Boston Restaurant Blog -- July, 2008
Saturday, July 19, 2008
This month, I finally made it back to North Carolina for the first time in more than 15 years. And while my first trip was more of a "roughing it" journey with few restaurants along the way (paying off college loans was more important than dining out back then), this trip was an exciting mix of sightseeing, relaxing and, yes, dining out.
We flew into the Raleigh-Durham Airport on Saturday morning and headed directly to Chapel Hill where we had breakfast at a Chapel Hill institution called the Carolina Coffee Shop. Considered the oldest original restaurant in Chapel Hill, the Carolina Coffee Shop has loads of character with its dark wooden walls and booths, exposed brick, and blue and white tiled floor, as well as some interesting art pieces on the walls. The food and service, however, did not quite match the atmosphere; the smoked salmon plate was tasty enough and the country ham was better than I've had up north, but the hash browns were bland and the iced tea didn't match some of the sweet tea I would have later in the trip. Our server was mostly efficient, but she rarely smiled and seemed a bit distant at times. The atmosphere was indeed tough to beat, though, which helped make this a decent overall introduction to North Carolina.
After breakfast, we headed over to Raleigh to meet up with some folks, spending the afternoon in a particularly quiet and serene part of the city. We eventually headed back to Chapel Hill and stopped for dinner at a place called the Carolina Brewery. It was a pleasant night, so we opted to dine outdoors along the sidewalk area, enjoying the interesting people-watching along Chapel Hill's main drag. We started off with a nice artichoke and beer cheese rarebit, the moved on to some pub grub that was quite good, including beer-braised hot dogs with beans and a char-broiled mushroom swiss burger. But the star of the night was the microbrewed beer itself; the Alter Ego Altbier was a tremendously flavorful fruity brown ale, while the West End Wheat had a light, sweet, and slightly spicy taste to it that was truly something special.
On Sunday morning, we left Chapel Hill, having an excellent breakfast buffet at the Siena Hotel before heading west. Originally, I had been hoping to hit one of the many BBQ joints between Chapel Hill and Asheville, but the ones I really wanted to get to were closed on Sundays, so we continued on, driving nearly to Asheville before stopping at a restaurant in a small shopping center in the scenic little town of Black Mountain. I hadn't been expecting to have lunch at an upscale bistro, but as it turns out, the food at Que Sera was about as good as we had on the entire trip. After debating whether to sit outside (and deciding against it, with black clouds moving toward the area), we grabbed a table in one of the two rooms that made up this rather spartan but attractive dining spot. I started with a glass of sweet tea (perhaps the best I had on the entire trip), then we quickly received our main dishes--country ham and eggs with red-eye gravy and bralant potatoes, and banana french toast with fruit salad. The country ham was extremely salty but perfectly cooked, with the pieces of ham having an extraordinary amount of flavor. The banana french toast was also delicious, with the sweet flavor from the bananas blending nicely with the maple syrup. Our server was friendly, funny, and, well, a bit goofy at times, but she was always there when we needed something, and displayed that terrific Southern hospitality that I so often hear about.
After lunch, we arrived in Asheville and checked in to the place we were staying, then explored the city for a few hours. I had been in Asheville years ago, but never got to see much of it, so it was mostly new to me. Dinnertime soon came around, and we walked over to a place called Salsa's, a bright and colorful restaurant with a rather uninspiring name, but with anything but uninspiring food. This tiny dining spot features Mexican and Caribbean cuisine, with a few dishes I had never seen before in Boston. We opted for some items that were a bit more on the familiar side, starting with a couple of rich and hearty fried papusas, then moving on to a Jamaican jerk enchilada that included what seemed like a hundred different ingredients, and a pork empanada that had some wonderfully flavored meat (and a lot of it). The food was delicious, though some of it was so rich that it was admittedly a bit tough on our stomachs. Service was downright comical, as our waiter was exceedingly mellow, and seemed to like the word "bummer." The clientele was equally quirky, with more of a funky San Francisco feel than a Southern feel. Stomach issues aside, I liked Salsa's a lot, and would love to have a place like it in the Boston area.
On Monday, we checked out a few of the sites around Asheville including Biltmore Village and the old Woolworth building (which is now a place where artists can display their works) before stopping at the Jerusalem Garden Cafe for a quick lunch. It was another nice day, so we decided to eat outside, though I did get a quick glimpse at the inside and was impressed by the exotic atmosphere. We had a rather light lunch at the Jerusalem Garden Cafe, ordering a falafel sandwich with hummus and a pickle in pita bread along with a side of fries, and a veggie combo plate that included hummus, grape leaves, and falafel. The falafel was meaty and full of flavor from the chickpeas mixed in, while the fries had a nice mix of sea salt and black pepper on them. The hummus was smooth, creamy, and delicious, though the grape leaves were just average. The sweet tea that I ordered was good, though not quite up to the level of Que Sera the day before. Prices were cheap and our waitress was very professional. I would have liked to have gone back to this restaurant to try some of their substantial meals, as our lunch was very good, but perhaps I can get back there the next time I'm in Asheville.
