Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Asheville.Curate.Yum

I know I missed Charcutepalooza again. Between the week long power outage, loosing everything in my fridge and freezer, packing for vacation, and being out of town for a week, there was just no time to make and or eat any sort of dish for the challenge. Hopefully I have a nice day off on Sunday and can make up for the time lost. We shall see.

I just returned from another food filled vacation. It's a repeat city, but all new adventures. Chris and I traveled to the distant land of Asheville, North Carolina.

Back in March we stopped there for a few days on our way to Charleston, SC for the Brewvival. We loved it and wanted to return. The Brewgrass festival this past Saturday (Sept 17th, 2011) was the perfect excuse.

On our first trip the beer store, Bruisin' Ales, and the reputation for being both "Beer City USA" and "Foodtopia" brought us into town.   Despite being a small beer store, the proprietors of Bruisin' Ales, Jason and Julie, have a fantastic stock of beers. They are both super friendly, and every time I have popped into the store I have been party to an impromptu tasting. No complaints here. The store has been mentioned in every beer publication you can think of and it is rated the #4 Beer Store in the Nation 2011 by RateBeer. Not too shabby.  They know their beer, and they also know how to have a good time. We have been lucky enough to run into them enjoying their craft at beer events on the East Coast. They love their business, and they do it well. I'm not telling you to go to Asheville just to buy a beer from these two, but there's no excuse not to.

The best part about going to Asheville is the drive. The rolling mountains are such a welcome change from the flat grass lanes that span I-95. Its soothing even before you get to your vacation destination.
Once in town, be sure you have an empty stomach. Chris and I had to leave town early because we had no room left in our bellies.

We enjoyed all of the food on the trip, but the most notable evening was at Cùrate. This Spanish style Tapas bar is nothing new, and that's the beauty of it. Very simple and traditionally inspired Spanish foods, where the star is the complexity of the flavor in a single item.

Cùrate is one of the gifts El Bulli has begun to bestow upon the world. Head Chef and owner Katie Button, along with the Service and Beverage Manager Felix Meana both worked with Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli prior to opening Cùrate. The learned restraint and balance and complexity and playfulness and they are sharing it with us at Cùrate. The pair have created a restaurant with memorable food and memorable service, one enhancing the other to create an experience instead of just a meal.

There are few times in my life where I have eaten an incredible meal, and then been able to recall every detail vividly. Usually I will enjoy a great meal and savor each bite, and I can tell you I LOVED it before, during, and after. But I can't recall what I had the next day. I think it's because so often your mind gets overloaded by the sheer enormity, you get caught up in the ambience and the event (if you're dining for a special occasion). There are other things that draw your attention. This meal was not like that. As I said, each detail played upon each other to create an experience. The timing, the atmosphere, the server were all just right. This isn't the type of restaurant where everything comes in perfect succession and you have 9 waiters and a very private table all to yourself.  I'm not saying everything was perfect, but it all worked perfectly together.

The atmosphere is cozy with welcoming chocolatey pumpkin colored walls and candle art warming the light. The tables are close together, and there is an open kitchen staged behind a short bar leading you down a hall, past the restrooms to your table... doesn't sound so inviting. But the light filled windows and the warm candle glow invite you to the table. The table setting puts you in a playful mood, making it seem as though you were in preschool again. The menu is your placemat, and your drink list slips out from your napkin which is folded into the shape of an envelope.

Before you can even look at the wine list you'll notice the pitchers of seasonal fruit sangria on the tables around you and its impossible to resist. The granacha wine, the cinnamon, the fresh watermelon and strawberries, with a hint of liquored spice and cirtus all perk up your tongue and get you ready for the onslaught of food.

We left no crevice un-filled in our stomachs that evening. We started simply with house cured olives, followed by a plate of jambon de serrano, jambon iberico, and jambon de bellota. Then we enjoyed the crispy fried eggplant with a honey drizzle and fresh rosemary. The combination of fried foods and honey is one of Spain's most delicious contributions to the culinary world. I could have eaten this dish for days. I nearly ordered another plate for dessert, although I would have wanted manchego crumbles in that iteration. I couldn't pass on the Branada de Bacalo, basically a hot dip of salt cod and potatoes served with crisp toasts. Imagine warm whitefish salad in texture, but no smoke in the flavor and a bit more earthiness. It just comforted your tongue. Chris loves anchovies so we chose a plate of Escalivada con Anchoas next. The roasted peppers, caramelized onions, and filets of anchovy were swimming in a bath of their own juices mixed with oiliness and a hint of 30yr sherry vinegar to cut through the fish. We planned to end the savory portion of the meal with Rossejat, a thin noodle paella, and the Butifarra con Mongetes, the sausage and fresh white bean dish served with all i oil. But we felt compelled to try one more dish, the Almenjas con Vino Bianco, clams with white wine, iberico, and toasted pine nuts. Those tiny little clams were so juicy and the broth so rich, I cannot believe we almost missed out on them.

Finally, we were finished the Sangria and moved on to dessert of Spanish Hot Chocolate, and Helado de Romero con Almendras, Rosemary Ice Cream with Almond Sponge Cake and Grilled Figs. The coolest thing was the sponge cake actually resembled a natural sponge, I'd never seen that before.  But I couldn't leave well enough alone and I also had to order a cheese plate. When we sat I inquired about the plate, as I always do, and I was elated to hear the La Peral was the blue being featured on the plate. If there is one type of cheese I love above all others, it is Spanish Blue. There is always a fantastic earthy, almost clay flavor to them, a bit of grit, and a mild creaminess you just can't find in Roquefort or Gorgonzola. The plate also had La Serena which is so creamy it has to be served in a little bowl, and some aged Mahon. Those are basically my favorite Spanish cheese so I was thrilled. This was an incredible meal and I look forward to another opportunity to dine at Cùrate.

Sorry, no photos. I left my camera at home. More adventures from Asheville to come.



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