Jack of the Wood

Flavor: Pub fare with a Celtic twist

Ambiance: Warm, cozy, intimate

Service: Friendly

Watching over the entrance to the Jack of the Wood Pub is the foliate face of the Green Man, a mysterious character deeply rooted in ancient folklore. It is said that this deity of the forest represents, among many other things, the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and thus he was honored in rituals celebrating the progression of the seasons. The Druids, for example, ushered in the autumnal equinox by honoring the Green Man with libations placed among tree roots.

When autumn descends upon Asheville and early evening winds chase rattling dry leaves down the quickly darkening streets, I honor the Green Man in my own way. At the first hint of crispness in the air, at early dusk I make my way to Jack of the Wood and take a seat outside. With a pint of something dark from the bar’s selection of Green Man Ales, I toast the passing of summer and the oncoming fall season. (It’s all much less ceremonious than it sounds; I get a bit of a buzz and a mildly cold nose, while finally getting to pull out of the closet my favorite jacket and fall boots – but it’s my ritual all the same.)

Jack of the Wood is about as homey a place as you can find in Asheville, outside of your own living room. Dressed in rich earth tones and warmly lit with lanterns and flower-shaped glass lamps, it is an inviting Celtic-style pub that frequently overflows with the sounds of merriment and live bluegrass, jazz and Irish folk.

The service adds to the warmth. The staff maintains an attitude of friendly familiarity, even with strangers, it seems. The barkeeps are generally well-versed in the ways of the single-malt Scotch, of which the bar has plenty of varieties, and they know their way around the house’s Green Man brews. Should their descriptions fall short for any reason, they have no problem pouring out a small sample.

The menu, for the most part, follows the rules of comfort more than the Celtic theme, and that’s just fine with me. After all, a vast array of Celtic dishes celebrate the wonders of offal (and I’m not talking about sweetbreads and foie gras), and I wouldn’t mind if those dishes never found their way into my mouth.

The pub offers “Wings of the Wood” (garden-variety chicken wings, served buffalo-style or with honey/garlic sauce), a chutney and cheese plate served with the City Bakery’s sunflower bread, and nachos topped with vegetarian chili (“nothing more Celtic than nachos,” quipped my Picky Companion). There is a selection of salads and soups, though sadly, the beef and Guinness stew I used to relish on cool nights after a good romp in the mountains seems to be gone.

There is, of course, a hamburger, a “big, juicy Angus” patty, to be exact, served with an array of toppings (chutney burger anyone?), as well as a handful of other sandwiches. You may enjoy a classic Reuben, for example, or replace the meat with tempeh, should you so desire.

On a recent visit, we started with the crab, spinach and artichoke dip, served with “toasted baguette points,” which, in truth, seemed to have only briefly flirted with the broiler. This dish was satisfactory, but it needed another trip to the food processor, as it contained a golf ball-sized chunk of cream cheese and pieces of artichoke so large that they had not had the chance to heat all the way through. The flavors were nice and savory, the crab fresh, the onions unfortunately a bit too crunchy. Overall, the dish was clumsy but basically tasty, and in a drunken pinch, it would do.

We considered our choice of beverage, the Green Man Porter, to be hardy enough to count as its own course, or at least that’s what our bellies were telling us. The English-style brown porter, described by my companion as “what I think of when I think of porter,” is malty and toasty, with hints of chocolate and coffee and just a touch of bitterness – an excellent transition to cold weather beer.

We also sampled the Shepherd’s pie, an Irish peasant food that’s a classic in it’s own right. The quintessential manly combination of meat and potatoes is about as satisfying a meal as can be had on a chilly evening. (I have no problem, by the way, eating like a man.) This particular incarnation of the pie contained savory vegetables and aromatics, ground beef and lamb, and a topping of fluffy scallion mashed potatoes under a very thin crust of cheese. The lamb was so mild that I couldn’t detect its flavor, so I stopped our waitress – who had a strange habit of addressing our table in the first person plural, as in “do we know what we want to eat?” – to inquire whether the lamb was indeed present.

“No,” she said. “Why – does it say that on the menu?”

“Well, yes, but it doesn’t have that, you know, lamb-y flavor,” I said.

“Oh, well then it must be lamb,” she responded, going on to explain that the flavor was so mild due to the particular mixture of ingredients in the pie, or something to that effect. Good save.

Whatever the case, the pie hit the spot.

The fish and chips were equally satisfying. The fresh, meaty fish was perfectly battered and crispy, and the tartar sauce served on the side was good as well. Picky complained about the texture of his “chips,” but they were passable.

Most of the food is much better than passable, and for a pub, it’s quite good. Jack of the Wood doesn’t try to be stellar or to impress with menu curveballs, and that’s the point: It is what it is – solid pub fare with a classic feel. The place has a friendly, lovely environment with damn good beer and minimal frills, and it’s proud of it. Small wonder that for some people, it’s both a home away from home and a place to pay hedonistic tribute to the Green Man.

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