Asheville cocktail spots raise the bar on bar food

FRENCH TWIST: At downtown bar Sovereign Remedies, chef James Albee offers cassoulet to hungry revelers. The classic French dish includes white beans and locally sourced pork sausage, rabbit and duck. Photo by Dylan Ireland

Bar food in Asheville has turned swanky. After all, noshes have to be as elegant as Asheville’s increasingly classy craft cocktail offerings. Think Fred Astaire in coattails dancing with Ginger Rogers in rags. It just wouldn’t do.

Putting on the ritz

So, Asheville chefs have ratcheted up the swish in bar offerings with festive fare, including small-plate dinners. Katie Button, executive chef and co-owner of upscale Lexington Avenue cocktail spot Nightbell, for instance, is offering oysters on the half shell with a couple of drops of cocktail sauce vinegar infused  with the flavors of horseradish and tomato. To that, she adds a mignonette sauce with shallots and tarragon, a classic topping.

She’s even offering Brasstown New York strip as a small plate with blood sausage bone marrow bread pudding, smoked potato purée and Swiss chard. “The whole dish feels like something you might love to eat for your holiday dinner, a rich winter dinner,” says Button.

Posh bar offerings turn merry at Sovereign Remedies on Market and Walnut as well. Chef James Albee will soon be offering cassoulet, a French classic, with Dry Ridge Farm rabbit and duck, white beans, salt pork and a Toulouse-style sausage of coarsely minced pork from the Chop Shop Butchery.  “It’s a classic pork sausage that’s not spicy,” says Albee.

Upscale twists on homier fare

Of course, if dress-up isn’t what you’re playing, several bars are offering more down-to-earth fare, twists on classics that will keep us feeling both seasonally nostalgic and well-fed. 

Elliott Moss is the chef at the pop-up Thunderbird at MG Road on Wall Street for the next several months until his own barbecue place, Buxton Hall, opens this spring in the South Slope area. At MG Road, he’s serving mussels in ham broth made with heavy pork bone stock, ham bits, potato, lime and cilantro, served with a side of Farm and Sparrow heirloom grits toast for sopping up the hammy juice.  “I serve it with mayonnaise made out of schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, and jalapeño — some pickled, some fresh,” says Moss.   

Moss will also be offering fried catfish: “I bread North Carolina catfish in ground cornmeal from Farm and Sparrow and pair it with grits also from Farm and Sparrow.”

Even turkey is winging its way onto seasonal bar menus. Steven Goff, executive chef and co-owner of King James Public House on Charlotte Street, for instance, adds to holiday indulgence with smoked turkey wings and dumplings, and smoked turkey poutine. 

“I made smoked turkey gumbo for the holidays, and my sous chef said, ‘Let’s try it over fries,’ a nice way to extend the gumbo, which takes three days to make. So, instead of brown gravy, we put turkey gumbo, smoked farm cheese made in-house and chives and radishes over French fries finished with truffle oil.”  Traditional poutine — fries covered in brown gravy and topped with cheese curds — originated in the 1950s in Quebec.

“Canadians put fat on fat on meat” says Goff.  “They do all kinds of crazy foods. But upscale American bars have taken poutines as their own.”

Although Jacob Sessoms, chef and owner of Imperial Life on College Street, is still editing his December menu, he knows he’ll be offering house-made hot dogs on house-made buns.  “What better time than Christmas to sell hot dogs?” he says.  “They’re the perfect wintertime holiday food for late night. Who doesn’t love a hot dog?”  True — but don’t expect any ordinary dogs. Count on Sessoms to create a whole new breed.

He’s also serving lamb loin tartare with tomatillo-caper-tomato caviar, marinated sandita (Mexican sour cucumber), roasted garlic and anchovy cream.  “When people are drinking they crave fatty, salty stuff — and raw meat,” says Sessoms.

Visions of Sugar Plums

Asheville’s tony bars aren’t forgetting our sweet tooths either. Button is adding a version of sweet potato pie to her petit four selections. “It’s a bite-size cupcake shell filled with sweet potato ice cream with cinnamon and nutmeg, coconut sorbet, topped with torched Italian meringue,” says Button.

Albee is offering dragées — sugared almonds — dusted with clove and cinnamon. “They’re Christmas classics,” he says.

Still, Asheville chefs aren’t insisting that every food be a holiday one. Most of all, they want customers to relax, savor and muse. “When you eat and share small plates, the experience is better,” says Button.  “You end up talking about the food and understanding the restaurant and thoroughly enjoying yourselves.”

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