By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America
Before you head to Asheville for HSA’s annual meeting, get reservations at the area’s top restaurants. They fill up fast. With 250 to choose from, many of them highly recognized, the decision was hard.
We didn’t so much choose the restaurant as the chef, Katie Button, who is developing quite the reputation.
Her story is iconic and may inspire some to reconsider life direction. After an academic career led her to a prominent doctoral fellowship in neuroscience, the bright young woman had an epiphany. Not to belabor the details, but after a stint waitressing in a Washington, D.C., restaurant, she went beyond changing tracks. She metaphorically changed trains. She followed her passion into the food industry.
A few twists of fate later, she found herself in the most revered restaurant in Spain, perhaps in the world. She began studying under the founder of molecular gastronomy Ferran Adria.
Katie’s 2009 stint as a stagiaire — someone who works in another’s kitchen for free –is captured in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli,” by Lisa Abend, a Spain correspondent for Time magazine. Katie is one of 32 stagiaires observed by Lisa that season. The author knits together the personalities and culinary experiences. Readers learn about Ferran, Katie and others in context of restaurant obsession. It’s a marveling read.
As a real-life epilogue we met Katie’s mom Liz Button at her newest restaurant Nightbell, 32 S. Lexington Avenue, 828.575.0375 while we were in Asheville. The Button family weren’t Asheville natives. They chose the city because of its lifestyle opportunities and lively entertainment culture. Liz lists music, arts, mountains, waterfalls, breweries, restaurants and more.
Over cocktails Liz filled in Katie’s life story, including marriage to Felix Meana — who worked at el Bulli as a front-of-house manager for five years. Felix is from Roses, Spain where el Bulli is located.
Trying the proprietary cocktails is a must. How could I resist the Holly Golightly, named after Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The recipe includes Uncle Val’s botanical gin, hot-pepper jelly, Cointreau, grapefruit, lemon, Campari and egg white.
In a locavore city like Asheville, a great restaurant must serve local sustainable food. Nightbell goes even further in social responsibility. They offer living wages, health insurance and paid time off benefits. They compost and use LED bulbs. Liz goes on with the details.
The Nightbell experience is one of innovative American small-plates. We started with mini Caesar salads nestled in a paper-thin slice of jicama. They looked like tacos with jicama replacing the shell and salad as the filling. Big fans of umami flavors, we upgraded by adding a premium Spanish anchovy for $2. Despite its novelty, the salad was sublime. The experience continued on the same level.
Enchanted, we canceled our reservations for the next night in favor of the rare barstool at Katie’s Curate, 11 Biltmore Avenue, 828.239.2946. Reservations were impossible on short notice. We had to go early to avoid an hour-plus wait for a barstool. Quite honestly that was a bonus because we could watch food preparation and talk to our neighbors about their choices from the Spanish tapas menu.
Again the cocktails were creative and palate pleasing. It was hard to slow down.
Our dinner started with lardo iberco ahumado – smoked lardo from acorn-fed iberco pigs, sliced think and served on mini-toasts with sea salt and smoked Spanish paprika. Lardo was more like “bacon butter” melting on our tongues (Outside the classy world, in blue-collar-speak we use local pork and call that “heart attack toast.”)
Our second course was migas –sauteed Brussel sprouts with raisins, cauliflower and celery root-yogurt mousse. The creativity continued with a, loosely translated, sausage sandwich and shrimp with garlic.
The finale was lemon thyme ice cream with a buttery texture, hint of lemon and heavy thyme. Sweet meets savory.
If these restaurants are representative, tapas are my new hobby. I will even try making them at home when Katie’s cookbook comes out in October 2016. “Cúrate: Authentic Spanish Food from an American Kitchen” is being published by Flatiron Books.
The dining scene in Asheville is exciting, get your reservations soon.