Flavor: Vaguely continental
Ambiance: Warm and cozy
Damn you, Stone House Market.
When I told friends I’d be reviewing restaurants for the Xpress, the most frequent response was a cocked eyebrow and a soul-scouring “Will you tell the truth?” These wary diners, most of whom had lived in other mid-sized markets where the resident critics had mastered the art of juggling a fork, knife and a pair of pom-poms, were sure small city reviewers took an oath to be overly nice. Having been burned myself by reviews that lauded a restaurant’s dishware – but failed to mention the tepid chicken and middle-aged vegetables perched atop the pretty plates – I vowed to temper my praise with criticism. Over and over in my reporter’s notebook, I wrote: “I will not gush in print. I will not gush in print.”
And then along comes Stone House Market, intent on crushing my credibility by serving one of the best meals I’ve had in Asheville.
The assault started before I even reached the front door. The restaurant is just across the river from the rump of downtown, but if you instead follow the circuitous path proposed by a befuddled gas station attendant, zig-zagging through deepest, darkest Candler, it’s hard to believe the warmly lit rock cottage is within jogging distance of Pack Square. The drive – especially when made on a dark and rainy night – has all the hallmarks of a path leading to a find. Stumbling onto the Stone House Market feels like coming across a rustic auberge in Alsatian France.
Talk of France may have seemed hoity-toity to the couple who in 1934 built the structure as a Shell gas station, living in it only until their matching stone house on a neighboring hill was completed. The wife lives there still, looking down on the tiny building Dan and Debbie Rogerstransformed into a restaurant two years ago.
When the couple found the building, it was serving a short stint as an antiques mart after 40 years of housing a television repair shop. It had no running water, save for a speck of a bathroom around back. The Rogers embarked on a major sprucing-up campaign, turning the space into a welcoming dining room with five floral tablecloth-cloaked tables – including a salvaged booth from their last enterprise, an inn in Tryon, and a hightop they’re hoping to replace – and a six-seat bar.
In wintertime, Dan, a self-taught chef who cases local markets every morning for items worthy of that evening’s menu, mans the kitchen alone. Debbie handles front-of-the-house duties.
We had Debbie’s undivided attention on a recent Tuesday, although she swore the place fills up on weekends and summer nights, when tables are set up outside. I hope she was telling the truth. To her credit, the cleaned-out wine cellar suggested she wasn’t telling tales: There were only three bottles of red wine left to await the distributor’s return the next day, (After we polished off a $15 bottle of a Cabernet, Debbie graciously sold us a costlier red blend for the same price.)
But if Tuesday isn’t the best night for oenophiles to pay their respects to the culinary wizard lurking on Old Leicester Highway, it’s a great night for oyster lovers. On Tuesdays and Fridays, a fellow from Wilmington delivers North Carolina cluster oysters to the Stone House Market.
Sometimes Dan serves the oysters raw. Sometimes he serves them steamed. The difference between the Stone House Market and big restaurants – and by big, I mean a restaurant with an employee – is the difference between a live concert and a studio album. Dan riffs according to his mood and his edible collaborators.
Our oysters were steamed and served in a towering mound that looked like something you’d rarely approach without scuba gear. They were accompanied by ramekins of drawn butter, cocktail sauce and a cilantro sauce too savory to be wasted on even the best oyster. And they had me wondering how to contact the cabal of deeply-wowed critics about membership requirements.
There aren’t menus at Stone House Market. There’s a blackboard, which usually features one appetizer and four or five entrees. Every entree is served with a salad, assembled by Debbie at the bar. Dan makes the salad dressings from scratch, which is probably why we pushed our salads aside and ate the dressings with the spoons. It’s a terrible shame Stone House doesn’t serve wings: the blue cheese dressing is a masterpiece.
Any last hope I had of salvaging my reputation as a fair-minded reviewer was shot on the bread, a hunk of golden-crusted sourdough that Dan sells by special order. So much care and craft went into the loaf that it seemed ungrateful not to eat every crumb.
The entrees were every bit as good as the opening act. While North Carolina surely has its share of hog connoisseurs, I couldn’t help but think Chicago fat cats would approve of the thick pork chop served with a sauce of mango and apricots. The basil-dusted zucchini, carrots and squash tucked alongside the chop demanded equal billing (and a watchful eye: the vegetables seemed to vanish whenever the plate’s rightful owner turned her head.)
While the full monty usually involves taking everything off, The Full Monty dish involved putting everything in. Ribbons of homemade spinach pasta made a bed for smoked sausage, grilled shrimp and an entire salmon filet, perfectly cooked and seasoned with a sprinkling of dill.
My luck finally turned with dessert, a plate of bananas Dan emerged from the kitchen to pluck from a bartop cornucopia. The bananas were lightly caramelized, although still sturdy enough to smack of an after-exercise snack. My tablemates said something about the finish being anti-climactic, but I could barely hear them: I was already on my knees, thanking the newspaper gods for giving me something to critique.
My reverie didn’t last: The final bill for the meal – two bottles of wine, countless oysters, three entrees and dessert – came to a penny-pinching $92.39. Why must you be so good, Stone House Market?
One caveat: the restaurant may not be quite so good when you go (and you should.) Anyone who’s endured a round of improvisational performance knows ad-libs don’t always work. But on one night last week, it worked very, very well. Trust me.