When I first contemplated creating a list of the year’s best dishes, I was awfully excited by the prospect of revisiting some of my most enjoyable recent meals—all in the name of journalistic research, of course. But I soon realized I probably didn’t need a refresher course in any of the dishes that ultimately made the list: Their flavors were already seared on my palette. They were too good to easily forget. My nominations for the most memorable ones of 2008 are listed below.
The criteria for selection was fairly broad and relatively arbitrary: The dish had to be a new addition to Asheville’s foodscape, and I had to have eaten it. I didn’t develop any sort of rational calculus by which to assess the originality, sustainability or addictiveness of said dish, nor did I strive for any sort of overall balance (although I profoundly regret not having been wowed by a single dish without obvious Euro-American roots: C’mon, Asheville—let’s get global-cooking). I went with what I liked.
Did I miss many dishes equally good to those named here? Probably. But that’s what 2009 is for. (P.S. We’d love to hear about which dishes you savored this year. Tell us at www.mountainx.com/dining.)
Collards, Blue Water Seafood
When Hendersonville’s leading seafood market added a full-fledged dining area this year, it gave patrons the chance to upgrade their meals of fresh fish and fine wine with appetizers, soups, salads, desserts and—most deliciously—sides.
While the ritzy lobster grits are perhaps the most tempting-sounding option, the ridiculously good collards, cooked with pork and doused with more vinegar than many lesser chefs would think prudent, are by far the best accompaniment to the restaurant’s grilled North Carolina flounder, fried North Carolina trout or any other critter on the daily specials’ board. Collards, $2.95, Blue Water Seafood Co. & Wine Market, 532 Kanuga St., Hendersonville, 697-0503
One Foundation with Tofu, Nine Mile
The name is no accident: Nine Mile’s lovely One Foundation dish encompasses all that’s satisfying about the new Rastafarian pasta joint in Montford.
Like all the inventive pastas on Nine Mile’s menu, the One Foundation showcases a motley group of ingredients that only a savvy chef or someone with an under-stocked refrigerator would think to combine: pineapple and tomatoes. Tofu and alfredo sauce. But here, the vegetables are super-fresh, the alfredo wonderfully subtle and the tofu so flavorful it could make converts out of carnivores. One Foundation, $6.75/lunch, $10.45/dinner, Nine Mile, 233 Montford Ave., 505-3121
Bangers & Mash, The Admiral
Like all good sailors, the Admiral isn’t sentimental: Dishes come and dishes go. But the Bangers & Mash has been a menu fixture since the West Asheville gastropub opened late last year. Even at a restaurant as hip as The Admiral, it seems perfectly textured game sausage nestled alongside a mess of pounded root vegetables never goes out of style. Bangers & Mash, $16, The Admiral, 400 Haywood Rd., 252-2541
Local Cheeses, Bar 100
Drat that seasonality. Bar 100 (the informal offshoot of The Market Place, the locavore menu of which was recently absorbed by the main dining room) does magical things with corn, churns out magnificent treatments of pork belly—and then revokes almost every dish when the calendar changes.
But happily, there’s always the cheese plate, featuring brilliant cheeses from regional dairies. Like all of Bar 100’s offerings—nearly all of which probably deserve a spot on this list—the gobble-up-good starter reflects the kitchen’s startling lack of ego and unwavering dedication to Appalachian foodways. Cheeses, $4/each, $15/four, Bar 100, 20 Wall St., 252-4162
Cacio e Pepe, Cucina 24
This is the dish I have in mind when I steer people to Cucina 24, downtown’s newest sophisticated Italian restaurant, as I often do. This phenomenal rendition of Cacio e Pepe, featuring housemade noodles speckled with ground black peppercorns, is a lullaby on a plate: Soft, soothing and infused with love. Cacio e Pepe, currently unavailable (Don’t despair: Try the carbonara), Cucina 24, 24 Wall St., 254-6170
Hot Dog, Earth Fare South
What’s the last thing that might come to mind when you think of Earth Fare, the proudly green grocery that helped usher in the local sustainable-eating craze? If you said “hot dogs,” it’s time to jump on the Number 6 bus and head to the South Asheville Earth Fare, which unveiled its grill earlier this year.
While the cooks will gladly throw a turkey burger or a hunk of salmon on the grill for you, the all-natural hot dog, tucked into a locally made whole-wheat bun, is astonishingly good. Hot Dog, $5.99, Earth Grill, 1856 Hendersonville Road, 210-0100
Ensalada de la Casa, Curras Dom
Salads always seem to get the shaft. Consigned to the pitiful role of palette cleanser—or, even worse, the starter for the table too cheap to order real appetizers—the house salad is too often a mélange of miserable greens and a sad tomato wedge. Not so at Curras Dom, the smart new Nuevo Mexicano restaurant in north Asheville, where the sassy Ensalada de la Casa features tangy beets, roasted pepitas and a sprightly vinaigrette. Ensalada de la Casa, $7, Curras Dom, 72 Weaverville Hwy., 253-2111
Sliders, Mo Daddy’s
John Atwater set out to make a great burger when he designed the menu at Mo Daddy’s, the blues club he opened this year alongside Mamacita’s. And while the restaurant’s entrée-sized burger is pretty darn terrific, the salty little sliders, capped with Lusty Monk mustard or wedges of smoky bacon—customer’s choice—are outstanding. Sliders, $7 with mustard and onions, $8 with cheddar cheese and bacon, Mo Daddy’s, 77-B Biltmore Ave., 255-8080