Small Bites: Culinary couple behind Never Blue brings their comfortable tapas style to Asheville

Early next month, Jesse Roque and her husband, Edson, will open their third restaurant, Never Blue on Broadway, at 27 Broadway St. in downtown Asheville. The first of their burgeoning restaurant empire is the original Never Blue in Hendersonville, which will remain open as Never Blue on Main. The other, Blue Gypsy Watering Hole, is now open in downtown Saluda.

Never Blue on Broadway is taking over the apparently hard-luck venue that's seen two other restaurants in almost as many months. The couple has already added some of their own signature style, brightening up the dining area with low-hanging pewter chandeliers and lining the walls with deep-red carpeting to the walls to dampen that echo that results from a cavernous area with too many hard surfaces. With the shiny, corrugated metal panels and purple paint they've added, the atmosphere has a bit more of a relaxed and comfortable vibe. Locals familiar with the building may be surprised by the transformation when the restaurant opens early next month.

Roque is simultaneously bubbly and tough. She graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C. and hails from south Florida. She shares kitchen duties with her Mexican-born husband. The influences of the culinary couple yield a style best described as "tapas with a Southern and Mexican flair," says Roque. "We end up calling it Low-Mex," says Roque, a description intended to evoke her low-country style and her husband's roots. Think ceviche or Cuban-style chicken tacos sharing the menu with tasso ham-enriched shrimp and grits. 

"I have to call it tapas to help people understand what it is, but it's my 'eat a little bit of everything,’" she says. Never Blue, says Roque, will offer affordable but good food that doesn't take itself too seriously. "We were also thinking about trying to do some fun things like lobster corn dogs," she says.

In some ways, Never Blue on Broadway will remain akin to its Hendersonville counterpart, but the menu will be tweaked to reflect the tastes of the more adventurous diners in the Asheville area, Roque says. "What have become the favorites [in Hendersonville], here I think that people would be like, 'Really? She's going to have pot-roast on the menu? Big whoop.'"

"When I started out in Hendersonville, I had all of these avant garde ideas and things on the menu," says Roque. "I was using every molecule of talent I had to create these very unusual, unique, but very delicious [and] comforting dishes." Though people were receptive, she says, some questioned her use of ingredients like za'atar spice or her penchant for making things like peppercorn-and-honey ice cream. Here in Asheville, we're certainly no strangers to funky ice cream flavors, gleefully lapping up Ultimate Ice Cream's goat cheese-fig, for example.

"It's just a different clientele and age demographic," she says. "I'd say that 80 percent of the people who live in Hendersonville are retired — and a lot of them, with the stock market and the economy [souring], find themselves on a fixed income. They want comfortable, affordable food."

Here in Asheville, we want that too of course. But, as Roque says, there's a certain — not insignificant — contingent of diners that like to be daring. "People will experiment with food here, and go for the thing that sounds strangest on the menu, just to say that they've eaten it or know what it is." Comfort food, Roque says, comes naturally to her, especially after forming most of her own food traditions and style in the South. "Here in Asheville, I get to have that same Southern quality, but I get to do it a little more avant garde."

One example of the type of global comfort food that Roque plans to bring to our little city? Asheville, get your hearts (and defibrillators) ready for poutine, a Canadian diner staple that consists of french fries and cheese curd topped with gravy.  Roque will fry her potatoes in duck fat, top them with mozzarella cheese curds and finish them with a smoked tomato and pulled duck cream sauce — the king of stoner food, basically.

And what happens if customers ask how many calories are in the poutine? "It's going to be infinity — that's the word," Roque laughs. "How many? Infinity."

Never Blue on Broadway will also offer some of the same drink and food specials as Never Blue in Hendersonville — Tuesdays will feature $5 rum-runners and $2 tacos, for example, and $3 nachos on Wednesdays with $5 margaritas.

Never Blue on Broadway will be open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11:30 a.m until 9 p.m., Sundays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., with a limited menu and brunch offering. That's just a start, says Roque. They will play hours a bit by ear, depending on what customers are looking for. "We'll stay open as long as there's people in there," she says. For more information, visit http://theneverblue.com.

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