On the "-est" lists of Asheville restaurants, there are plenty of venues that surpass The Market Place, which isn't the oldest, ritziest, boldest, biggest or hippest place in town. Indeed, the restaurant is so staunchly understated that Frommer's once described it as "somehow undervalued and underappreciated." But Mark Rosenstein can take solace in knowing he created perhaps the most important restaurant in Asheville's half-century-long history of eating out.
"You know how a crystal grows?" asks Rosenstein, who last month sold the white-tablecloth institution after a remarkable 30-year run. "You get a seed, and everything grows around it. You look how this tiny business had so much influence."
Without exaggeration, it's fair to say most visitors who stroll through downtown Asheville are beneficiaries of The Market Place's achievements. Whether tourists are tucking into plates prepared by veterans of the restaurant's kitchen, wandering along Biltmore Avenue after dark or bumping into old college friends, they're at least partly indebted to Rosenstein, a visionary toque who elevated the area's cuisine, helped revitalize its urban core and provided an arena in which Asheville's nascent professional class could thrive.
"We were the first," Rosenstein says, after ticking off a list of The Market Place's culinary credits, including its rank as the first Asheville restaurant to shuck just-harvested oysters and serve classical French pastries.
"We?" he adds, reconsidering. "I. But I don't say 'I.' That's one of the reasons I've stopped. I need to refuel my creative juices."
Rosenstein chiseled his kitchen philosophies from the raw material provided by Jackson County, where he opened The Frog & Owl Café in 1972 at the age of 19. While Highlands already had a reputation as an upscale enclave, it was still considered somewhat "out there," even by the folks who lived there and loved it. The local color was so highly saturated that Rosenstein learned carpentry from a man who was two decades into a well-kept vow of silence and bought trout from a Baptist deacon who once threatened him with a shotgun. Commercial food distributors wouldn't touch the place, which backed Rosenstein into a locavore corner.
"Nobody was going to supply a guy with 20 seats, miles from nowhere," he recalls.
Instead, Rosenstein says, he picked his own vegetables. When he ran out of trout, he ordered the dishwasher to pluck some from the pond across the street. Rosenstein wasn't the only chef in the region getting excited about fresh, and incidentally, organic food, but he was one of the few who didn't squander its potential on Whole Earth Catalog-approved recipes like lentil stew and flaxseed muffins.
"I've always been experimental, and making meatloaf wasn't particularly challenging," says Rosenstein, who began working in a distinctly French idiom, "That's what I thought everybody did because I was reading Escoffier."
Rosenstein depended on his well-traveled clientele to knowledgeably critique his Grand Marnier soufflés and object when a needless bay leaf surfaced in their bowls of Vichysoisse. They pushed him to create classical dishes he'd never tasted.
"They'd say 'can you do that?', and I'd say 'of course I can!," Rosenstein laughs.
And mostly, he could, leading to a financed invitation to open a restaurant in Asheville. Anxious to helm a year-round operation, Rosenstein in 1979 took over the old Supernatural Café on Market Street.
"Hindsight is one of those cruel masters," Rosenstein says. "Because if I'd stayed in Highlands, I'd have been a millionaire."
But seduced by the prospect of not having to look for winter work, rebuild his crew every spring or smuggle wine past the police, Rosenstein and a few members of his kitchen team relocated to the broken-down building that today houses Vincenzo's.
"We did all the work," Rosenstein says. "The city wouldn't even repair the sidewalk for us. We did all the woodwork. There's a hanger I put in there to hold the men's bathroom door that I think is still there."
Not every problem Rosenstein encountered on Market Street could be solved with a jerry-rigged length of wire. When he first arrived in Asheville, Lance's Chefs' Service was the only food distributor working with restaurants.
"You could get zucchini, potatoes and onions," Rosenstein says. "All the produce was rotten."
Rosenstein started making weekly trips to the Farmers' Market in Atlanta, a routine he kept up until he realized another Asheville resident was traveling the same route to sell bread.
"I asked him to swing by to pick up my produce order, and that's how Mountain Foods got started," Rosenstein says. "That was the earliest Market Place spawn. We laid down a way of doing things."
By its fourth or fifth year in business, Rosenstein says, the restaurant "was flying." Determined to "get to the 21st century," Rosenstein hatched a plan to expand The Market Place from 40 to 140 seats, moving the restaurant to its current home on Wall Street. While he managed to complete the relocation, he had to scale back his plans to match the money available: His concept of a fine-dining restaurant fronted by an informal grill — an arrangement styled after the first Market Place, where the ground floor offered a more casual menu — never materialized.
"That's where the bullseye of the Asheville market is," he says. "It's funky, but not what I'd call high craft."
Rosenstein last year tried to resurrect the idea with Bar 100, a Jeffersonian small-plates spot wedged into the restaurant's front room, featuring meats, cheeses and vegetables produced within 100 miles of the restaurant's door. Neither servers nor customers responded warmly to the reasonably priced menu, which Rosenstein now says was slightly at odds with the restaurant's brand. Although Rosenstein says diners today may flinch at the white tablecloths that were de rigeur when the restaurant opened and fumble with its Continental wine list, they still expect The Market Place to be "special."
"About 15 years ago, I realized that even though I was a pretty good chef, that food wasn't the most important thing," Rosenstein says. "It's the heart and the head.
"Some people will come back and tell me what they ate here, but that's not what The Market Place is about," he continues. "We created a place where people experience joy and satisfaction. That's what they remember. They remember how they felt. It's not just food. It's a hell of a way to make a living, but that's the thing that's kept me in it."