Flavor: Continental with cream sauce
Ambiance: (Possibly) too cool for you
You can’t get a glass of iced tea at Vigné.
There’s no sweet tea, unsweet tea, raspberry-infused herbal tea, or any of the other nonalcoholic staples that so many Asheville diners typically guzzle with their meals. But the thirsty can order a $250 bottle of Veuve Clicquot, the perpetually posh bubbly that’s become synonymous with glamour among the celebrity-striving set. The remainder of the French-leaning wine list is similarly luxe, with more than a dozen bottles in the $100-plus range, and pedestrian reds like a Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon marked up a full 300 percent—presumably so nobody has to risk feeling like a cheapskate at this new see-and-be-seen addition to downtown Asheville.
That doesn’t mean every customer is made to feel comfortable here. While I had nothing but solicitous—if sometimes giggly—service from my hunky waiters, who were fashionably clad in head-to-toe black, I watched a hostess shunt a hapless pair of tourists in shorts to a seemingly neglected corner of the stylish dining room. The man spent much of the meal fiddling with his cell phone. (Vigné is the sort of place where it doesn’t feel gauche to make a call during dinner—so long as you’re using an iPhone.)
But every other diner I saw seemed thrilled to have snagged a seat at Vigné, which is generating more buzz than a field of cicadas. Vigné is drawing a startlingly hip crowd that I can only guess was fasting until the restaurant opened earlier this summer: I’ve never seen such well-dressed customers at an Asheville eatery. (Now I know who’s keeping the town’s myriad high-end clothing boutiques in business.) Not surprisingly, Vigné‘s concept was co-developed by Guadalupe Chavarria, Asheville’s hairstylist extraordinaire.
And it’s a terrific concept. Tolstoy may have been right about families—but unhappy restaurants, or at least the ones that make their customers unhappy, are numbingly alike. While great restaurants follow different roads to glory, most that fall short are beset by the same tedious problems: Derivative dishes. Clumsy service. Too much salt.
For its part, Vigné has the courage to make new mistakes, which renders even its few failures interesting. (There is, for instance, no worldly reason to put parsley in a fryer. But more about that later.) The restaurant is operating under a set of culinary rules previously unknown in Buncombe County in which sophistication sometimes trumps substance and presentation is paramount.
Still, the diner who stops gaping and start grazing will be rewarded by a series of palate-caressing dishes that bespeak richness, their flavors as lush as the gorgeous Danish modern decor is stark. The menu at Vigné is all sensuous satins and velvety creams; a full meal feels like a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel full of milk.
Milk is exceedingly popular in Sweden, where chef Erik Sandstedt received his culinary training and won a national skiing championship. The Swedes lead the world in milk consumption (and, presumably, strong bones). Swedish cookery, though, tends to be a huskier affair, with wintry root vegetables and fish forming the core of the tundra-tied diet. Muppet antics aside, Swedish chefs are known for their caring approach to ingredients. Sandstedt has eschewed the rutabagas and cod, but hung onto the attention to detail that colors his native cuisine. Whether working with goat cheese, blue cheese or a noncheese such as Serrano ham, Sandstedt shows immense respect for what he puts on the plate.
Appetizers are big at Vigné, perhaps partly because entrée prices are steep by Asheville standards, with even the token vegetarian dish clocking in at $17. Yet the gustatory reasons to gorge oneself on starters are at least as persuasive as the economic excuses. Of the six smart appetizers on the menu, the fondue is by far my favorite: The cheese was creamy and sumptuous—of course—but the stunner was the accompanying beef. Many cynical kitchens, assuming anything they plated with a cupful of cheese would be fated to have its flavor obliterated by overzealous dippers, would treat the fondue dish as a compost pile, populating it with tough meats and limp vegetables. Vigné has too much faith in its customers and too much pride in its work to resort to such cost-cutting tricks: The beef was a nicely marbled cut, and marvelously cooked. The brioche and fried artichokes were also quite good, although both benefited from a quick swirl through the cheese.
The fried oysters were less successful, with an overpowering lemon gastrique imposing an unwelcome acidity on the dish. A dish of figs stuffed with goat cheese, swaddled in prosciutto and dashed with a sugary glaze managed to steer clear of cliché. That’s no easy task, since pairing goat cheese with figs has become as obvious as matching pancakes to syrup.
Sandstedt also has a run-in with overplayed ideas on the entrée section of the menu, adding a carrot foam to his downright outstanding pork. I recently had lunch with a few other food writers and the topic of foam came up: “Foam is over,” announced a writer from Dallas. “Foam is now espuma,” a San Francisco writer counseled. “Foam has come to Asheville,” I said, fresh from my meal at Vigné. Although foam was named a top food trend by CNN way back in 1999, Asheville menus have stayed relatively foam-free, with the exception (to my knowledge) of a few experiments by Hector Diaz at Chorizo. As Sandstedt’s version seems to prove, we didn’t miss much.
Most of Vigné‘s entrées don’t require any culinary chicanery: The filet, while a mite peppery, is satisfying. The scallops are tender. Of the dishes I sampled, only the chicken and prawn dish—necessitated by the cutesy concept of dividing the entrées into the categories of water, land, earth and air—was a disappointment. The curry sauce was bland, and the chicken was overcooked. For Sandstedt’s sake, it might be better if pigs did fly.
Desserts are quite simple, including a scoop of ice cream, a dish of berries and a trio of mousses served aboard small spoons. There’s also a round of Camembert, fried to a deep golden brown. Had it not been preceded by profoundly creamy fondue, mussel and blue-cheese bisque and chicken curry, the fatty cheese oozing from the Camembert’s shell might not have seemed half so unctuous. But the real trouble was the greasy fried parsley that shared the plate.
Sandstedt, of course, didn’t invent fried parsley: The French have been assaulting their leafy green vegetables that way for ages. But he may be the only chef around here attempting to resurrect the tinselly preparation. And that alone makes Vigné worth the visit—so long as you stick to the mousse.