Flavor: Warm and cozy continental
Ambiance: Neighborhood watering hole for the hippest of neighbors
I’m quite sure I’d have to surrender my alternative-press credentials if I didn’t like The Admiral.
The Admiral, the snug little gastropub that suddenly materialized late last year across the street from BJ’s convenience store on Haywood Road, probably hews more closely to the tenets of good alt-journalism than any giveaway tabloid-sized paper you’re likely to find. According to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the member-driven group charged with corralling an oft-unruly bunch of papers, the best examples of the alternative press focus on local culture, exhibit an informal and sometimes profane style, tolerate freedom and social difference and generally do what the mainstream doesn’t. And how does The Admiral rank against those lofty criteria? Check, check, check and check.
The AAN is slightly too hip to mention the final component to which all weeklies aspire: Effortless cool, a category in which the Admiral excels. Surely you don’t have to be tight-jeaned and tattooed to dine here, but it’s impossible to dodge the self-assured aesthetic that prevails. The Admiral, with its muted lighting and Po-Mo patrons, feels very much like a trendy Williamsburg dive bar—albeit with significantly more square footage.
Struggling artists’ fantasies of la vie artistique extend even to the hack jobs they work to support their creative habits, and it’s easy to imagine them pining for meaningless work at a place like the Admiral. It’s nigh impossible—not to mention unworthy of one’s memoir—to dither about first drafts with a fellow fry cook at McDonalds. But The Admiral, by contrast, reverberates with knowingness and an almost-total nonchalance about the actual business of food service.
Which doesn’t mean the food isn’t good. In its own offhanded way, the Admiral does a masterful job of serving starving-artist comfort food—utilitarian white plates piled high with sautéed tofu, clumps of spinach and crackly roasted potatoes, all done up to match the season. Many of its offerings are downright lovely. Still, food isn’t always front and center here: If having to read this far into the review to find a mention of what’s emerging from the Admiral’s open kitchen made you wish you had something far less aggravating to do, like listen to the steady drone of a drill outside your office window, then the easygoing vibe at the Admiral might not suit you at all.
But for those willing to relax into one of the warm booths reserved for diners, perhaps nursing a well-mixed drink all the while, the Admiral touts its signature grog made from Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum and Cheerwine, though the bartenders are thoroughly fluent in the non-soda-pop end of the sippable spectrum. Then there are some terrifically rewarding dishes on the strongly Continental menu: voluptuous mussels, swimming in a puddle of broth stocked with equally-sized dices of spicy chorizo sausage and sweet tomatoes, and a beautifully grilled steak wearing a gossamer-thin sheath of salt.
And sometimes there aren’t either of those things, because all the informality and freedom at the Admiral conspire to produce an ever-changing bill of fare. Beloved favorites vanish overnight: “I’m not sure we’ll see the mussels again,” a genuinely kind server told me grimly a few nights before the bivalves miraculously reappeared. Diners who arrive at fashionably late hours often go without. As a note on the Xeroxed menu reads: “We change our menu daily to keep our cuisine fresh and exciting, it is not a rarity for us to run out of something, the earlier you’re here the better.”
If you had the run of the menu last month, your appetizer choices might have included hummus dashed with japaleno and poblano peppers, soup and a pimento-cheese platter. The creamy three-potato soup I sampled was so congealed, it could easily pass for a dip—and a disappointingly bland one at that. But the easy-to-eat pimento cheese was zippy and satisfying, even if the title ingredient—a Highland Black Mocha Stout—was a staunchly fugitive flavor, lending the finished product neither the heartiness nor the chocolate overtones typically associated with the seasonal brew.
I found something to like on almost every entrée plate, although a few dishes were marred by wildly askew seasoning. A perfectly delicious rack of lamb was glazed with an off-putting gastrique of apple cider and apricots that made for a bitter finish, while an already overcooked catfish was further damaged by a misconceived Dijon barbecue sauce that tasted gloppy and flat. Still, both entrées were served with crisp, roasted hunks of potatoes that could very well have won honors for best side dish, had the salmon and sausages not shown up accompanied by a mound of mashed root vegetables.
Root vegetables are the comic foils of the produce department, with silly names like parsnip, turnip and rutabaga, and laughable sales to match. While carrots have ridden to greatness on their reputation as Vitamin A powerhouses, their subterranean brethren have suffered, written off by most Americans as poverty foods. But the Admiral’s superb take on the genre is good enough to make even an apartment dweller consider digging a root cellar. It’s a simple preparation, to be sure, but as aficionados of biscuits and macaroni-and-cheese know, there’s often glory in simplicity.
The mashed root vegetables are the mash in the Admiral’s version of Bangers and Mash: The bangers are venison and blueberry-stuffed sausages, a combination that’s as good as it is audacious. Blueberry sausages initially struck me as a parlor trick or a recipe dreamt up by a publicist for the State of Maine, but the flavor was surprisingly spot-on.
I was also wowed by the duck, a house-smoked leg and thigh that was wonderfully warm and juicy. Served alongside a mess of mashed potatoes braided with Brie, it bespoke all the best of winter.
If I hadn’t enjoyed the Admiral, I’m guessing my cred would be the only casualty. The place has been crowded every time I’ve visited, and I doubt anything I said would dissuade its West Asheville neighbors from making it a favorite hangout. That’s because the Admiral is hitting one more mark set by alternative weeklies everywhere: It’s creating a community, which is reason enough to welcome it to the street.