Flavor: Highbrow homestyle with pan-Asian detours
Ambiance: Linen-sundress casual
When some restaurateurs try to tart up homestyle food, their creations often shrink under all the special attention. Luckily, Doug and Jenny Weaver of Waynesville understand that if plain fried catfish becomes Cornmeal Dusted Catfish, the prettier-sounding catch had better still fill diners’ bellies.
In fact, gigantic portions are a charming hallmark of the Weavers’ new upscale-Southern eatery, the Sweet Onion (which they co-own with Dan Elliott; the restaurant sprouted from their popular Main Street mainstay Wildfire, which is now closed). On a recent visit to The Sweet Onion, we passed on the aforementioned menu item, but did catch a glimpse of the big fish making its way to another table. Our own entrées had us so stuffed it wasn’t until the drive home that we realized we’d never received the promised basket of garlic-cheddar biscuits with our food.
“Thank God,” said my husband, tipping back the steering wheel to make room for his distended stomach.
But the missing biscuits were the only service-related fumble. We found the staff steady, friendly and prompt. Our server was refreshingly low-key and spontaneous—she’d obviously memorized the highlights of the ample beer-and-wine list (fresh lemonade was the signature nonalcoholic drink), and yet nothing she said sounded rehearsed. When we couldn’t decide between the two house vinaigrettes, she suggested we order some of each and mix them. And sides of both actually arrived at the table. My husband was impressed by the doubly dressed salads, noting that such inspired advice is often—no pun intended—tossed off without follow-through.
The two vinaigrettes (one Asian-inspired and the other, of course, a sweet-onion-flavored dressing) exemplify the menu’s double-dipped theme of Down South meets Far East, a fusion most broadly attempted in their BBQ Pork Egg Rolls appetizer. The ginger-spiked sauce was a happy, wide-awake thing, in marked contrast to the actual rolls, which were overfried to the brink of street-festival status. Batter issues of a different sort beset the Southern-Fried Okra Fries. Here it was limp and soggy, flaking off almost before our eyes. But the most curious thing about the Okra Fries wasn’t their dispirited coating.
“Thirty-seven years living in the South and I’ve never seen fried okra served that way,” said my N.C.-raised spouse. The Sweet Onion takes an inclusive approach to its okra, offering the whole vegetable instead of the standard sliced rounds. But however well-meant, the innovation doesn’t fly. Okra is too tough and stringy, too altogether troublesome, to eat that way.
That said, the namesake Sweet Onion Soup was downright restorative, presented in traditional mode with the large crouton and seal of cheese, but creamier than its classic cousin and boasting a Swiss so sharp and so right I would have asked which brand they used had I not preferred using my mouth to enjoy another bite.
For his main dish, my husband chose one of the two nightly specials, a 9-ounce flatiron steak paired with shrimp scampi. Both the turf and the surf were well-seasoned and succulent, though the steak was rather more medium-rare than the ordered medium. I picked the Ranch Fettuccine Alfredo with grilled chicken, a great success. The tang of the ranch cleverly cut the rich cream sauce without ever tasting too Friday-night-at-the-fern-bar. And the “Hand-Cut Pasta” itself transformed for me a long-standing prejudice.
Let me explain. The habit of advertising any class of food as “hand [insert verb]” has, in my opinion, devolved into utter nonsense. It’s a dumpy attempt at down-homeness that insults the sensibilities of most diners. Take “hand-dipped ice cream,” for example, a promise that pops up at even the humblest of eateries. (What? You were expecting a robot to scoop it up?) Or “hand-breaded fillets,” as you’ll read on the menus of most big chain restaurants. Yes, you want your meal prepared to order, but sometimes you could do without the vision of such intimate communion between line cook and fried flounder.
The Sweet Onion is not immune to the trend: Its Southern Fried Chicken is, of course, hand-breaded; its squid is hand-cut, to become a Calamari Frita appetizer; our BBQ Pork Egg Rolls were even—what else?—hand-rolled.
But their hand-cut pasta is truly a revelation. Fettuccine (also available topped with barbecued chicken) and pappardelle (another wide, flat noodle, here paired with Thai peanut sauce or in a dish featuring wild mushrooms, Tri Tip beef roast and blue-cheese-cream sauce) are the house offerings, and while I didn’t get a peek at the pappardelle, I have to say that the hand-cut fettuccine was lovely. Compared to “normal” fettuccine, it was lacy and aristocratic and not so, well, wormy. The sauce even clings better to free-form pasta.
And now a word about potatoes, which were mashed up three ways that evening. The steak-and-shrimp entrée came with a fairly predictable clump of red-skinned mashers seasoned with Parmesan and pepper. Featured regularly are what the restaurant calls “brown butter-mashed potatoes” and also mashed white sweet potatoes, which were simple, fresh and delightful. This extra side item arrived sans garnish—just a huge loose mass skidding off the center of the plate.
The lack of presentation made us giggle—because really, who cares how it looks when the portion is so generous? However, it should be noted here that the actual restaurant and staff are very nicely appointed. Servers wear a sage-and-khaki combo instead of the ubiquitous black; an inlaid-copper sculpture of a leggy wild onion graces the wall next to the hostess’ stand; and bold dahlias in spatterware vases made a nice seasonal statement the night of our early fall visit.
Naturally, any place bearing “sweet” in the title had better serve up a decent dessert, and the Waynesville hotspot does not disappoint. An off-the-menu pecan pie seemed more for nut lovers than dessert lovers: It was so top-heavy with whole specimens of pecans that the expected rich filling seemed to have disappeared under their weight. But the gallingly delicious Dutch Chocolate Cake was executed to perfection. Though beautifully arrayed amid a latticed caramel-chocolate drizzle, the cake itself was lovingly left alone, uncompromised by fruit filling, nut topping or any other culinary meddling.
Give the Weavers a hand.
[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom who goes out to eat once in a while.]