Flavor: Native American
Ambiance: Rustic and riverside
Ten minutes after arriving at Spirits on the River, also known as Spirits Native American Restaurant, my Picky Companion commented that “this is a distinctly Asheville experience.” How very true, I thought.
The reasons for such an observation were numerous. For one, we were seated on a plant-filled wooden porch overlooking a rushing Swannanoa River that was swollen with the recent rains. The sweet music of local birds intertwined with the woodwind-heavy soundtrack playing in the restaurant brought to mind the film The Last of the Mohicans. To ward off the maddeningly hungry late-summer mosquitoes, a bottle of herbal bug repellent (nonaerosol, mind you) was proffered by the owner of the restaurant – who was also the hostess, cashier and sole waitress. Her husband – who is also her business partner and chef of the restaurant – was in the kitchen turning out gator bites and buffalo tips.
The small crowd seated out on the atmospheric porch – the very spot where the interminably perky Rachael Ray yummed it up for the cameras during her recent tour of Asheville for her TV show, $40 a Day – was patiently sharing precisely four menus. Having to wait to see one was a silly circumstance, at worst, and the twinkle in our waitress’ eyes when she informed us of the temporary dearth of menus hinted that she too found this to be more of an amusement than an irritation. Ah, Asheville, so charmingly – if often unaccountably – casual.
It had been a while since I’d last visited Spirits on the River. My most vivid recollection was of the tiny (and delicious) carcass of a quail, whose little bones I gnawed on with relish, causing my newly omnivorous friend to beat a hasty retreat back into the safe confines of vegetarianism. What a shame, too. While Spirits certainly does a fine job with vegetables, wild game is the star of this menu.
Upon my most recent visit, however, the menu did seem a bit less, well, “wild” than I recall it being. Perhaps the impression of tameness is due to the fact that game meat is becoming less and less an exotic item. Venison is gaining popularity on the restaurant scene, and quail – an increasingly commonplace offering – counts as game.
Spirits on the River offers a fairly small selection of approachable game, including quail, bison and pheasant (sadly, the pheasant was unavailable when we dined). For the more adventuresome diner, the restaurant also serves gator and rattlesnake. In my personal opinion, gator is best left to the murky depths from whence it came, but those who like that sort of thing call it (what else?) chicken-like.
I’d rather stick to the flesh of the buffalo, a noble and downright delicious beast. Spirits serves a lean and tasty slab of bison meat as one might imagine a Native American would: bare bones and quite naked, with only salt and pepper and the flavor of the fire to enhance it. Sides to accompany said slab range from the austere – unadorned wild rice – to the artery-hardening, such as the traditional Native American fry bread or the modern-American fried onion rings. We selected grilled squash and wild rice for a simply treated complement to the just as simply treated meat and were pleased with the results. Gluttonous New Worlders that we are, however, we wished for a little extra fat, or perhaps a little something saucy on the side.
My entrée – pan-fried trout – was bursting with flavor on its own, however, and didn’t even need the ramekin of tartar sauce served alongside. What’s more, my plate was a veritable corn extravaganza, with an astonishingly tasty ear fried in peanut oil and a fresh, chilled maize salad replete with large yellow kernels, tiny, sweet white ones and beans. The trout breading might have even contained a bit of cornmeal. My fish was undoubtedly fresh and liberally spiced, and I managed to make it disappear quite quickly. The maize salad was not as liberally spiced, and Picky went so far as to call it a bit bland, but with those little beans and pieces of ruby-red tomato, I found it to be a refreshing late-summer side dish.
Speaking of refreshing, one would be foolhardy to skip Spirits’ Seven Sisters Salad, which can be punched up with a variety of wild meats, shrimp or avocado. The owner/waitress/hostess called it a “plain salad,” but it is nothing of the sort. It contains an assortment of vegetables – red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, jicama, chayote and red onion – served atop a bed of red-oak lettuce. Salad dressings included a rather basic but good herb vinaigrette and a creamy jalapeño/cucumber concoction that was a delicious addition to raw veggies. For a couple of people who had spent the whole Sunday on the couch celebrating the reappearance of football with chips and salsa and beer, it was a welcome slap of health upside the noggin.
For dessert, I decided to eschew the fry bread, ice cream and berries that tempted me for a slightly less calorie-filled bottle of mocha java stout that tasted strongly of coffee. As far as an after-dinner drink for a beer-lover goes, it works quite well, but too many of these might make for a leaden stomach, I fear.
But with the fare at Spirits on the River leaning more toward the healthful than otherwise, one can easily find room to indulge a bit – especially when faced with dishes like quinoa “pasta,” wild rice and anasazi bean burritos, fresh trout or a vegetable plate. Even a hunk of bison is better for you than beef.
Spirits on the River also has my vote for best patio ambience. Even if it seems a bit neglected, the deck makes for an incredibly soothing experience. With the river gurgling in the background, the birds singing and a group of bug-repellent-covered diners harmoniously sharing the four menus (by the time this goes to press, I’m sure they will have printed more, by the way), Spirits on the River is indeed uniquely Asheville.