Authentic tapas in Asheville? At Curate, you can feast on everything from pulpo a la gallega (octopus in pimenton) to secreto iberico a las finas hierbas, a pure iberico pork skirt steak infused with smoke from burning rosemary sprigs.
Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t like octopus, as least as it’s usually served. Words that come to mind are rubbery and fishy-tasting. And oh, those suckers…
This has worked out well for B, since he loves the dreaded mollusc. He always snags any sashimi that strays onto my plate, and is content in the knowledge that he can enjoy Locanda Locatelli’s insalata di polpo e patate novelle without losing a single bite.
But this week our forks jointly hovered over the last exquisite sliver of pulpo a la gallega. Thinly sliced, showered with Spanish paprika and napped with olive oil, it was the dish that finally converted a diehard refusenik into an incipient addict.
We found pulpo a la gallega on the menu at Curate, a two-year-old, rather traditional Spanish tapas bar in Asheville, NC, of all places. It's a laid-back mountain-college town with a hippie vibe far from the sophisticated streets of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville, where bustling bars are filled with wine-drinking, tapas-eating regulars every night.
Tapas, a centuries-old tradition in Spain, are what I want to eat right now. And why not? It’s fun to mix and match small plates of intensely flavorful appetizers or snacks, served hot or cold, grilled or fried, sautéed or braised, to create a satisfying meal. In the right hands, tapas can be absolutely fabulous, especially when accompanied by a copa de vino rojo or a sip of Jerez sherry.
Confounding as it may be, Curate (accent on the "u" and do pronounce the "e") is the real deal—a joint venture between American chef Katie Button, her Spanish-born husband, Felix Meana, and her parents, that cleverly evokes the buzzy atmosphere and delicious food of a genuine bar de tapas. Think tangy “home-cured” green olives and marbled jamon iberico (made from pigs fattened on acorns), plump shrimp sizzling in garlic, sherry and olive oil, unspeakably rich oxtail, braised for 18 hours, with potato mousse punctuated by droplets of sweet vanilla oil—cheerfully served up in a chic, converted bus depot on brown paper menus that serve as placemats.
Did I mention the envy-inducing vertical garden inside the front door?
Five years ago Button chucked a career in neuroscience for one in the kitchen, first working for Jose Andres and Johnny Iuzzini, then hopping the Atlantic for a 7-month stage with Ferran Adria at the now-shuttered El Bulli. The accolades began to flow soon after Curate opened. GQ praised the “ace patatas bravas,” while Afar zeroed in on the “Catalan sausage bocadillos, codfish salad, and honey-drizzled fried eggplant.” Recently Button won the Robb Report’s First Annual Culinary Masters Competition, beating out four more established chefs with her inventive take on traditional tapas.
But let’s talk about the pulpo a la gallega. We ordered it twice, on two visits in three days, once for lunch and once for dinner. Why is it so tender? For one thing, the octopus is cooked by shocking it, repeatedly, in big pots of boiling hot and icy cold water, which relaxes the muscles so completely that when the flesh is thinly sliced, it very nearly melts in your mouth. Served Galician style with pimenton or Spanish paprika, and olive oil, the mollusc is both peppery and mildly sweet—a perfect foil for the buttery Yukon Gold puree that goes with it.
On both visits, we hopscotched across the menu, trying 19 or 20 tapas in all. When our server told us about a customer who eats there every night, my quick reaction was, “Lucky!” Here are a few more dishes we loved:
Migas de invierno: “This is my favorite on the whole menu!” confided our server. The savory sauté of brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and crispy croutons, served with a tart celery root-yoghurt puree, was B's favorite too. Huge sundried Chilean raisins added an unexpectedly sweet touch.
Rossejat negro: a Barcelona-style tapa of thin noodles, blackened by squid in its ink, cooked in a small paella pan, drizzled with all i oli (aioli sauce) and salsa verde. A stunning dish that tasted of both the earth and the sea.
Secreto iberico a las finas hierbas: thinly sliced, grilled “100% pure iberico pork ‘skirt steak,’” rich with fat, oozing with juices, smoky with the fragrance of rosemary sprigs charred in the fire. A smashing, deceptively simple preparation that could also be used with brined pork chops or grilled quail.
