Flavor: Island tropical plus tomatoes
Ambiance: Urban casual
Price: Lunch, $3-$9; dinner, $5-$15
Where: 233 Montford Ave.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Let’s say you’re asked to imagine a French chef. Easy, right? The rotund, red-faced perfectionist is a fixture in the kitchen’s permanent cast of characters, instantly recognizable even to lugs who don’t know their knives from their sporks.
Now picture a chef of a different sort: A Rastafarian gourmand. (Fridays, the early ‘80s Saturday Night Live knock-off, found this concept so giggle-worthy that its writers created Nat E. Dred, an easy-going cooking-show host who liberally seasoned his dishes with weed and smoked them.)
No matter how you envision a reggae chef, it’s unlikely your mental image bears any resemblance to Aaron Thomas, the talented and highly invested chef behind Nine Mile, the new Jamaicanesque pasta joint on Montford Avenue in Asheville.
“I can’t not care” about the endeavor, Thomas says with more resignation than pride.
Thomas, late of Lucky Otter, is admittedly dogmatic about his menu, which drew its initial inspiration from the successful Colorado chain Rasta Pasta. He spent years researching recipes for his vegetable-heavy dishes, starting in the cookbook aisle of Asheville’s public libraries.
“I took out every pasta book I could find and picked out everything that sounded good,” says Thomas, who freely combined the recipes he found and solicited other chefs’ opinions. “Then I got more pasta books, and then I went to Oregon and bought some pasta books and really nailed it down.
“Rasta Pasta was good, but I know this is better,” he continues. “That’s not me being egotistical. That’s me being honest.”
Somehow, when he says it, it doesn’t sound like bragging. But it’s also clear Thomas won’t tolerate any messing with what he considers an exemplary menu. That means he’s staunch in his refusal to add coffee, sandwiches and breakfast items to Nine Mile’s line-up, much to the dismay of some neighbors who are still pining for Pyper’s Place, which formerly occupied the space.
“I’m going back saying, ‘This is what I’m hearing, they’re wanting sandwiches,’” says co-owner and former Westville Pub staffer Nathan Ray, who handles the front of the house and all the stresses that accompany it. “But for Aaron, that’s not what we’re doing.”
Thomas finally budged on appetizers, which had no place on the restaurant’s first few menus. “That’s one of Aaron’s rules,” Ray explains. “The bowls have so much going on, the entrée is enough to stand alone. That’s all you need.” Patrons apparently felt otherwise, so Thomas grudgingly compromised by repositioning a few of his existing ingredients as starters: The newest column on the menu includes a generous portion of the oiled and Cajun-spiced City Bakery bread that accompanies every entrée, plated with a bowl of marinara sauce, and chips served with a fresh salsa that’s nearly indistinguishable from some of the pasta preps. Don’t expect mozzarella sticks anytime soon.
“These dishes are his babies,” Ray says of Thomas’ fierce commitment to the thoughtfully scrambled cuisine he’s created. “Aaron doesn’t have any children; he has those dishes.”
High-end food for low-end budgets
There are currently a dozen pasta dishes available at Nine Mile, with the same menu offered for lunch and dinner. Dinner portions, which run $3 to $6 more than their midday counterparts, are slightly larger and are served with a simple green salad. Even with the price hike, dinner at Nine Mile is still remarkably reasonable: A big bowl of noodles with red sauce costs $5.15. “I’m not here to steal from people,” Ray says with the same determination he exudes when discussing his menu. “If I can keep it affordable for the common person, I will.”
Still, the restaurant doesn’t scream cheap. Just as Thomas doesn’t quite fit the no-worries Rasta mold, the eatery’s clean-lined wooden interior is at odds with stereotypical expectations. Reggae music is always playing—“It’s motivating just to have that positive feeling,” Ray says—but there aren’t any fliers posted for last month’s jam-band shows or line cooks sneaking out the back door for a round of Hacky Sack. Like the menu, the décor bespeaks the same cosmopolitan frugality that reigns over at Doc Chey’s Noodle House, where combining pasta with regional flavors has proved a winning formula.
As for the pastas, the menu could probably use more pruning. None of the dishes I sampled on an unannounced review visit or while dining with Thomas and Ray were bad, but the small kitchen’s understandable reliance on a limited selection of fresh ingredients means many of the cutely named pastas taste pretty much the same. Working one’s way through a succession of dishes becomes a pleasurable blur of sautéed fire-roasted tomatoes, squash, zucchini, onions, herbs and jerk.
Thomas is especially proud of his zippy jerk sauce, which recalls a recipe he clipped from a newspaper while in college. “I had a killer recipe for jerk, but I lost it in 1996,” he sighs. “I gave it to my roommate, and he never gave it back.” By mixing malt vinegar, orange juice, lime juice, allspice and cinnamon—along with a secret ingredient he refuses to reveal—Thomas believes he’s concocted a fair approximation of the Lost Jerk.
The sauce is not especially hot. Thomas works on the additive principle of spice, leaving it to diners to pep up their dishes.
The house hot sauce works especially well with Soon Come, an unexpectedly enjoyable sweet dish of cheese-stuffed tortellini, pineapples, raisins, apples and bananas—essentially, a fruity noodle kugel. “In my experience, ladies like it on the sweeter side, and fellas like it spicy, but with that dish, fellas like it too,” says Ray.
Although still muted, by traditional Caribbean standards, spice plays a starring role in the virtuous-tasting Nine Mile, a gingery bowl of linguine served in a slightly watery pan-made sauce of tomatoes, spring onions, squash, zucchini and jalapeños. “At first, the jalapeños were really bland and not working as well,” Ray says. “But now, it’s just enough.” The dish is available with chicken or tofu: Unless you have some sort of philosophical objection to soy, definitely go with the latter.
Thomas’ tofu is superb. Coated with jerk, it reverberates with flavor. The trick, he says, is pan-frying the tofu in olive oil: “It gets spongy if you deep fry it,” he explains. “I hit it with white wine and soy sauce, and carmelize it twice with jerk sauce.” Yeah, mon.
Since every dish at Nine Mile journeys through the sauté station, the kitchen isn’t designed to facilitate other cooking techniques—pasta-making doesn’t fit into the Nine Mile scheme, Thomas says. “I had it all set up to do fresh pasta, but then I got here and realized it would be impossible,” he says.
“The reason we decided not to do it was time,” Ray adds. “Four or five extra hours in the morning before service was something we didn’t want to tackle. We talked about having Pasta Mama come in here, but then you’re having people come in while you’re not here.
“Fresh pasta was one of our keystones at first,” Ray continues. “Aaron cooks up our pasta pretty well though.”
Nine Mile works primarily with linguine, making nice use of a spinach linguine in dishes such as the silky, jerk-tuna topped Negril Nights, in which the pasta—coated with a thin veneer of coconut milk—plays beautifully off the slightly smoky tomatoes. Diners also have the option of replacing pasta with spiral-cut zucchini, instantly transforming any dish into a springtime salad.
In addition to all the pasta, Nine Mile has an ever-evolving beer-and-wine list and desserts from Butterbugs Baked Goods, including a witty chocolate spliff cake with layers of fudgy pudding and lemon/thyme cream.
“When we started, I was asking Aaron, ‘Can we serve a whole restaurant full of people and make it taste this good?’” Ray recalls. “When I finally sat down, I was so proud of him and the uniqueness of the dishes. Seriously, I was almost in tears. I was like, ‘Thank you, thank you, Aaron.’”