Flavor: Banquet menu-esque American standards
Ambiance: Warm and cozy
There used to be some cachet associated with being a food writer, or at least that’s what I’ve been told by gouty reviewers who’ve spent decades at table. Back in the culinary cretaceous period, a digital camera and a Web address did not a food writer make.
Today, of course, thousands of self-appointed critics have made the edible scene their beat. And while a few of them are guilty of the antics that make old-guard writers moan—bloggers have reportedly demanded free meals from chefs and scarred retinas with their flashing cameras—most are doing incredibly good, buzz-worthy work. (New York’s Daily News this year became the first print publication to officially take notice, hiring Danyelle Freeman, aka Restaurant Girl, as its critic.)
Here in Asheville, we’re fortunate to have Gourmet Grrl, who prefers to remain anonymous and records her idiosyncratic musings on local dining on her blog (www.shewhoeats.wordpress.com). Since I’m a fan of her site, which won a local Best New Blog award earlier this year, I thought it might be fun for us to join forces. The Grrl was up for it, so we met earlier this month at Sunnyside Café in Weaverville, where Jack and Patty Keeran recently reassumed ownership after a two-year absence. Our after-dinner conversation follows:
Gourmet Grrl: I arrived at the near-empty restaurant, teeth chattering, wondering who this mystery foodie “Hanna” could possibly be. Instantly, I was greeted by about two or three friendly, attentive wait staff. The décor was basic—off-white walls referencing the holiday season with a modicum of Christmas lights strung on various fixtures around the room. I found the ambiance inviting, but a little basic. It kind of reminded me of a cozy little diner in a small southern Appalachian town. Wait a minute—they might have been onto something there. Although the lighting warmed my heart, the actual temperature chilled my bones—a strange paradox on a blustery late-autumn eve.
Hanna: Blustery is kind. It was freezing. I’m not sure how well wine fares when boiled, but I really could have used a warmer drink.
Gourmet Grrl: I ordered the Sunnyside Salad—a house specialty! I thought the buttermilk-fried chicken strips were terrific. I found them thick and juicy with just the right amount of crispy goodness to blanket the hearty mounds of chicken. They added cucumber, thickly julienned, with crisp green beans, red peppers and black olives. I believe giant black olives are a staple of any salad that dares to call itself “special.”
The raspberry vinaigrette was everything I could desire in raspberry vinaigrette: strong, vinegary and tangy. Most raspberry vinaigrettes I’ve encountered are thick, magenta, syrupy sweet concoctions. I totally dug this salad and wanted to finish it off, except I had already hogged most of it and I knew there was more to come.
I also ordered the soup special: Mountain apple and onion soup. I was instantly intrigued—did she say “apple”? This item was not as exciting as it sounded. More like French-onion soup with apple juice added to the mix. The onions were copious and melty, and the soup definitely rang with an acidic sweetness. I felt it could have used a little melted cheese or maybe a crouton to cut the tangy sweetness. A nice concept, but overall my mind was not blown.
Hanna: I was pretty excited for the much-touted House Specialty salad until our server revealed what made it so special: As I recall, her explanation was something like “Well, it’s called Sunnyside.” To her credit, she did pay her respects to the awfully good chicken strips. And I was enamored with the avocado and potato chunks, which were a fairly bold addition to an otherwise standard salad.
But since the salad rightly belonged to Gourmet Grrl, I should focus on my appetizer, selected from the menu’s well-pruned list of three: I skipped the hummus and the bacon-wrapped scallops (a rumaki for the ‘90s) in favor of the crab-stuffed mushrooms. The mushrooms were admirably taut, but the stuffing wasn’t half as crabby as I might have liked.
Gourmet Grrl: The crab-stuffed mushrooms were as retro as 1954: A weak attempt at risk or debauchery, like something Eric’s mom from That ‘70s Show would have served as a “naughty experiment” for her husband.
I forgot about the potato and the avocado in their Sunnyside Salad. Generally, in salads I approve of avocado, but disapprove of potato. Avocado: substantial, buttery, green. Potato: starchy, bland, white.
Hanna: But we weren’t getting starch anywhere else. I just remembered—we never got our bread! The menu promised bread with the entrées.
Gourmet Grrl: I should have told you earlier—I’m kind of supposed to be on a diet right now. So I’m all anti-carb at the moment. This is a huge foodie faux pas, I realize. But if there’s homemade bread on the table, you better believe I will eat it. I was shoveling in food too fast to notice the absence of bread until on our way out I saw a group of ladies at another table receiving a bread basket.
For my entrée, I had almond-crusted trout in a green-onion cream sauce with mixed vegetables and basmati rice. While this was not the most inventive entrée I’ve ever found, I basically enjoyed this dish. The trout wasn’t overly fishy. Instead my mouth was greeted by a mild, buttery, flaky white fish crusted in a snug winter coat of golden-brown almonds. The crowning carrots, zucchini, etc. were sautéed quite well, but ultimately felt like nothing more than a strategic way to get me to eat my vegetables.
I found the green-onion cream sauce to be quite straightforward. I guess straightforward is a great term for this cozy little joint. What you see is what you get—predictable yet pleasant.
Hanna: I felt much the same way about the trout. I bet plenty of customers are delighted by it. The presentation wasn’t the least bit challenging, but it worked.
Still, I was glad I ordered the filet. It was tender and peppery, and I was especially glad the kitchen didn’t flinch and prepared it rare, as requested. The only serious problem with my dish was that the meat was slightly undermined by a viscous sweet blue-cheese “sauce” that puddled the plate.
Gourmet Grrl: Predictability ended with dessert. These desserts were so marvelously scrumptious; I secretly licked every prong of my fork individually before moving on to the next bite. I was thrilled with the tart, creamy, bouncy Lemon Icebox Pie.
At Christmas my mom makes “ice box” cookies—cardboard blocks that taste as synthetic as the kitchen appliance they are named for. But I pushed on and ordered this slightly different take on a key-lime pie and was overjoyed at the result. My fork sunk into the graham cracker-crusted pie like a fluffy dream.
Consistency is everything when it comes to curd-based pies, and this version was dead-on. I left wishing I had been given the rest of the pie to take home, and all memories of some diet I was supposed to be following flew from my mind, never to return. As far as I’m concerned, Sunnyside Café could close down dinner and focus on pies alone. I’d become a regular.
Hanna: Dessert is often my least-favorite part of the meal. But I swear I’d change that calculus if every eatery could do dessert as well as Sunnyside. My pecan pie was a wonder, with sweet chunks of chocolate perfectly punctuating the nuttiness of the filling. If it wasn’t for that lemon ice-box pie, I’d be close to declaring it one of the best restaurant desserts in Buncombe County. I’ll meet you at Sunnyside for pie any day.