Other successes included setas al jerez, succulent mushrooms—oyster, cremini and shiitake—sauteed in olive oil with a splash of sherry; pincho moruno, a skewer of tender, juicy lamb chunks, marinated in “Moorish spices,” grilled medium rare and served with thinly sliced cucumber marinated in vinegar and sugar; and bocata de calamares, addictive fried squid eaten with tangy arbequina olive oil mayonnaise and crusty bread shipped in from Tribeca Bakery in New York.
Curate, by the way, means “cure yourself,” presumably by gorging on all these delicious tapas. At lunch, try to get the long table in the front window under the copper clad vertical garden. In the evening, it’s a toss up between the long bar facing the open kitchen and quieter room in back. Did I mention the bottled Estrella beer and the short, but excellent list of Jerez sherries, especially the deep Oloroso Sangre y Trabajadero? Or the totally amazing rosemary ice cream?
Curate, 11 Biltmore Avenue, Asheville NC 28801. Telephone: 828-239-2946. Web: curatetapasbar.com/
Here are two more places we liked in Asheville:
Chai Pani means “tea and water,” slang in India for “going out for a cup of tea, a tasty bite, a snack or ‘a little something.’” Mehewan and Molly Irani’s casual but colorful eatery conjures up the zingy flavors of the ”mind blasting” street snacks of Mumbai. To be honest, we skipped “fusion” plates like Bombay Chili Cheese Fries (“with spiced Indian turkey”)....
...but scored a winner with uttapam, a large, lacy, very thin “crepe” made of rice and lentil batter, crisp on the surface, soft on the inside, topped with savory onion-tomato masala and coconut mint-chutney. It was even better when we spooned spicy sambar, a vegetable stew spiked with chili and cumin, over it, rolled the whole thing up and popped it in our mouths.
We didn’t have time to hit MG Road, the popular bar around back, but some who’ve tippled there call the cocktails “mindblowing.” I like the sound of the Dark and Monsoony and the Ginger Lily. Or how about a rye whiskey cocktail with tamarind, Lillet and plum bitters?
Chai Pani, 22 Battery Park Avenue, Asheville, NC 28801. Telphone: 828-254-4003 Web: chaipani.net
Reza Satayesh, chef-owner of Rezaz in Asheville. Photo: rezaz.com
The first time we ate at Rezaz, I was captivated by the way chef-owner Reza Satayesh used spices to put an even more magical spin on his sunny Mediterranean cooking. In a review for The Global Province, I wrote: “The Moroccan spiced lump crab cake was a crisp golden cylinder of fresh, succulent crab, topped with a tomato-cinnamon jam that amped up the sweetness of the seafood…Pink, juicy slices of peppery seared duck breast …were napped with a sweet-tart pomegranate molasses sauce…Grilled lemons added a bright note to a dill-flecked seafood risotto…..”
Years later, both the restaurant (a converted hardware store) and the Mediterranean style menu have become a bit more luxe—and Reza has a second restaurant, Piazza—but those seductive flavors are still hiding in plain sight. The indescribably delicious tomato cinnamon jam, now closer to a coulis, still accompanies the crab cake—itself transformed into a golden crab and scallop cake, sandwiched between thin slices of lightly pickled apple and frisee salad in a roasted shallot vinaigrette. Salted preserved Moroccan lemon peel brightens a plate of house made pickles, some of the best I’ve ever had, as well as a side of sautéed greens and raisins, adding a citrusy note to the bitter-sweet dish. Rich, falling-off-the-bone lamb shanks braised in balsamic vinegar get an extra lift from torshe litte, a tangy Persian eggplant pickle.
Midway through dinner, our server brought out a set of tiny white porcelain tagines. He removed the lids to reveal a gift from the chef: a quartet of sparkling condiments, including sour cherry and dried fig chutneys, green olive tapenade with preserved lemon, and a house-made harissa made with cumin and dried Mexican chilies. What joy! Now if we could always have these on our table at home….
Rezaz, 28 Hendersonville Road, Asheville, NC 28803. Telephone: 828-277-1510. Web: rezaz.com