From the mountains to the Low Country

August 21, 2011

A setting like this, and dinner can be forgettable.

My hand may never fit a skillet handle again. I’ve been gone a solid week, minus one night, and I’m whipped, despite 10-plus hours of sleep last night. Plus I think I’ve gained about 30 pounds, and if I don’t get back in the gym soon (right after Labor Day, I swear!) I’m going to die.

But dear Sweet Baby Jesus, did I have some good meals this past week! Unfortunately, I have some really poor photos, all with cell phone, so you’ll have to use your imaginations, mostly.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll take them in roughly chronological order. The lead photo, above, is of a table setting at the Grove Park Inn, on the aptly-named Sunset Terrace, in Asheville. Now, Asheville, I have learned, is a foodie town. More later. The meal above, while the most spectacular setting, was NOT the best meal; it was, in fact, only slightly above average, but who cared? The view made up for it.

I had grouper, pan-seared, over lobster risotto. I love grouper, and I don’t know why I keep trying it in non-coastal locations, because it just doesn’t travel well. I mean, it’s good, but it doesn’t compare to the ethereal goodness you get on the coast. (At the Shrimp Basket, on Highway 59 in Gulf Shores, AL, out in front of the souvenir shop with the front door in the shark’s mouth, specifically, but I digress.) But the lobster risotto, now, that was pretty marvelous. Creamy and piquant, stuffed chock full of lobster, and everything a good lobster risotto should be.

The view, enjoyed with a glass of 20-year-old Taylor Fladgate Tawny, was superb. I could get used to living like that.

Eggs. Sweet potatos. Sausage. Scrumptious. Plus banana bread.

Next morning, it was off to Early Girl for brunch about 10:30. Early Girl is one of the host of farm-to-table restaurants in Asheville, in which I could never write for a living because it invariably comes out Ahseville when I type it, which is a real center for the farm-to-table movement in which restaurants design and vary their menus seasonally around local produce and meats. It was possibly the best meal I had while I was on the road — possibly — though it’s hard to compare brunch to a white-tablecloth dinner.

I had the sweet potato scramble, which was eggs, country sausage and shiitake mushrooms scrambled up with chunks of par-cooked sweet potatos, the whole sprinkled with green onions. Definitely Sweet Baby Jesus territory. I passed up a biscuit or some toast in favor of homemade banana bread. More Sweet Baby Jesus. That may possibly be the best breakfast I have ever had in my life. The sausage was only mildly spicy and sage-y; the eggs, gathered-that-morning fresh; the chunks of sweet potato, impossibly creamy and smooth, and the chunks of green onions added a little crunch and a fresh oniony pop to the dish.

The only false note, to me, was the mushrooms. They weren’t bad, or really out of place, but pretty superfluous, I thought. I wouldn’t bother with them when I recreate this dish, as I most assuredly will.

That night was Zambra, a Spanish-Portuguese tapas place, also farm-to-table. I honestly can’t remember what all we had; marinated olives, pork belly sliders, scallops (I think; I may be confusing that with another meal), pulled pork spring rolls, and a paella with chorizo, shrimp and chicken.

Pick of the litter was the pork belly sliders; I ordered a second order after we’d been through the first ones. Crispy and unctuous at the same time, the pork belly literally melted in your mouth. Sure, they’re horrible for the cholesterol. Who cares? The spring rolls were good, too; I thought the paella was a bit dry, and not sure but what I can make a better one.

Next day lunch was at Tupelo Honey, an award-winning restaurant, another entrant in the farm-to-table category featuring “New South” cooking they describe as “down home cooking with an uptown twist.” I had a veggie plate — fried okra, marinated tomatos and cucumber salad, fruit salad. I was, quite frankly, disappointed, but I think it was a case of my menu choices as opposed to the overall cuisine. My okra, though cooked the way it should be, just with a cornmeal dusting, DID have a bit more cornmeal dusting it than I would prefer. And it was fried to what I considered an overly crunchy level, though others at the table thought it was just fine. The tomatos and cucumber were marinated in a viniagrette, as they should be, but I want a little bit of sweet in that viniagrette, and this had none. And the fruit salad was, well, just a fruit salad.

On the other hand, one of my fellow lunchers had the “shoo-mercy” shrimp and grits, with scallops and andouille sausage. Shoo-mercy is an apt descriptor for that. I tasted it. It was excellent. Another had the “Not-Your-Mama’s-Meatloaf,” which while assuredly not Mama’s, was pretty doggoned good.

I don’t know what it is about Asheville. Most every place you go serves meat loaf. Place must be the meat loaf capital of the world.

That night, someone wanted Indian food, so we ate at Melas. Indian food is not my favorite, but this wasn’t bad. I had Goan grouper in a coconut curry sauce. Ditto the earlier comment re: the grouper, but the sauce was excellent. We had samosas and Peshwari naan and assorted stuff, and it was all pretty decent, albeit heartburn-inducing, as Indian food generally is for me, which is why it’s not my favorite.

We finished off Asheville with a few beers en route to the airport at a brewpub, Asheville being a center of craft brewing as well as damn fine food. I had a French Broad lager, which was excellent, and a Merry Monk Trippel, which was probably the best Trippel I’ve ever had.

Savannah was almost a let-down after that. We ate at the highly recommended Alligator Soul restaurant; I had a chorizo-stuffed pork chop in a bourbon glaze over Anson Mills truffled grits with a corn relish, and my dining companion had the scallops. The scallops were average, which still puts them several steps above most food, and the pork chop was a little dry, though the chorizo had a good flavor. Overall, though, the dish just tried to do too much; it was busy.

Good burger. Good sweet potato fries. Can't complain!

Grabbed a quick lunch the next day at the Distellery, where the bourbon mushroom burger with provolone was pretty decent. Homemade rolls, and the burgers are hand-patted, good beef. I couldn’t taste the alleged bourbon. Dinner that night was at Vic’s on the River, another Savannah classic, where the food was good if not great, the piano player was playing jazz standards, and the view of the Savannah River was marvelous. I had shrimp in a bourbon bacon barbecue sauce, which was excellent; someone else had scallops and I seriously forgot what the third person had.

So I’m home. I had cheese and crackers for dinner last night, followed by ice cream at NomNom’s, and rice with butter and brown sugar for breakfast today, and the dog is asleep on my feet after having missed her mama for a week. I’ve missed you and y’mama ‘n ’em, too; posting will be sporadic for the next couple of weeks, as I have lots of travel and work stuff lined up, but hopefully after Labor Day I can get back to something approximating normal.

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