Gabrielle’s at the Richmond Hill Inn

Flavor: Seasonal Modern American/Nouvelle

Ambiance: Classically elegant

Service: Excellent

Following a steep ascent from Riverside Drive in north Asheville, the Richmond Hill Inn seems to appear out of nowhere, like an anachronistic apparition. Built as a private residence in 1889, the Inn is surrounded by 40 wooded acres with trails, lush Victorian gardens and beautiful views. The mansion has been restored to its original grandeur, with extensive additions to accommodate guests. On the evening my Picky Companion and I visited, the last gasp of Hurricane Dennis sent bands of stormy weather, shrouding the Inn in a bit of a mist and adding to the mystique of the place.

We made our way to the Gabrielle’s Restaurant entrance on the Inn’s front porch. Once inside, we took in a beautifully furnished drawing room graced with cathedral ceilings, expansive chandeliers, tall windows crowned with stained glass and a fireplace surrounded by a seating area. We were immediately welcomed by a gracious host who led us past a piano player to our seats in the lavish, cherry-paneled dining room. Our waiter appeared momentarily.

Executive Chef Michelle Kelley offers a three-course prix fixe menu and a five-course dinner, Gabrielle’s Grande, both of which utilize local, seasonal ingredients. The “Grande” experience offers a wine-pairing option, which was irresistible to us, so we bit.

We had asked for a private table, but it quickly became obvious that we had been seated next to a quite boisterous table of eight. No matter; our waiter, in collaboration with the restaurant’s host, discreetly ushered us away to a quieter spot, even though the restaurant was near capacity (which was impressive enough in itself, on a Monday).

A server brought us an amuse-bouche, a slice of raisin-walnut foccaccia, a traditional baguette and a small round of creamy, room-temperature butter. The amuse consisted of two parts: a citrusy chilled carrot-ginger soup with a dollop of fennel purée, and a slice of seared, tender buffalo and roasted parsnip on a bed of caramelized onion. Each one complemented the other quite well, and though small, they carried a wallop of flavor.

Our first courses arrived quite quickly: the Sweet Corn Bisque and the Chilled Hamachi Salad.

The bisque was a study of summer: a gorgeous deep yellow, garnished with green chive oil, red-orange tomato oil, and a small tower of crab in the middle crowned with microgreens. The soup carried a deep, nostalgic flavor of slowly roasted, buttered corn, accentuated by the light punch of the chives and the earthy bite of the microgreens. Though the flavor was deliciously concentrated, it stopped just short of being so rich as to obscure the flavor of the crab, which was a beautiful complement to the soup. The 2001 Treana wine, a lush blend of Viognier and Marsanne from Paso Robles, Calif., tied everything together perfectly.

The salad was served in a glass cone nestled in a globe of ice and garnished with a pink orchid. A velvety cushion of whipped avocado cushioned tender bits of fresh yellowtail meat and crisp cubes of chilled cucumber. Placed atop crisp sesame/wanton crackers, the interplay of the textures was quite clever. The dressing, a soy-yuzu vinaigrette, was light and subtle. The overall effect was delicate and complemented well by the light, refreshing 2003 Iron Horse Vineyards Cuvée ‘R.’

Our second course included the Foie Gras Terrine and the Butter-Poached Lobster. The terrine, with its hint of vanilla, brown sugar-roasted pineapple and a sauternes reduction that tasted vaguely of caramel apple, seemed as though it would have been more at home at the end of the meal. Though every element was independently delicious, when taken as a whole, the overall effect was quite dessert-like, especially with the addition of the 2001 Clos du Roy Sauternes.

The lobster was exquisite. The meat was lightly and perfectly cooked, buttery, and had a mild saffron flavor. With a caraway-corn flan and corn kernels mixed with the baby purple potatoes on the side, Picky thought the corn to be a bit of an overkill, especially after the corn and shellfish dish, but I didn’t even notice. The dish was paired well with a 2000 Joseph Drohin Chassagne-Montrachet Cote d’Or.

After an intermezzo of fig and peach sorbet, we were presented with our next course: the Cilantro-Encrusted Bluefin Tuna and the Spiced Blackberry-Glazed Venison Loin. The venison was tender, expertly cooked to mid-rare and graced with baby leaves of Swiss chard atop a bed of rutabaga purée and drizzle of thick, velveteen red-wine demi with a (barely there) hint of tarragon. The dish was beautifully complemented by a luscious Seghesio Zinfandel from Sonoma County, while a zippy Pinot, which the waiter brought for us to sample, complemented the tartness of the fresh blackberries scattered about the plate.

The tuna, served with a coconut cream and encrusted with cilantro (the flavor of which we could not detect) was quite good, but again, seemed to be a bit sweet. The saccharine nature of the coconut sauce was tempered by the crisp snow peas and the savory Thai basil mashed potatoes, as well as a tart and zingy Riesling, but eventually, sweet conquered all.

Even after all of this wonderful food, Chef Kelley wasn’t done with us yet. After our plates were cleared, the waiter brought forth two little platters of cheese with toasted brioche and dried fruit compote. A small triangle of medium-soft Vermont cow’s milk cheese yielded a flavor similar to Gruyère. A square of St. Nectaire from France tasted eerily like dried porcini mushrooms and was banished to the bread plate. A third selection was the decadently creamy Cashel Blue from Tipperary, Ireland, which made me quite glad that I overcame my distaste for blue cheese when I left my teenage years behind.

The dessert course featured a chocolate berry trio and a peaches-and-cream trio, deftly executed by Pastry Chef Jitra Neal, a bona fide dessert artist who turns out confectionary masterpieces of a quality rarely seen in Asheville. The dessert-wine pairings were, as with every other match, right on the nose and a fabulous complement.

As if that weren’t enough, a small offering of Mignardises and Friandises, little extra sweets traditionally served with coffee, arrived after dessert. Featuring the most sumptuously smooth truffle I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste, the platter of Lilliputian pastries was further proof of Neal’s skill.

Between the service, the expertise in the kitchen and the gorgeous atmosphere of the Richmond Hill Inn, our experience was magical – a luxurious getaway a mere 10-minute drive from downtown Asheville. As I leaned back and rested after dining like a queen, I listened to tourists from Atlanta tell a waiter that this was one of the best dining experiences they’d ever come across. I wondered why on Earth it has taken me so long to find Gabrielle’s; for a local foodie, to not visit this restaurant is something like a sin.

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