After lunch, we continued to tour the Asheville area, spending a good amount of time at the Grove Park Inn as well as the grounds of the place we were staying. Then it was back to the center of Asheville, where we had a rather unusual but very memorable dining experience at the Flying Frog Cafe, an Indian and German restaurant that was as quirky as Asheville itself. The restaurant has an outdoor dining area that seemed popular with young couples and groups, but once inside, we were led downstairs into a completely different type of space; a sultry, exotic room that had a number of tables hidden behind white curtains. With the soothing sounds of classical music in the background, we proceeded to start with some Highland Oatmeal Porter and an unusual variety of foods, including a rich and hearty mushroom soup with venison stock, an excellent ceviche with red grouper, and fresh sourdough bread with a spicy oil dip. For our entrees, we tried an Indian dish (chicken saag) and a German dish (schnitzel plate). The saag was nothing like what I've had in the Boston area, as the chicken was sliced into large pieces rather than cut up, and the sauce was tomato-based (much like chicken tikka masala) with relatively little spinach. It was very good, however, as was the schnitzel plate, which included four cuts of chicken and veal, all of which were about as good as I've tried in the Boston area. Service was fine (though our waiter was rather quiet and reserved) and prices were not too bad. The downstairs was nearly empty from start to finish, but perhaps this is because it was such a nice evening and most folks were dining outside. This was perhaps our "nicest" meal out, as the place was classy and slightly upscale, and the food was prepared and presented well.
Our lunch the next day couldn't have been more different from our experience at the Flying Frog Cafe. After spending the morning on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we drove down Route 215 and soon entered Waynesville, a community that is about a half hour west of Asheville and has done a nice job of renovating its downtown area. We had lunch just outside of the center of Waynesville at a place called Fat Buddies Ribs and BBQ. I was looking forward to having my first true barbecue in North Carolina, but unfortunately, Fat Buddies didn't quite deliver. The black-eyed pea stew was very satisfying, with a buttery, rich taste, but the pulled pork sandwich didn't taste all that fresh and the sauce seemed a bit plain. The turkey sandwich was also rather average, and the fries were nothing special. Our waiter was personable and friendly, however, and he checked back with us several times to make sure everything was ok. And the atmosphere....well, it was quite a stunner for a lifelong New England such as me. The hanging lights were made from car rims, the walls were adorned with all kinds of NASCAR-related items, and some of the servers were wearing camouflage caps. This was not the best dining experience I had on the trip, but it was surely an interesting one, and I am kind of glad we went, at the very least to get a feel for the less-touristy areas west of Asheville.
We spent our last afternoon in North Carolina traveling through some of the more rural areas west of Asheville, then drove back to Black Mountain to see that charming little town one more time. Then it was back to the inn, and down into the northern part of Asheville where we had dinner at the Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company, a place I had heard much about over the past several weeks. This unusual dining spot, which has the feel of a garage or a warehouse inside, features pizza, microbrewed beers, and movies. And while we did not catch a movie on the night we went, we did enjoy some decent pizza and excellent beer. As we enjoyed the artwork on the walls and our table (our area had a distinct Star Wars theme to it), we munched on a rather basic Greek salad and a pizza that had a slightly undercooked crust, but both were tasty enough, and the Rocket 77 (a mild lager) and Houdini ESP (an aromatic pale ale) beers were outstanding. Our waiter was pretty goofy (we had a lot of that on this trip for some reason) but he was very nice, and the prices were downright cheap, with the total bill coming to about $25. The Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company is certainly another place I'd love to come back to (especially to see a movie), so it will likely be on my short list of places to go the next time I am in Asheville.
Between the charming and hospitable people, the incredible scenery, and the terrific lodging and dining experiences, my trip to North Carolina was one that I won't soon forget. I would like to give a special thanks to the folks who run the Crooked Oak Mountain Inn in Asheville for introducing me to one of the best places I have ever stayed at in this country. I will surely be back to the area, and will undoubtedly be staying at the Crooked Oak once again. And hopefully I will discover a few more good dining spots in the area, this time perhaps leaning a bit more toward classic BBQ joints. Can't wait to get back!
Hate that you chose Fat Buddies to give you a taste of Waynesville. there are way better restaurants in the area with top notch dining and food
Posted on 7/13/13
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