Flavor: Modern Southern-American with an emphasis on seafood
Ambiance: Laid-back, upscale beach style – think Charleston
Service: Varies; on this particular occasion, quite good
During the calm before the storm that is Bele Chere, my Picky Companion and I decided to make one last foray for the week into a relatively tranquil downtown. Just before the beer trucks arrive to clog up what few arteries remain open through town, before the port-o-johns are anchored in place and before the stages are erected, Asheville has a certain sort of peaceful quiet about it. The residents are battening down the hatches, the bars and restaurants enjoying the pause while quietly steeling themselves for the imminent squall.
This is the state in which we found Magnolia’s Raw Bar and Grille on an early Wednesday evening. Only about a half-dozen tables were filled on the normally bustling patio, and the music was peacefully low-key as a down-tempo, jazzy band tinkled through Van Morrison’s Moondance. The tropical-but-still-bearable heat of the late-afternoon sun, the sunlight that filtered through the wisteria vines and the mature dwarf Japanese maples that frame the patio, as well as the lazy spinning of the porch fans seemed to have put all of the patrons, including ourselves, in a rather languorous mood. An attractive elderly woman seated nearby fanned herself, and could be overheard comparing the ambiance to that of a place in Key West. The atmosphere, in other words, simply screamed for an icy, adult beverage to be sipped, preferably with a bit of a lean to one’s posture or a surreptitious kicking off of one’s sandals.
A glass of white wine seemed in order. There are few other places around these parts where one can sit in a lovely, foliage-shaded patio, order up a platter of ice-cold oysters on the half shell, perhaps some chilled peel and eats on the side or maybe a cup of gumbo, and wash it all down with the aforementioned adult beverage.
If, by chance, you adhere to the rule that advises staying away from oysters during months with an “r” in their name, there’s plenty more on the seafood side to satisfy the soul. Turning to the menu, we discovered an absolute abundance of crab, a smattering of shrimp and a selection of other seafood dishes, with entrées like slow-roasted prime rib with steak fries and Chicken Cordon Bleu thrown in for good measure.
Our waitress was kind enough to stage a mini wine sampling for us when we inquired about the list. My companion selected a glass of Essence Reisling, and I decided upon a crisp and refreshing Greek wine, Boutari Moschofilero, that has a lovely mineral quality that would certainly go splendidly with oysters, though I never managed to test the hypothesis.
Instead, to fill our bellies we turned to an appetizer of fresh diver scallops wrapped in bacon and served with a mango chutney, of sorts, and a Silver Queen corn cake. While on the subject of diver scallops, it is worth noting that Magnolia’s appears to have a chef who considers responsible seafood purchasing, which is always a refreshing thing to see: In addition to the aforementioned scallops, for example, we spotted wild salmon and local trout. Magnolia’s purchases much of their seafood from a local purveyor known as Cape Fear Seafood that receives fresh fish directly from the Carolina coast on a weekly basis.
The scallops indeed tasted as though they had been quite recently hand-plucked from the waters. They were absolutely enormous (which was fortunate, as there were only two on the plate) and cooked to perfection with a gorgeously caramelized exterior and a still-translucent middle. The rather undercooked bacon around the perimeter of the bivalves, however, was a different story; it appeared to have been left to its own devices while the scallops themselves received all of the cooking. A bit of crispness and a sounder cooking on the pork belly would have been welcomed. However, the corn cake was a delight – sweet, perfectly crisp corn, light and well-flavored. I could eat a stack of those corn cakes for breakfast and proclaim that my day started out just right.
Our second appetizer, a single beer-battered, crab-stuffed banana pepper (though the menu describes the dish as peppers) also utilized the sweet flavor of corn, this time to complement the lively heat of the pepper that held the undoubtedly fresh – but unduly under-seasoned – crab mixture. A Hollandaise paired with the dish was a fine idea, but too sparsely applied.
The swimming-just-yesterday flavor of the seafood used at Magnolia’s was also evident in a wild-salmon dish served with a risotto cake, a chipotle beurre blanc and a Vera Cruz salsa that employed green olives as its main component. Most of the accompaniments could do little to match the freshness and natural flavor of the fish itself, which was indeed the most remarkable thing about the dish.
Grouper Anna – a dish of blackened grouper scattered with crab meat over a Creole Meunieur sauce and a Parmesan cheese-grit soufflé – was, as with all the seafood we sampled, treated with reverence in the pan (and grouper can be tricky, being such a lean fish). The blackened seasoning, thankfully, had been lightly applied as promised, and wasn’t allowed to obliterate the flavor of the seafood. The sauce itself, however, was packed with plenty of flavor – a bit more than we had yet encountered that evening (there seems to be a fear of salt in the kitchen). The soufflé served alongside was interesting in its own right, and also tasty, though it had, as my Picky Companion noted, “the texture of cottage cheese.” The most critical thing I could come up with to say about it concerned its rather tepid temperature. The jumbo lump crab scattered about the plate was sweet and – yes – fresh.
To complete our meal, I couldn’t help but snag a piece of Magnolia’s homemade key lime pie, and I was glad I had. It seems to be tough to find homemade key lime pie around these parts, so I was almost taken aback by its custardy texture, thick graham-cracker crust and decidedly un-neon color. With threads of real lime zest and clouds of whipped cream, it made for a summertime delight.
Magnolia’s can indeed be quite a treat. The music gets hoppin’ late at night (though it’s still plenty of fun for the early birds, as well), the seafood is practically still flopping, and the quality of the service seems to be on the rise. In fact, we noted that Magnolia’s appears to have been working hard to bump things up a notch, and it’s probably worth a look-see for those who haven’t tried it out in a while. The more unfettered seafood preparations seem to be the way to go, as they best showcase the quality of the ingredients and the sure-handed chef’s ardent love affair with good seafood.