Flavor: “Caro-american,” or regionally influenced Pan-American
Ambiance: Lovingly restored late 19th century Tudor cottage
Service: Charming and unabashedly honest
A doting Corner Kitchen regular recently e-mailed me a recommendation with a menu attached. From that, I learned that Chef Joe Scully’s cuisine is mostly – but not rigidly – Southern. I noticed some familiar Carolina flourishes, such as barbecue-glazed fish and sides of collards, grits and chow-chow, but Scully also works in unconventional ingredients like jicama in the slaw, mango in the mayonnaise and jalapeños in the tartar.
Wanting to know more, I checked the establishment’s Web site, where the Corner Kitchen is billed as “one of Asheville’s most surprising restaurants.” Between the menu and that claim, my curiousity was piqued. So on a Saturday evening, my Picky Companion and I ventured out to see what exactly makes this restaurant so surprising.
The Corner Kitchen has nice digs in Biltmore Village: a 120-year-old Tudor-style cottage that has been beautifully restored. The original structure has been tampered with very little. The house still resembles a home, and the rooms still possess period charm, with a working fireplace in the parlor dining room and polished wood floors throughout much of the building, including the upstairs dining rooms, which have large, bright windows. The porch area, with its bar and numerous tables, is glassed in for semi-outdoor meals, even in the throes of winter. It overlooks a sunny patio, which is also available for dining.
Once seated, we were greeted by a young man who exuded an abundance of charm and informed us that, although he had worked at the restaurant for quite some time, this was his first night waiting tables.
We thought we would help a bit, so we prodded him for specials and asked whether we needed to order the dessert soufflé in advance (we did). Perhaps surprisingly, the diners around us seemed to find the server’s novice status endearing – a bit like being waited on at home by your sweet kid brother. Indeed, we all watched as one couple coached him through the finer points of opening a bottle of wine, and when he completed the task, the entire dining room broke out in good-natured applause.
We ordered two appetizers, the Lobster Summer Roll and the Almond-fried Brie. Both arrived fairly quickly, especially given the increasing volume of customers.
The Brie was, in a word, wonderful. The almond crust on the outside was perfectly cooked, with a toasted nutty flavor that evidenced not the slightest hint of scorching or bitterness. The molten Brie inside was delightfully creamy and had an excellent flavor. The melon “noodles” that accompanied the appetizer were a perfect complement. The only thing that could have improved the dish would have been some crostini to help scoop up the cheese that remained pooled on the plate after everything else had been eaten.
The lobster rolls were noticeably fresh, with Thai basil, cold somen noodles, avocado and a garnish of shredded sesame napa cabbage. This appetizer was quite good, but would have benefited from an additional cooling element; it was permeated with chilies and served with a spicy peanut sauce and a squiggle of unadulterated sriracha, so the end result was overwhelmingly spicy, and the subtle flavors of the lobster and avocado were almost entirely lost. We did, however, clear our plates (as well as our sinuses).
We ordered our entrees – a pork chop and the halibut – but then noticed another appetizer that we still wanted to try. We asked if the chef could slow down our main courses so we could sample the beef skewers with a mini blue cheese quesadilla and three sauces. Our waiter immediately scampered off with our special request, and quickly came back with the reply straight from the grill cook’s mouth: “Can do!” This seemed a surprisingly chipper response from a cook elbows deep in Saturday-night service, and it evidenced both professional courtesy and good old Southern manners.
The skewers arrived shortly, and so did our entrees. Our waiter apologized for the timing, but it was no matter. The beef was tender and well-seasoned, with a mild dusting of chilies, and the quesadilla was a nice complement (you can’t go wrong with beef and blue cheese). The sauces – an avocado, a cream and a tomato-based sauce – were a nice match, tempering the stronger flavors.
Turning to our main dishes, I was, indeed, pleasantly surprised. First, the pork was perfectly cooked to the temperature I had requested. Let me emphasize this by pointing out that finding pork that’s cooked to my liking has become so difficult lately that I’ve nearly given up. In fact, I almost didn’t order the dish, for fear that it would be delivered overdone.
I needn’t have worried. The succulent meat was beautifully seasoned and further enhanced with the addition of a blackberry ketchup and whipped sweet potatoes, neither of which was overly sweet. The side of fried green tomatoes, however, drew criticism from my companion, who said they tasted of “little but oil and flour.”
The other entree, a mushroom-dusted halibut on a roasted beet salad with fresh arugula and butter sauce, was as perfectly cooked as the pork chop had been. The vegetables were fresh and still had plenty of life left in them, with a pleasant, slightly crunchy texture. The beet juice mingled with the butter sauce to make a naturally sweet and light accompaniment to the moist, tender fish. Again, everything was perfectly seasoned. Picky thought that the mushroom flavor on the halibut’s surface was slightly overwhelmed by the presence of dill, but I loved every bite; my only caution to diners is to mind where the beet juice lands, as my pale lavender blouse is now spotted with a cheerful red.
Our soufflé, flavored with chocolate and Grand Marnier and served with a version of crème frâiche and a strawberry sauce, arrived soon after the meal. At first, the alcohol in the dessert seemed a bit strong, but once the sauces were added to the mix, the flavor was tamed, and the final result was quite good.
In the end, our waiter thanked us for being good sports; but for us, at least, it wasn’t necessary. It was clear to us that the staff does, as the restaurant’s Web site claims, put their “personal best into their efforts for every guest.” And that’s always a welcome surprise.