Editor’s note: The new Grand Bohemian Hotel’s restaurant is intended to inspire the eater’s inner Victorian-era hunter. In that spirit, we felt it was only appropriate to review the Red Stag Grill in the style favored by the 19th century armed explorers who regaled their readers with tales of high adventures.
Flavor: European-leaning carnivorous
Ambiance: Dimly lit hunting lodge by way of Vegas
Where: 11 Boston Way
Hours: Every day, 6 a.m.-10 p.m.
Chapter 1: Visiting the restaurant
At the southern edge of Asheville proper, at the boundary beyond which few visitors ever stray, there lies now a new hotel. This hotel is well known to the people of Biltmore Forest, but remains a mystery to many natives, who rarely have occasion to visit the area where boutiques are plentiful and parking is scarce. And so, dear reader, I felt compelled to make the journey to the Grand Bohemian Hotel to discover what edible treasures might lie within.
The property was built by Richard Kessler, a master of the hospitality arts who presided over the Days Inn chain for nearly a decade before finally sloughing off the motel mindset and immersing himself in the business of “boutique hotels.” Of these hotels, there is no precise definition, although it is generally agreed they are unified by an emphasis on personal service and idiosyncratic design. The Grand Bohemian, by way of example, is lit by chandeliers made from antlers.
In my discussions with the helpful staff at the hotel and its on-premises restaurant, the Red Stag Grill, I was able to suss out the meaning of the trophy-animal décor: Since the hotel is situated at the doorstep of the Biltmore Estate, its design is meant to evoke the hunting lodges which inevitably adjoined Europe’s great baronial estates. The menu too was written with metaphorical guns drawn: Diners at the Red Stag are invited to feast upon such cherished sportsman’s dishes as pheasant, duck and elk. The food that could not have been fought has apparently been foraged: Side dishes include truffle French fries, macaroni with mushrooms and mushroom ragout.
I would be amiss if I did not say more about the menu itself, which commands the attention of even the most experienced eater. As I settled into my red leather wing-backed chair for my first meal at the Red Stag, I was admittedly distracted by the sheer heft of the hardbound book the hostess handed me. As I discovered, this menu did double-duty as a machine, as it was back-lit from within, so diners studying their choices have their faces cast with a pale blue glow.
But I did not have to summon the courage to wrestle with the menu on my second visit, since I had requested that the kitchen prepare for me its best dishes. “These are all the most popular items,” chef Adam Hayes told me, outlining the evening’s itinerary.
Chapter 2: The First Course
Hayes, our fearless guide, came to the Red Stag Grill with credentials strong enough to comfort the most anxious of new restaurant owners. Hayes had helmed the kitchen at Greensboro’s much-lauded Proximity Hotel, a green-themed boutique hotel of the first order.
Chefs are naturally divided into two types: Those who care little about their customers, and those who strive to serve them. The former chefs are imaginative but willful. The latter tend to have an easier time finding work. Hayes is a consummate example of the second type: “I just want to give people what they want,” he told me. “It’s not about what I want.”
Hayes proved he was a man of his word with the calamari, one of the few dishes that appear at every Kessler hotel restaurant, from Savannah to Taos. “We sell these things like those no tomorrow,” he confided.
I am not surprised that Americans adore the Kessler calamari since, in my humble experience, I have found that fry and cheese are among my countrymen’s favorite flavors. Those two things rarely collide in a calamari preparation, but the Kessler corporation has boldly taken what might be described as a nacho approach to squid. The plate features deep-fried noodles of calamari in a puddle of creamy garlic-tinged mayonnaise, generously garnished with tomatoes, olives and handfuls of asiago cheese. I do not believe it is contradictory to report that the appetizer tastes very much like Cheetos, and that I have met people who claim they can no longer live without it.
I next met with the fried green tomatoes, which were served with what my server described as “ranch dressing.” Although I am unaccustomed to encountering ranch dressing at very fine restaurants, the sauce was a rather welcome foil to the tomatoes, which were a bonanza of butter and salt.
Tomatoes were done a better turn by the excellent spiced tomato soup, which I snuck onto my table, despite it not having been selected by Chef Hayes. I assume the omission was a reflection of it not being ordered as often as suspected showstoppers like the calamari, which is a terrible shame: The sheer, unembellished soup of squashes, tomatoes and coconut milk hit the perfect acidic note. “I made that kind of soup probably 10 times,” Hayes said, recalling Kessler’s daughter’s personal interest in developing the recipe. “It’s a good soup.”
There were still more appetizers, as my curiosity coerced me into sampling more of the dishes thoughtfully offered in “small bite”-sized portions. I tried the Hunt Plate, which didn’t have the North Carolina-made pickles or sausages the menu promised, but featured instead a picnic-ready spread of lunchmeats and mustard. I puzzled over the spongy blue-cheese polenta dip. And I savored the subdued Wedge Salad, smartly finished with sugary bacon.
Chapter 3: The Second Course
The Monterey Bay Aquarium—which administers the Seafood Watch program, monitoring the sustainability of fisheries—has issued a Chilean Seabass alert, asking consumers to avoid the over-fished toothfish. This alert has apparently not disrupted business in the Kessler kitchens, which continue to spotlight the fish.
“It’s the most appealing thing to people who come in to eat,” said Hayes, who reports he purchases his fish from a supplier who guarantees the fish is sink and line-caught. (“I only had one lady who was very intoxicated who went on and on about it being on the menu,” he reported.)
I found the seabass startlingly buttery, a sensation echoed by the accompanying custard-yellow mashed potatoes and butter-basted asparagus spears. The same sides, in slightly different guises, accompanied the restaurant’s signature filet, which I did indeed enjoy. (In a restaurant where every wall is adorned with animal heads, it is perhaps wise to order items that once had four legs.)
Chapter 4: The close of the meal
My meal ended with a blackberry crème brulee. But Hayes assured me there is much more to come from the Red Stag Grill, should local diners wish to partake of it.
“We want to try some different things,” he said. “This is a ‘get open’ menu. In fall, we’re going to get into the real European comfort foods, the confit and cassoulet type of stuff. I’m not going to be able to compete on everything local, everything organic. … But if you don’t have a good meal, I’m not happy.”