Flavor: Meat, meat and more meat
Ambiance: Business-hotel eatery
Where: 22 Woodfin St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Jarod Higgins can’t figure out why there aren’t more top-notch steakhouses in Asheville. Seems to him a city this size could use more classy go-to spots for splurge-worthy occasions.
“There’s lots of chains out there serving steak, but there’s not really a steakhouse,” muses Higgins, who, as executive chef of Chop House Downtown, has given the problem plenty of thought. “I never understood it.”
The conundrum may have expired unsolved: With the opening of Chop House and S&W Steak and Wine this spring, Asheville’s steakhouse tally has suddenly leapt, and Higgins is now gearing up for a red-meat showdown.
“I’m extremely excited for the battle,” says Higgins. “I can’t wait to start banging heads. We’re going to have to step it up.”
As it turns out, Chop House is already serving steaks that rival some of the best Asheville has seen. Although the restaurant’s side dishes and other accoutrements are still in need of fine-tuning, the grill guy at S&W Steak and Wine (which Chop House beat to the starting blocks by just under two months) will be contending with some serious cross-town competition. Chop House’s strips and filets, gorgeously marbled and flooded with flavor, would qualify as great steaks even in a beef-minded town.
Indeed, the centerpiece steaks are so crushingly good that the restaurant’s few missteps read as minor regrets, like the walk thrown in the final inning of an otherwise perfect game. Perhaps the biggest problem is one the Chop House just can’t solve: its location.
While Chop House is an independent restaurant, with no ties to the franchise of the same name, it doubles as the restaurant for the Four Points Sheraton on Woodfin Street. And so the low-ceilinged room is staged to meet travelers’ needs, from the breakfast buffet pressed against a back wall to the flat-screen TVs alternately tuned to ESPN and MSNBC. While seating includes the requisite chocolate-leather banquettes, the room is softened by taupe walls and warm, flickering tabletop candles, presumably a nod to hotel guests who might not be in the mood for a scotch-and-cigar sort of evening. Since half the fun of a steak dinner is the mobbed-up, masculine overtones, the airy, antiseptic room slightly undermines the experience.
But if the hotel address partially dictated the décor, Higgins says he wasn’t shackled in the kitchen by sharing a roof with the Sheraton. Other than having to make room on his dessert menu for a specific pie—“Starwood standard is we use Chef Pierre apple pie,” frets Higgins, who clearly isn’t fond of the frozen pastry served at every Westin, Sheraton, and W hotel nationwide. “You have to have that apple pie on your menu so the front desk can offer it to guests if they’re having a bad day. It kind of throws me off.” Nonetheless, Higgins was free to develop his own menu.
Surf before turf
Higgins has largely stuck to the classics: Starters include shrimp cocktail, stuffed portabella, bruscetta and a grilled Caesar salad. Restaurant owner Dennis Hulsing, who was a frequent diner at Amici Trattoria when Higgins worked the line there, has taken a special interest in the lump blue-crab cakes.
“They’ve gone through formation after formation,” sighs Higgins.
The current formation, a rotary-dial sized crab patty, is the authoritative answer to every diner who queries their server (and most every diner who considers ordering crab cakes does): “Is there much filler in your crab cake?” I assume every restaurant coaches their servers to say “No,” but nowhere is the response more sincere than at Chop House, where there isn’t a fleck of flour mixed into the soft crab threaded with onion and corn. That’s not necessarily a good thing: To impose shape on the amorphous mound of handpicked crustacean meat, Higgins has to pan fry it until its crust veers from golden to greasy.
Higgins, a graduate of Johnson & Wales’ culinary program in Rhode Island and eight-year veteran of restaurants in the Ocean State, admits he’d rather add a bit of binder to the mix. But Hulsing is apparently thrilled with the cakes, which Higgins finishes with a chipotle-charged tartar. “He’s raving about it now, but the process definitely kicks up the crunch,” says Higgins.
Higgins also flexes his seafood muscles on a lobster potato salad, served in a tall martini glass and garnished with a single edible purple orchid blossom, a wedge of lemon and a damp parmesan crisp. It’s a reasonably successful, spunky summer dish, shot through with an insouciance rarely seen in lobster preparations. (Eating lobster mashed-up with Yukon taters and tarragon mayo has the same strange charm of seeing Paris Hilton don overalls for The Simple Life.)
Like most steakhouses, Chop House serves gallons of French-onion soup, which Higgins prepares according to contemporary French-onion standards. Over the last decade, the French in French onion has gradually receded as chefs have loaded their soups with as many as eight different types of carmelized onions. Higgins’ version, which takes more than 24 hours to make, features yellow, Vidalia, red onions and shallots. He’s done away with the customary stretchy Gruyere coverlet, topping the soup with a pair of aged Swiss crostinis.
“Traditional French onion is awesome, but it just started getting too repetitive,” Higgins says. “You can go overboard with it, but if you use the right mixture, it clicks. I like to use onions with alternating flavors.”
Staking your claim
I found the murky soup too sweet and greasy. Still, it’s silly to waste much time or appetite on soup when the steaks are so phenomenal. Chop House sources all its meat, including a popular lamb T-bone, from Sterling Silver, a Kansas division of the agro-giant Cargill Inc. While Higgins is anxious to get more local products on the menu—he’s working with Laurey’s Catering, where his brother’s on staff, to replicate the frozen loaves of nutty multigrain bread he gets from La Brea bakery for complimentary bread baskets—he’s understandably sold on Sterling Silver.
“It’s just amazing meat,” Higgins says. “We cross-tasted steaks and couldn’t beat the tenderness.”
Chop House’s menu lists nine seasonings and nine toppings diners can request to customize their orders. “The idea I came up with is I didn’t want to tell you what to eat,” Higgins says. “I want you to have free range over your meal.”
So steaks can be patted down with a chili coffee rub, spritzed with olive oil, brushed with a balsamic glaze or crowned with a portabella-mushroom ragout. Every one is a tragically bad idea, in my opinion. Although servers are trained to tactfully steer diners away from the most distasteful pairings—“If someone’s thinking panko-herb crust and pineapple salsa, we tell them it isn’t a great combination,” Higgins says—it’s a mistake to spoil a marvelous steak with even the most restrained add-ons.
I tried a filet seasoned with Higgins’ secret marinade, which turned out to be not much of a secret: “It’s brown sugar, soy sauce, Worcestershire and honey,” he revealed. The sweetness overran the steak’s own terrifically smoky flavor, derived from a wood grill fueled by hickory, maple and oak.
“Me, personally, I suggest salt and pepper,” says Higgins. “You shouldn’t have to mask this meat. The quality grade is incomparable.”
Take it from the chef: Don’t bother with the bells and whistles. And I’d recommend not getting distracted by the sides, portioned for two: Most of the dishes I tried, including the French fries and the gluey black truffled wild rice, needed work.
Higgins is wild about the strip steak, which was slightly tough the evening I dined at Chop House unannounced (other visits were arranged with the staff). But I’ve now tried the filet three times, both as an identified critic and anonymous customer, and am pretty well persuaded of its reliable excellence.
The weeknight I ate at Chop House, I saw only two other parties there between 6 and 8 p.m. Honestly, the restaurant should be busier. After so many years of waiting for an independently owned steakhouse, Asheville should consider itself fortunate to have a highly competent one.