Flavor: Hearty European bistro
Ambiance: Relaxed upscale simplicity
The austere, one-word-noun trend of restaurant naming (i.e. Table, Chipotle, Dish, Feast) often implies a certain promise of singular importance. I’m not sure if that’s what the owners of Fig, a European-style bistro in Biltmore Village, intended, but it is clear they’re targeting a certain niche (as do most restaurateurs).
Full disclosure: I rarely visit Biltmore Village, as I find most of its upscale, specialty-store offerings outside of my price range. That said, I am a firm advocate of getting what I pay for, and so I made a conscious effort to regard all of my preconceived notions as just that and proceed with an open mind and appetite to Fig.
The entrance to the restaurant, through the Biltmore Courtyard off Brook Street, welcomes diners via a small, sunny patio area with simple, elegant seating. The dining room is moderately sized, yet feels open and airy, due in part to the floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking Brook Street. Warm, deep-wood tones combined with clean, minimal lines create a relaxed bistro appeal. The bar is a centerpiece, stretching across almost an entire side of the room. Deco-era Italian advertisements serve as the room’s simple embellishment. The lighting, adjusted around dusk from a relaxed warmth to a more subdued, cognac-hued glow make for a sultry evening effect. Also like clockwork, during our visit, the music shifted from the popular swing of the Squirrel Nut Zippers to a sort of Lena Horne slinkiness.
What accounts for the popularity of bistros in our culture? Perhaps it’s the accessibly relaxed sophistication of French food minus the snooty image. The menu at Fig, for example, includes many hearty bistro staples: stewed and braised meats simmered in rich broths, white beans, ragout, frites and Caesar salad, along with classic comfort foods such as macaroni gratin with applewood bacon, quiche du jour and the ever-homey chicken and dumplings. While the menu does change seasonally, French-trained chef William Klein focuses mainly on his region of study, with the inevitable strain of Italian influence represented by the likes of farfalle bolognese, risotto, polenta and panna cotta.
Fig is a casual and relaxed, yet elegant, contemporary bistro that leans toward the higher end of the spectrum, as opposed to a more bohemian French café version. Dinner entrées average $20 dollars per plate.
Impeccably prompt and personal service was a plus during our visit. My questions and concerns were satisfied by a passionate and dedicated server who really seemed invested in the chef’s vision. Bread and olive oil arrived quickly, notably with separate oil dishes for each of us. My date chose a hearty Sicilian red wine from the staggeringly well-informed wine list that consumed the entire flip side of the menu.
Our appetizer choice, the fig tart with goat cheese ($10), was described as suitable for either before or after the main course. The dish exceeded our expectations. The server proudly explained that all pastries are made on-site, and I believe this is where the chef’s French training is most impressive. The grace of great French pastry making is not in its buttery richness or light flakiness, but in the effortless discipline of the balance between the two. Layers beget layers in this standout appetizer, which offered ethereal tiers of crisp delicacy dolloped with lightly whipped goat cheese, all topped with fresh fig slices and sparsely finished with the slightly bitter bite of arugula and shallot-thyme vinaigrette. All of this greatness was framed by a compositional drizzle of balsamic reduction.
We waited only about five to 10 minutes after our appetizer for the arrival of our main courses: beef rib eye, warm potato salad, haricot vert ($28) for him; and red snapper, flageolet, squid, fennel, tomato and coriander broth ($26) for me.
The rib eye was a hearty portion of at least 10 ounces, exceptionally lean, precisely marinated and proudly embellished by crisscrossed grill marks and a brightly abstract toss of chive. The only drawback: It was not as tender as one would like. The haricot verts were appropriately young and slender, and the warm potato salad was a traditional French potato bake tossed in a Dijon and vinegar dressing.
The snapper, a more complex blend of subtleties, was a little more challenging. Its varied colors and textures created a striking presentation of a stout, approximately 8-ounce pearl-white fillet cradled by petite portions of squid, French white beans, radiant tomato, tender fennel and herbs. The tomato infused a saffron color and zest, and the fennel offered a creamy redolence to the broth of garlicky coriander. Unfortunately, the snapper was cooked a little more than I prefer – to an almost rubbery firmness.
In light of our stunning pastry appetizer, we chose a similar dessert to split – apple tart with caramel sauce and coconut sorbet ($10). Instead of adding the apples on top of the pastry, like before, this one was constructed like a womb of comfort. Sliced, warm apples were nestled inside the pastry, along with a warm almond-butter paste. The dark caramel was sparse enough to prompt a desire for more, and the coconut sorbet, also made on-site, provided a fresh, mildly sweet counterbalance to the richness of the caramel. The whole dish was encircled by a thin ribbon of zinfandel reduction.
The niche Fig has carved for itself places the romantic tradition of French peasant food in a contemporary setting, one that is thoughtfully endowed with a chef’s gift for composition and balance. As French food has informed much of classically trained cuisine, it isn’t the rarest niche to come by, and Fig focuses heavily on the more accessible cornerstones of its genre. For the more experimental, Fig provides fewer options, but for those seeking the comfort of tradition, Fig succeeds as a standout option.
[Freelance writer Cara Ciliberto lives in Asheville.]