Downtown Asheville, NC buzzes with activity like a university campus on graduation day. From fancy dress to cutoffs and tees, folks dine in small eateries serving up gourmet and down-home dishes. Musicians serenade on street corners adding a rhythmic beat to the air. And, outdoor enthusiasts hustle up mountainous roads: bicycling, jogging, hiking while others practice yoga in the plaza. Cheers to this happening crossroads where visitors and locals thrive on the eclectic hum.
When I arrived for dinner at Rhubarb on Pack Square, one of Asheville’s renowned downtown restaurants, I found the place in a rhubarb. Now, most people think the word rhubarb means reddish stringy stalks of fruit used in pies, but the Oxford English Dictionary defines a slang usage as “the noise made by a group of actors to give the impression of indistinct background conversation or to represent the noise of a crowd.” How apt. The Tourism Council was filming a spot in the restaurant, so lights, cameras, and actors were scuttling around. I was still able to slip into a corner, keenly observe, and still enjoy a meal.
I started my dining experience with the signature cocktail, a Rhubarb Collins. The slightly pinkish drink comes in a tall, slim glass; a mix of vodka and house made strawberry rhubarb soda. The bubbly liquid bursts with an effervescence that is refreshing, perhaps just a little too light for my tastes.
Crispy and spicy cauliflower became the appetizer of choice. This dish reminded me of India, somewhat hot, but not too pungent with a cooling dipping sauce. Yummy.
My entree, well…what else: Rhubarb Glazed Duck Confit. The preparation was spot on; crispy on the outside and tender and moist within. The sautéed greens were not overcooked and complimented by a thinly-sliced sweet potato layer hidden underneath. The portion was perfectly sized, but for many Americans, likely a tad small.
Keeping up the theme, I simply had to finish the meal with Rhubarb Crisp. A generously sized dessert arrived with dollops of Lemon-Thyme Anglaise and a beautiful fresh pansy in the center. Divine, but then again, I love cobbler! The recipe tasted tangy and not too sweet. Additional pieces of rhubarb and rye crumble garnished the edges making the entire effect delicious.
I was also treated to another house special, The Snix: milk chocolate semifreddo, hot boiled peanuts, salted peanut brittle and drizzled with caramel. Order this to die for dessert if you want sweetness.
Chef John Fleer, a three-time finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef in the Southeast” award, came out to meet me, a most personable and a happy man. He smiled and laughed during the photo shoot and I commented on his happiness. He says it comes from loving his choices. He moved his family from the award-winning Blackberry Farm in Tennessee to Asheville. He adores the vibrant community and maintains a close relationship with local farmers and suppliers. We seemed to agree that a happy chef makes a happy restaurant and Rhubarb indeed is. I’d be delighted to return again.
Rhubarb: 7 SW. Pack Square; rhubarbasheville.com