Flavor: Deftly-handled Appalachian ingredients
Ambiance: Rendered irrelevant by the food
The Market Place, Asheville’s legendary bastion of locally sourced cuisine, occasionally surfaces on Chowhound.com, the virtual restaurant-advice swap meet that unrepentant foodies obsessively troll for tips on where to eat. Chowhound is the sort of place a user can post a frantic plea at midnight for help finding a New Mexico-made mayonnaise and expect to be slathering the goop on his chicken sandwich the next day.
The Asheville section of the message board is heavily trafficked, largely by hungry tourists trying to make the most of their meals out. “I’m so excited about my trip to the Biltmore,” crazyfoodguy2398 will write. “I’ve read all about The Market Place in my guidebooks. Should I make a reservation?” But Asheville-based hounds will sometimes advise against it, describing the restaurant as inconsistent and unimpressive.
They’re wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not just wrong in a “you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to” kind of way, but Iran-has-nuclear-capabilities kind of wrong. The Market Place is turning out food that is so breathtakingly, absurdly good that faraway foodies shouldn’t just consider making dinner reservations if they happen to find themselves in town: This cuisine merits hotel reservations.
To be fair, I’d never had a really magical meal at The Market Place until this month. I last ate there about two years ago and associated the place with smart, capable and thoroughly unmemorable food. But in the interim, owner Mark Rosenstein has remade the restaurant from head to toe, upgrading the interior and installing the ultra-talented Perry Hendrix as executive chef. Now, no matter how unthrilling you found your last visit to Market Place, it’s worth going back.
Even Rosenstein admits to being astounded by his kitchen’s output these days. “I just came back from France, where I ate in one-star restaurants, three-star restaurants,” Rosenstein said when I called to marvel at my meal. “I was tuned up.” Still, he said, he wasn’t able to find any flaws in the food he was served upon returning to The Market Place.
“It held up against all those restaurants,” he said. “It was an outstanding meal.”
When Rosenstein praises his kitchen, he speaks not with the pompom-waving enthusiasm of a small-business owner, but with the measured wisdom of someone who’s spent decades learning about food and wine.
Rosenstein launched The Market Place in 1979, a full 28 years before the New Oxford American Dictionary voted “locavore” its word of the year. Since The Market Place opened, Rosenstein has cultivated dozens of successful chefs—he believes upward of 20 restaurants nationwide bear his culinary DNA—and nourished relationships with Appalachian farmers, millers, hog smokers and cheese makers.
I recently heard Julian Schnabel on the radio, talking about how 28 is a key age for male artists. At 28, he claims, everything begins to coalesce. Or, at least, it did for him and Picasso.
Perhaps something similar happens to restaurants, since Rosenstein attributes The Market Place’s recent phenomenal performance to an alchemy of his elaborate network of food producers and Hendrix’s gastronomical expertise.
“Perry trained with me, but he brought with him an intelligence and sensibility,” Rosenstein said. “He’s learned his craft. And now he’s stepping into the evolved relationships Market Place has worked on for years, so his source of materials is excellent.”
Although Rosenstein is still involved with the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, he stopped running the kitchen a few years back—“I don’t need to be peeling potatoes,” he says—and has put Hendrix at the helm of his team. “He’s the man,” he adds.
Hendrix first arrived at The Market Place in 1999. He studied under Rosenstein for two years before moving to the Richmond Hill Inn, where he was appointed to executive chef at Gabrielle’s in 2002. He left two years later for Salt Lake City, where he was able to ski and work with Morgan Valley lamb. He returned to The Market Place this summer.
“Everybody in the kitchen is on fire about cooking and food,” Rosenstein says. “Everybody’s into it, everybody’s like ‘how do we do it better?’”
Beats me. Every dish that graced our table at a recent dinner was remarkable, starting with a simple cheese tray and ending with a sweet upside-down apple cake mopped with salted caramel ice cream.
The cheese tray—featuring a trifecta of cheeses from Spinning Spider creamery and ranging from baseball firm to oozy soft—is wonderfully emblematic of The Market Place’s respectful attitude toward well-made foodstuffs. Each sample is generous enough to allow the eater sufficient bites to fully grasp the subtleties of the magnificent cheese, a portioning strategy followed not by penny-pinching chefs but by kitchens that want their customers to love their ingredients as much as they do.
Spinning Spider goat cheese also appears aboard a salad made with toe-curlingly fresh mixed greens and a robust shallot vinaigrette. But our table was wowed by a pair of warm appetizers: a perfectly cooked quail set atop a mélange of garnet-hued roasted beets and sweet-tart currants tossed in a hazelnut vinaigrette, and a plateful of homemade gnocchi. While gnocchi is often the Ambien of the pasta pantry, these little, lightly crisped bullets would render any eater immediately alert. Even better, the dumplings were bathed in a mushroom broth and crowned with a deeply flavorful duck confit.
Entrées were similarly rewarding. A rustic vegetarian plate of roasted squash, apples, onions and cherries snuggled into a soft bed of farro distracted even the most committed carnivores at the table. And a thick strip steak, crusted with salt, was marvelously rich, making a meat and blue cheese-potato pairing seem strikingly new.
But I’m saving all my best adjectives for the pork plate, which pairs a juicy tenderloin with a plump, braised pork belly that is a singular testament to the wonders of porcine fat. Accompanied by a thoroughly Southern side dish of sweet potatoes, collards and a black-eyed pea risotto, it’s exquisite.
My advice: Go to The Market Place now. And go again next month, when its casual-dining concept debuts in the front half of the restaurant, using a menu which will match its terrific food with considerably lower prices. “We’ll apply all the same principles, but the check average will be 60 percent less,” says Rosenstein. “It will be accessible.”
And, undoubtedly, it will be very, very good.