Hippies and new restaurants

When did Asheville turn into Haight-Asheville?

I hadn't visited my favorite mountain town in well over a year when I spent the weekend there last week. The fall color season is just around the corner and Atlantans will be weekending in the western North Carolina town, three-and-a-half hours away, in droves. But they can expect a human spectacle as picturesque as the changing leaves along the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway — namely enough street kids done up like hippies to make you think you're revisiting Haight-Ashbury in the late '60s.

The sudden increase in homeless kids began about a year ago and has been the subject of ongoing controversy. Merchants — like Malaprop's bookstore — claim the loitering has cost them customers who don't want to push their way through the panhandling, scruffy kids. Depending on your point of view, this adds more color to a city full of students, artists, poets and musicians or it spoils the view. Personally, I'd rather look at dreadlocks and tie-dye than hair gel and Abercrombie & Fitch. And a Friday night drumming circle, with hundreds of people of every age and description in a downtown square, was a hell of a lot more entertaining than a bluegrass concert.

Asheville has an amazing number of restaurants and quite a few new ones have opened since my last visit there. Zambra (85 W. Walnut St., 828-232-1060) is one of the more celebrated and, for me, it is also quite confusing. It's the second restaurant opened in Asheville by Hector Diaz. His Salsa (6 Patton Ave., 828-252-9805) is without doubt my favorite fusion burrito joint ever. Diaz, from Puerto Rico, blends Mexican and Caribbean ingredients, all fresh and much of it organic, in ways we don't find here in the big city.

Zambra, despite local raves, didn't satisfy me nearly as much. But I did bring some prejudices to the experience. The subterranean tapas restaurant features a spectacular Andalucian decor — brilliantly painted, with Moorish archways — that made me nostalgic for Sevilla, where I've spent so much time in the last few years. So, I was primed for an authentic experience.

Instead, the menu is pure fusion. In fact, there is very little from Spain at all. The menu's Moorish influence is definitely more North African than Southern Spain. My disappointment grew larger when a pair of musicians came out and, instead of playing flamenco, performed some very weird New Age stuff that would cause dolphins to beach themselves.

Some of the food is plain inaccurate. For example, boquerones (which are misspelled on the menu) are described as batter-fried whitefish ($6). They should be white anchovies. Maybe they are and the menu writer didn't want to say, but I wasn't taking a risk by ordering them.

An oddly named "Gypsy cheese plate" ($6.95) didn't even feature manchego but, OK, the three cheeses and their fruit chutney were good enough. However, they were served with a lavosch so tough a small hammer ought to be placed beside your fork. The same lavosch ruins an otherwise wonderful dish of sofrito shrimp seared in olive oil with ginger, garlic and other spices served over spinach ($7.25).

I hope you are noticing that these tapas, about the same size you'd find for less money at Eclipse di Luna in Atlanta, aren't inexpensive. A "Gypsy salmon herb roll" sets you back $7.50 and suffers much as other dishes do. Most everything about it, even the suspicious curry coconut majo, is tasty but then you run into a hateful block of polenta.

I have no complaint about the entrees I sampled. My New York strip steak ($15.95) was tastily marinated in (misspelled) Moorish spices, seared medium-rare and served with sauteed oyster mushrooms, arugula-garnished potatoes and organic greens. Roasted skewered shrimp was sauced with "orange blossom-coconut beurre blanc" and served over rice with garlicky greens ($16.25). Very tasty. I'm not sure why the larger plates are so much more successful than the tapas.

Another newcomer — new to me, anyway — is Wasabi (19 Broadway, 828-225-2551). There seems to have been a bit of an explosion of Japanese and sushi venues in Asheville. I've eaten at the popular Heiwa Shokudo many times, found it fairly good, and welcomed the opportunity to try something different.

The food ain't bad here, but the service is dreadful. If you sit at the bar, not only might you have the experience of being ignored for quite a while, as I did, you also get to watch the staff and the sushi chef argue about what table each sushi order goes to. I watched plate after plate of sushi forlornly sit on the counter for five or 10 minutes and then get delivered to the wrong table. My own order — you write your own sushi order — was lost. The chef told me it was lost, and when I told this to my server, she assured me that it was not and scolded me for questioning her skill. When the chef and manager agreed that, yes, the order was lost, she said: "Well, nobody told me."

OK. Warm appetizers from the kitchen were fine, though I felt silly paying $3.95 for a smallish bowl of edamame. Calamari ($5.95) is tender but served with a completely tasteless sauce. The surprise was the sushi itself. Most of it was very good — definitely better than Heiwa's. Even a salmon skin roll, which nobody seems to make right any more, was top-notch, as were spider rolls, rainbow rolls and a $15.95 wasabi roll featuring tempura soft shell crab with eel, tuna and avocado.

The high population of vegetarian types in Asheville makes meatless dining easy — or unavoidable, according to your point of view. The Laughing Seed is one of the best vegetarian restaurants I've ever visited and I also love Max and Rosie's, especially for excellent juices. This trip, I had breakfast at Melanie's Food Fantasy (32 Broadway, 828-2346-3533).

Even watching a meter maid give me a parking ticket didn't spoil my breakfast here. In fact, even when it began raining on my sidewalk table, I didn't get pissed. I started with fresh apple juice ($3) to which I added a shot of ginger and then ate a Greek omelet full of feta cheese and spinach ($5.95). My one complaint: Melanie's grits are watery.

You can also have breakfast at Beanstreets Cafe (3 Broadway Ave., 828-255-8180), my favorite coffee shop in Asheville. The waffle with fresh fruit is nice, but why in the world does this supposedly healthy cafe serve it with fake maple syrup?

I also lunched at the popular but very forgettable Uptown Cafe (22 Battery Park Ave., 828-253-2158). The restaurant, a kind of cross-cultural diner, boasts about its crab cakes. I ordered a crab cake sandwich ($6.75). It was better than a cup of seafood chowder that tasted like flour and fish but not as good as my french fries.

If you want Sunday brunch in Asheville, the place to go remains the overpriced Grove Park Inn for its bacchanalian buffet. But I still prefer — for lunch or brunch — The New French Bar (1 Battery Ave., 828-252-3685). It's simple, it's cheap and usually full of entertaining people. Try to score a seat on the sidewalk.

On your way to Asheville, or coming back, consider a stop at Green Shutters in Clayton (706-782-3342 for directions) for the prix-fixe, all-you-can-eat lunch (about $17). The fried chicken and country ham (which you sometimes have to ask for) are flawless although the vegetables are less dependable. On Saturday nights, the restaurant serves fried quail and Friday nights are devoted to barbecued ribs.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

Where to Eat
Food Events