La Bastide at the Cliffs

Flavor: Farm-fresh French
Ambiance: Quintessentially fancy, with a slight rustic vibe

Back when businessmen carried briefcases instead of Blackberries, important meals were almost always served with steak knives. In the primal 1980s, carnivorousness at the table was equated with ruthlessness in the marketplace, which meant entertaining a client invariably involved a thick slab of marbled beef. Overeating and overspending put the “power” in “power lunch.”

Folks out in ranching country may still be playing by those rules, but corporate types elsewhere have gone and gotten soft. Execs are now wooing one another over plates of line-caught salmon, heirloom vegetables and artisanal cheeses. Work with me, their orders imply, and I will treat you with all the care expended on this locally grown baby carrot. Whatever would J.R. Ewing say?

If seated at La Bastide at the Cliffs, probably something along the lines of “That’s a damn good tomato.” Under the direction of executive chef Joey Pesner, the restaurant—which, according to our server, derives almost 70 percent of its business from prospective members of the private golf community—has turned humble vegetables like sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts into a compelling sales pitch. Requisite dishes like scallops and veal still surface on the French-inspired menu, but the sumptuous herbs and vegetables plucked from the intimate restaurant’s own organic farm are the indisputable stars.

“When you’re able to play with these kind of ingredients, you don’t need complicated recipes,” Pesner is quoted as saying on La Bastide’s web site.

Right. But you do need a talented chef, which is exactly what the Cliffs found in Pesner. Pesner came to La Bastide late last year, after serving stints as executive chef at the four-star, four-diamond Ritz Carlton Georgetown, and as banquet chef at the four-star, five-diamond Hotel Adolphus in Dallas. Pesner’s refined, produce-happy dishes clearly indicate he intends to mine more diamonds from the fertilizer-free soil which blankets the ten-acre Cliffs Organic Farm.

The farm that functions as Pesner’s pantry was introduced in 2006 as an amenity of the Cliffs’ seventh master-planned community. In addition to supplying produce to all the Cliffs’ dining venues and gourmet markets, the farm is used as a learning center for community members. Newsweek referenced the sprawling garden in a story this summer about baby boomers seeking meaning in retirement: “Less than a tenth of the area of the golf course’s heavily fertilized turf, [the farm] represents not only an equivocal victory for the environment but also a triumph of marketing what sales chief Scott Beville calls ‘our commitment to wellness.’”

The farm’s harvest this season included pumpkins, acorn winter squash, sweet peppers and microgreens, although the kitchen would no more wait three months to declare a new season than a daily newspaper would save a scoop for its Sunday edition: As our server excitedly informed us, La Bastide reaps new vegetables on an almost weekly basis, and Pesner adjusts the menu accordingly.

The night we dined at La Bastide, the appetizer selections included a yellowfin tuna carpaccio paired with spicy greens and an heirloom tomato gazpacho of red onions, peppers and cucumber, which is probably frighteningly fresh. But we skipped the gazpacho, not having yet realized the restaurant’s proximity to its garden.

Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure the restaurant was proximate to anything. It’s not uncommon for first-timers to lose their way on the dark roads leading to La Bastide, a frustration that dissolves into relief upon reaching the restaurant, which has the private, far-away feeling of the finest refuges. The interior is meant to evoke a French country inn, and while it has a few clunky touches, like the ersatz-hayloft door and overly scrubbed stone columns, it nicely instigates the “there is no place but here” vibe essential to fine dining.

Beyond the boundaries of the dining room, the 14-suite inn is all business, with the first-floor boardroom perpetually prepped for the next day’s meetings. After the deals are done, brokers presumably retire to La Bastide for celebration—according to our server, a nearby table of eight had already drunk its way through the restaurant’s entire seven bottle-stock of a Chateau Malmaison bordeaux we tried to order.

Fortunately, that was the only real disappointment we encountered as we worked our way through the menu. The sweet corn bisque, while gossamer thin by basic bisque standards, reverberated with the sweetness of freshly picked corn. (Indeed, freshness was such a dominant motif throughout the meal that it’s probably easiest if you’ll just mentally prepend the word “fresh” to all the vegetables referenced in this review.)

While a dish of steamed clams floating in a chorizo-spiked tomato broth seemed like an excuse to use an odd serving contraption rarely seen outside wedding registries, it still made for a pleasant starter. Even more successful was a beautifully seared whole quail, neatly butchered into two parts segregated on the plate by thick brushstrokes of pureed army green peas and ochred carrots. The itty-bitty bird’s breast was unnecessarily stuffed with a slightly sour mixture of spinach and ricotta cheese that put me in mind of a palak paneer.

Flavors were also slightly askew on—of all things—a green salad, which was dripping with a lemony vinagrette the night I tried it. Our server smartly steered us toward a simple plate of sliced heirloom tomatoes and tender buffalo mozzarella, dotted with pinhead-sized cubes of balsamic gelatin. I also liked a gorgeous salad of frisee and grilled watermelon that made for the ideal last taste of summer before turnip and rutabaga time.

The centerpiece proteins turned out to be the least memorable components of the entrees, all of which showcased superb side dishes. A ridiculously large portion of lamb chops resting on a bed of pulled lamb shank, that somehow lost most of its lambiness in the braising process, was perked up by a bean puree. Beef tenderloin, lovely in itself, was accompanied by the sort of mashed potatoes that are good enough to make you weep just thinking of the poor souls who believe mashed potatoes come from flakes. And the Carolina black grouper was ennobled by a heap of creamed sweet corn and tomatoes.

The best desserts at La Bastide were the simplest, perhaps not surprisingly for a restaurant that prides itself on its rigorous purity rather than elaborate ostentations. Nobody at our table thrilled to a peach tart or a white and dark chocolate semifrio, but a housemade ice cream flavored with Baileys and Jameson and served in an almond brittle basket made for a terrific closer. Better still was an appetizer that rightly belonged at the tail end of the menu: a slice of creamy Stilton paired with an oozy honeycomb.

La Bastide isn’t intended for everyday eating. But it makes a fine addition to the Asheville area’s limited lineup of special occasion restaurants—and you can take that to the bank.

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