Flavor: Upscale pan-Latin
Ambiance: Cozy casita
Where: 72 Weaverville Road, Woodfin
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.
When Curras D.O.M. first opened in the former HB’s on Weaverville Highway, many of the drive-in’s faithful shrugged at the new sign and took a seat anyhow, assuming the eatery was still a perfectly good place to get a hot dog and fries.
“The first month, we were getting 10 walkouts a day,” owner Marco Garcia recalls of his Nuevo Mexicano restaurant’s bumpy debut in March. “They’d look at the prices and were like, ‘No way.’ It’s been a transition for them.”
But here’s what’s refreshing about Garcia: He didn’t scorn his neighbors as culinary plebes, or take offense when they scanned his sophisticated menu of moles and ceviches for something they could eat with ketchup. His approach to restauranteering is remarkably free of the pretension that mars so many bistros where the entrées carry $18 price tags. (Curras may be humble, but dinner there ain’t cheap.) Indeed, Garcia is reluctant to affix to his small restaurant any of the buzzwords that careerist chefs chant like mantras.
Fine dining? Definitely not. “You can’t just put out white tablecloths and call it fine dining,” Garcia laughs, implicitly acknowledging many local restaurant owners have tried that very trick.
(For the record, there aren’t tablecloths of any kind at Curras. The concrete-floored room is furnished with bare wooden tables and matching stiff-backed chairs, evoking an austere farmhouse feel that’s enlivened by brightly-colored tissue-paper streamers and photographs taken by someone familiar with Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s work.)
Authentic? Nope. Garcia isn’t impressed by restaurant owners who flaunt a birth certificate as evidence of the restaurant’s unquestionable authenticity. Although Garcia was born on the Mexican side of the border to a family with roots in Yucatan State, he likes having the freedom to stick a Spanish-style gazpacho on his menu. He’s followed a nomadic muse, taking inspiration from kitchens across Latin America. “That’s why we call it D.O.M.,” Garcia says, referring to the denominacion de origen Mexico tag line that, in this case, translates roughly as “Mexican-ish.”
Pressed to articulate the philosophy behind his restaurant, Garcia reflexively resorts to a pragmatic response that would dismay many chefs bent on demonstrating their high-minded devotion to their dishes: “I’d like to make money, make him famous,” Garcia says, motioning to Stewart Lyon, his executive chef. “I’m just trying to pay the mortgage.”
But there’s a reason Garcia has departed from the beans-and-rice menu of his last edible venture—an Austin, Texas, restaurant he sold to his brother before moving to the Florida Keys a few years back. “People think of Mexico as just a guy taking a siesta in his sombrero,” Garcia says. “There’s more to it than that.”
A fresh start
It’s up to Lyon, a veteran of Charleston’s highly regarded Slightly North of Broad, to show diners the “more” Garcia has in mind. Lyon, who worked as a sous-chef at Savoy for a year before meeting Garcia, says, “I’m certainly more French-trained than Mexican-trained, but you really can’t get away from Mexican food.” While Lyon’s menu skews slightly buttery, he’s clearly at home in the fresh-Mex idiom. On a recent weekday, he presented me with a sampling of his favorite dishes, all of which ennobled their ingredients and showcased far bolder flavors than a diner might expect from a restaurant serving an acknowledged “older clientele.”
The meal began with a chilled gazpacho, the color of melted berry sorbet, that served as an aggressive reminder that a tomato’s a fruit, not a vegetable. The slightly sweet soup, studded with cilantro and mango, made a lovely match for Curras’ most popular cocktail, an avocado margarita that’s migrated from the solid to liquid column since I made my first unannounced visit to the restaurant. “We’re getting the mix worked out,” a server explained. When the restaurant first opened, it ran the frozen drink through a soft-serve ice cream machine that still sits guiltily in a corner.
Garcia said the kitchen has also perfected its house-made corn tortillas, which were alternately gummy and dry for two long months of experimentation. “I’ve been calling my mom, asking her how much flour, how much water,” says Garcia.
The now-spongy tortillas are the foil to Curras’ best-selling appetizer, a skillet of melted cheese, chorizo and roasted poblano peppers. The queso flameado is instantly recognizable to fast-food patrons, who’ve been reared on a diet of meat and extra-cheese. But the spicy chorizo, which was scant when I ordered the dish as an anonymous customer, provides the kick needed to distinguish the dish from its pizza and Philly cheesesteak brethren. “It’s our signature,” Lyon says.
I preferred a follow-up salad of romaine hearts, avocado, aged queso fresco, grapefruit and slivered wisps of tomato, dressed with a green-onion vinaigrette. Although the textures were delicate, the flavors were enjoyably forthright, and the plate reflected an admirable concern for freshness. “It’s great having a farmers’ market right across the street,” Lyon says. “I keep half my produce over there.”
Garcia also has plans to farm a half-acre tract in Mars Hill for the restaurant. “My wife won’t let me raise goats,” he says, “but we’ll do vegetables.”
Seasoning the entrees
Lyon’s current favorite entrée is a beautifully grilled tuna sliced into neat oblongs that echo the stark-white plate on which they’re served, accompanied by a vinegary ancho coulis and a coleslaw of julienned carrots and cabbage. “The coulis just kind of bites it,” Lyon says.
Lyon’s second-favorite dish features two plump, dry-packed scallops plated with butter-rich mashed cauliflowers and a hunk of sassy rainbow chard. Chard wasn’t available the day I dined, so kale pinch-hit; Lyon believes the back-up veg was to blame for the added salt I tasted, but I’m not so sure: While the scallops were scrape-your-plate delicious, nearly every dish I encountered on my anonymous visit relied too heavily on salt. If I was to take my case to culinary court, I might point out Lyon has admitted how much he likes salt: While traveling in Ecuador, the food that most impressed him was “fried skin, just greasy skin, out of a paper bag.” Mmm. Sounds salty. I’m a great fan of salt myself, but some of Lyon’s dishes seem one shake past greatness.
Salt wasn’t an issue with the stuffed poblano pepper that Garcia calls his favorite item on the menu. Served on a dish thickly coated with a sweet walnut cream, the cornucopia-shaped pepper is stuffed with a nicely balanced mix of ground beef, pork, raisins and mango. “Sometimes people feel like they’re not getting enough with that dish,” Lyon sighs, which is why the kitchen sometimes doubles up on the poblanos when plating. It’s top-notch comfort food, but would be far more comforting in November than May; mark your culinary calendars to order it after Labor Day.
A pair of gorgeous lamb chops have been updated for the season—Curras plans to issue new menus quarterly—with an oregano-heavy red wine and ancho-chili sauce. Lyon is currently pairing them with a robust quilt of lentils and ground pork. “I want to get away from doing starch, veg and sauce,” Lyon says. “It’s too easy.”
Still, Garcia says, the challenge hasn’t scared off some of the hot-dog craving customers he serves. He’s persuaded many of them to stay and sample his homemade tamales, pork braised in banana leaf and shrimp sautéed with guajillo peppers. He says even the sweet-tea drinkers, many of whom never imagined they’d see a $75 bottle of Tempranillo available in the building that housed HB’s, are charmed.
“The older ladies are willing to give it a try,” says Garcia, admitting he’s had a harder time with some of their husbands. “So far, everyone has accepted it.”