Flavor: Upscale Southern/low country cuisine
Ambiance: Historic building with funky accents, comfortable spirit
Service: Friendly and prompt
According to the long-suffering Jacob A. Melton, who visited Hot Springs in the early 1900s, his rheumatism, though not affected by his costly arsenal of medication, was cured by soaking in and imbibing the Hot Springs mineral water. In a letter praising the curative properties of the bubbling baths, he wrote, “My weight at this time is 225 pounds, and I can work, if necessary, eighteen hours a day.”
These days, visitors to Hot Springs are more intent on relaxation than building bulk. For my part, I prefer to do a little bit of both.
So on a recent afternoon, my companion and I took a mini-vacation to Hot Springs. In order to fully indulge ourselves, we decided to sandwich our hot-tub soak in between two meals.
For our pre-soak snack, we slurped on a platter of baked oysters while absorbing the generous mountain views from the patio at Paddler’s Pub, a no-frills, mountain-funky little bar right outside the Hot Springs Spa. Paddler’s has good local beer on tap, including the French Broad Brewing Company’s Wee Heavy-er, as well as some quick grub that’s as down-to-earth as the atmosphere (though a bit pricey for what it is). Our meal was inharmoniously accompanied by a gaggle of Harley Davidson enthusiasts who lingered overly long in the parking lot, repeatedly revving their engines to the point that a nearby car alarm began to sound in cacophonous protest.
After our noisy little repast, we were glad to slip into the calm surroundings of the tub we’d reserved. It was set on the banks of a bold stream that rushes to meet the French Broad River and was rather isolated under a canopy of trees, making our bath about as relaxing as an hour’s soak can be.
Thoroughly refreshed, we wandered around town for a bit before happening upon Bright Leaf Junction, a hotel, restaurant and lounge that would be right at home in any large city. The walls are of warm-toned plaster that gives way to reveal the original brick underneath. A fireplace emerges from the walls to dominate the dining room; its frame has been crafted to accommodate built-in seats on either side, and its chimney rises along the wall, where it breaks through the catwalk that serves as an elevated lounge area. This sophisticated interior makes great use of what was once a haberdashery.
A curving concrete bar with a view of the kitchen’s interior effectively beckons, but be forewarned of an utter lack of liquor (it’s forbidden to sell it in these parts) and a rather petite wine list dominated by Francis Ford Coppola’s wines.
We were quickly charmed by the infectious enthusiasm of the staff and the chef’s creative little snacks and small plates. For example, the “shrimp corn dogs” taste exactly as they sound – and perhaps a bit better. Each shrimp is enrobed in a corn batter that retains both an exterior crispiness and an interior fluffiness, and the dish is further complemented by a sweet/tart green-tomato ketchup and a Creole mustard.
Then there’s the fabulously prepared but deceptively boring-sounding Bright Leaf Junction Cobb Salad, with its perfectly dressed baby lettuces, pulled roasted chicken, fresh sweet tomatoes, crispy bacon and unannounced spiced pecans. The crab cake “sandwich,” an elevated low-country nosh, has the cake held between two fried green tomatoes with a sweet-corn relish and sweet-potato chips.
The undisputed highlight of the meal was the gnocchi, which – alas – we ordered as only a side. My Picky Companion, an outspoken dumpling critic, was effectively silenced. Enhanced with little more than garlic (some sautéed, with a few roasted cloves tossed in as a garnish), fresh herbs, butter, salt and pepper, their flavor and texture were divine. Next time I’ll know where to turn for my entree.
Not that I wished to turn away from the main course I chose – fresh salmon with a lemon butter. As over-played as the dish might sound, it was given life by a deft hand on the stove top. The filet was crisp and well seasoned on the outside, with a perfect interior texture. Sides included sweet potatoes mashed with brown butter and a sauté of gorgeous sugar snaps and fresh spinach.
My companion’s entree included the lone disappointment: The rib eye steak – glazed with a red-wine demi and accompanied by creamy, coarse-ground grits that retained a fresh corn flavor – was sadly overcooked. “A rib eye,” said Picky, “is a fairly kind cut to overcook.” In other words, the extra fat kept it from being too dry, at least.
There were plentiful desserts that followed the gourmet Southern slant, but they weren’t homemade – yet (soon, the staff said, they will be).
Everything we sampled at the Bright Leaf Junction was deliciously seasoned, and evidenced considerable talent in the kitchen. Service, for that matter, was pretty on top of things, even when it swerved in the direction of small-town familiarity – as when our waitress asked if we’d like to sample “a squirt” of a particular wine we inquired about. And while the menu reads in a very familiar manner – roasted chicken, apple compote-stuffed pork loin, Cobb salad – the execution, along with the decor, is what sets this restaurant apart.