to walk: The Grove Park risked alienating its base and failing to connect with a new audience when it decided to abandon its long-standing dress code and invite regular folks to enjoy the restaurant’s exquisite service and unparalleled views for as little as the price of a single vegetable crepe ($10, in case you’re saving up).

But to hear the minds behind the transition tell it, other than a few well-dressed curmudgeons who cling to “jackets required” dictums as signals of civilization, there hasn’t been any real fallout. Horizons has stayed busy. The new crowd has behaved itself. (“We still have groups that come in and get a little loud, but they realize it’s not Cracker Barrel,” Phillips says. “They’re not going to throw peanut shells on the floor.”) And, most critically for the professional servers and other workers who intimately understand the current economic crisis, check averages haven’t dropped significantly.

“The best seller is the Kobe beef,” Fernandes says of the very fancy filet euphemistically listed as a $40 “supplement” to the basic $39 steak. That makes the dish quite possibly the most expensive single entrée this side of I-85, but apparently there are some corporate charge cards that haven’t been cancelled yet. “If you want to come up here and have a $19 chicken entrée, you can do that, but most people are ordering multiple courses. The biggest change is we’re seeing less desserts ordered.”

The change that will be most apparent to diners is the new energy on the menu. While Fernandes concedes that Horizons still hasn’t entered the Molecular Gastronomy Age, he’s successfully injected the restaurant with a quiet sophistication that inevitably eludes overdone standards like oysters Rockefeller.

“We could get really sophisticated and have lots of dishes like the heart of palm out there,” Fernandes says, referencing his exceptionally delicate, roasted baby-beet salad. “But our clientele isn’t going to appreciate that. We’re trying to be a little more approachable.”

Presumably that’s why Horizons has hung on to dishes like the flavor-deficient roasted halibut, which was overcooked the night I dined there. But there’s an upshot to Horizons’ vestigial old-school attitudes: A deep appreciation of all the world’s great ingredients emanates from the kitchen, which hasn’t hogtied itself to what grows in Buncombe County. Horizons is one of very few Asheville restaurants willing to put foie gras on its menu. “I don’t know how you feel about foie,” our highly professional server said haltingly, before tentatively proceeding to describe the locally controversial appetizer.

Fernandes’ take on the rich goose liver—which animal-rights activists are making a strong stand against across the county—is encased in granola, the universal symbol of leftist bohemians. “Figured we’d give a shout out to Asheville on that one,” Fernandes says. The execution here is pitch perfect, with the foie‘s creamy texture beautifully offsetting the dried-fruit granola’s crunch. (For added measure, the plate includes a second helping of foie, grilled and bathed with maple syrup.)

Other starters are equally delicious. The understandably popular fried green tomatoes, which taste like spring sheathed in a latke, sandwich a terrific lump crab salad. The season reasserts itself in the lovely onion soup, which Fernandes—who joined the restaurant last fall—reveals is really nothing but Vidalias in liquid form. “What’s unique about that soup is it’s 99 percent onions,” Fernandes says. “It’s five quarts of heavy cream for two gallons of soup. We just add a little celery, some peppercorns, leave it and forget about it. It melts down to sweet love.”

Bacon dumplings bob in the thick soup, proving that Fernandes—like any self-respecting Southern chef—knows how to employ pork products. A homemade, deconstructed sweet-potato ravioli is crowned with something like carnitas, while Allen Benton’s ham surfaces in the pea shoots that accompany the halibut.

But the down-home touches don’t disrupt Horizons’ distinctive elegance. Diners at Horizons still have dedicated water pourers ready to fill their glasses, and the tablecloths are still crumbed by attentive servers. And then there’s the mountain landscape outside the window.

“You can go downtown and get great food,” Phillips says. “But here you can get a view instead of a brick wall.”

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