Flavor: Continental cuisine with a Southeastern bent
Ambiance: Sophisticated casual
Where: 111 S. Main St., Hendersonville
Web site: www.square1bistro.com
Hours: Every day, 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Rare is the restaurant that makes good on its local foods promise. Rarer still is the restaurateur who doesn’t want to crow about it.
Joseph Lewis, chef-owner of Square One Bistro—the unassuming Hendersonville eatery that this year took up where La Potenza left off—is a charter member of the lonely group of chefs who aren’t anxious to advertise their allegiance to Slow Food-sanctioned kitchen practices. Lewis begged me not to reveal that he doesn’t use a corporate purveyor, apparently worried he’d offend its sales reps or the many restaurant owners who’ve come to rely on weekly visits from the food-service distribution truck.
Since he won’t tell you (not on his menu, not on his Web site and probably not even in person), I will. Lewis is using kale from his own farm, blueberries from his parents’ place and North Carolina-raised pork. “My goal is to cut out the middle man,” he explains. “Everything comes in as whole produce … still unwashed. If I had the capability, I’d bring in a whole side of cow.”
Lewis is an active participant in the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Get Local program, for which he develops a recipe spotlighting one community-grown ingredient each month. He’s the only Henderson County chef on the initiative’s roster, a fact I didn’t learn from him.
For a chef, Lewis is remarkably quiet—and not only about his achievements. He speaks in a voice so soft that he could probably have an animated discussion in a movie theater without anyone asking him to hush.
“A lot of people say I’m too quiet, and they can’t hear me,” Lewis admits. “But I think it works both ways. People see you more when you’re loud, but they get tired of you quicker.”
Square One isn’t a showy place, which means it’s not a magnet for the tourist foot traffic on Main Street. Every time I’ve visited, there have been a number of tables taken, but not so many that the wait staff wasn’t able to tend to side work during service. While the restaurant’s culinary sophistication may not appeal to casual diners—“they want salmon,” Lewis shrugs—it’s giving serious foodies reason to cheer. Lewis isn’t shy about using superlative ingredients to prepare less-than-trendy dishes from the classical canon, such as chicken cordon bleu and cassoulet.
So how good is it? Sometimes, very. I doted on a portobello salad this summer that featured two thick strips of the earthy mushroom laid crosswise over a clump of frisee, sparingly dressed with a house-made truffle vinaigrette and three satisfyingly creamy slices of a hard-boiled egg. And I willed my slight eggplant allergy into submission so I could savor a brilliantly simple preparation of pungent local goat cheese, rolled into delicate cigars of thinly sliced eggplant, washed with egg and lightly breaded.
Simple is a watchword at Square One. “Simplicity is best,” Lewis says. “For me, the best thing on the planet is vanilla ice cream. You can’t do any better than greens with olive oil and cracked salt. When I serve scallops, I don’t dredge them in sauce. If you’d like it with sauce, you can taste it. When I do crème brulee, I just do Grand Marnier. People are like, ‘Why don’t you do chocolate this, chocolate that?’”
The transition into autumn can be tough on chefs devoted to fresh ingredients, as their role evolves from chaperone to coach. Throwing uncooked turnips and pumpkins on a plate doesn’t win any points, even in the Slow Food-iest of circles. Once October hits, chefs can’t merely present raw produce: They must prepare.
To Square One’s credit, the restaurant hasn’t shirked from the season. Summer often lingers on menus, with a stained seasonal-special list still touting crab salad and peaches long after diners have begun dressing in layers. Not so at Square One, where every month merits its own array of small plates: October’s line-up includes a whimsical foie gras “sandwich” and an achingly good quail stuffed with goat cheese, served over black-eyed peas and greens. “I try to keep my food Southeastern,” Lewis says.
Other dishes are less successful, including an ultra-sweet butternut-squash soup and a dessert of limp poached pears. For every standout like the house-made sausage, which this summer was wonderfully nutty and fennel-flecked, there’s a perfectly decent dish that fails to impress. Square One isn’t yet great, but it’s awfully endearing. There’s evidence on every plate that the restaurant is really, really trying. Even the second tier entrees are beautifully presented according to an aesthetic well beyond the reach of a cliché-ridden kitchen.
Lewis confirms he’s investing a tremendous amount of work in the operation, even by food-and-beverage industry standards.
“I do most of the prep work myself,” says Lewis. “I only need guys for nightly service.”
Lewis works every day but one, getting to the restaurant around 10 a.m. and leaving no sooner than 12 hours later.
“You do the math,” he laughs. “I don’t want to.”
Lewis, 30, worked at Richmond Hill, the Inn on Biltmore Estate and La Potenza before taking over the space from partner Victor Giancola. The restaurant’s muted décor, with its exposed brick walls and dropped tile ceiling, hasn’t changed much since La Potenza shut down, but Lewis articulates a very different mission.
“It’s two different worlds,” Lewis says of the food scenes in Asheville and Hendersonville: While Asheville is saturated with local-foods savvy, Hendersonville has only recently evinced any interest in simple cooking. “That’s what’s driven me to do this. Sometimes, it’s best to let food speak for itself.”