I love sharing Birmingham with friends. I love just as much when friends share their own special places with me–opening my eyes to something I don’t see every day.
My husband, Rick, and I recently spent about 44 hours in Asheville, North Carolina, with our friends April and Sid and Bob and Tondee. April was the resident expert, and she curated a trip that was food-focused, art-centered and absolutely awesome. April clearly delighted in doing this, and she’s incredibly good at it! We left town after our long weekend having seen and done (and tasted) so much. I am grateful beyond measure, and I’d like to share some of April’s favorite things. You’re going to want to take a road trip.
We arrived at Sid and April’s home, stopped briefly to unload our bags and enjoy a glass of rose and then headed to Gan Shan Station for dinner. Patrick O’Cain (he’s the tall one you’ll see behind the chef’s counter) was born and raised in North Asheville. He spent time in the kitchens of Asheville’s Curate and McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. He left McCrady’s and opened Charleston’s Xiao Bao Biscuit as sous-chef. Then he returned home to his own dreams and opened a restaurant in the neighborhood where he grew up. Gan Shan Station is in an old gas station in North Asheville. The open, airy place is named for Sunset Mountain where Patrick spent his childhood.
April arranged for the chef’s table tasting menu, and it was a stunning mix of Southern foods and Asian flavors–and clever drink pairings from around the world. Sichuan salt and pepper tofu (a table favorite even with people who don’t like tofu) was paired with a cocktail made of mezcal; whole flounder, sprinkled with fresh flowers and herbs and served over crispy Laotian rice, came with a Tuscan white. A miso-glazed pork chop with pickled blackberries and buttermilk dressing was paired with a French merlot. Six people fell in love with Sichuan pepper that night.
Gan Shan Station
143 Charlotte Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed on Sunday
We started our day at Hole Doughnuts with cooked-to-order, served-hot-y’all doughnuts and great coffee roasted at the nearby PennyCup Coffee Co. At Hole, the yeasty dough is rolled out by hand, right in front of you. The doughnut varieties change all the time, but expect them to be glazed, dipped or sprinkled as you watch. Our doughnuts were crisp on the outside, wonderfully fluffy inside with vanilla glaze; a seasonal topping of hand-crushed wineberries; a dusting of cinnamon and sugar; and a crunchy, slightly savory topping of almonds, toasted sesame seeds and cinnamon.
168 Haywood Road
Asheville, NC 28806
7:30 am – 2:00pm, Closed Tuesday
We spent the rest of the morning walking through the River Arts District where converted warehouses and industrial buildings along the French Broad River house studios for all kinds of artists. We looked at Cheyenne Trunnel‘s dreamy acrylic, pencil and watercolor landscapes and talked with Cindy Walton about her contemporary oil and cold wax paintings.
We were delighted with what we found at Splurge. Artist Robert Nicholas is collecting eclectic antiques and vintage objects and creating awesome things for his gift shop. What we loved: pendant lights made of huge commercial mixing-bowl attachments (whisks, paddles), mirrors surrounded by industrial floor-polishing brushes (I have a wall waiting for one of those, and you can see them here), chandeliers made of wire and wood.
Next stop: Lexington Glassworks, where we saw a demonstration and bought a few colorful things.
For lunch, April guided us to Chai Pani with its Indian street food by two-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef Southeast Meherwan Irani. The self-taught Irani also owns a Chai Pani in Decatur, GA, as well as Botiwalla, a traditional tea and kabab place. He teamed up with Chef Elliott Moss (another James Beard Best Chef Southeast nominee) to open Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville’s South Slope area. Buxton Hall features wood-smoked, whole-hog barbecue, Low-Country dishes, Southern favorites, seasonal pies and a daily slushy. Irani also owns MG ROAD Bar & Lounge and a Spicewalla spice store, both located near Asheville’s Chai Pani. Spicewalla spices are sourced, selected and blended by Irani. Some of these spices are available (along with cool t-shirts) at Chai Pani.
During our lunch, we enjoyed butter chicken thali with marinated Joyce Farms chicken; uttapam (savory crepes made of rice and lentil batter) with corn, peas, onion, cilantro, curry leaf, ginger and hot peppers; and (our surprise favorite) crispy masala fish roll with cumin, lime, chili powder, ginger and garlic in hot-buttered naan.
22 Battery Park Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
Monday to Thursday 11:30–3:30 / 5:00-9:30
Friday and Saturday 11:30–3:30 / 5:30-10:00
Sunday 12:00–3:30 / 5:00-9:30
We shopped at Nest Organics for vintage-feeling, Asheville-themed dish towels made of flour sacks, and we ducked into Asheville’s own East Fork Pottery because we had so admired the beautiful stoneware on our table at Gan Shan Station the night before.
For dinner, we headed to Nightbell
for some shared small plates and (individual!) craft cocktails. Executive chef and owner Katie Button serves dishes made with local Appalachian ingredients in the intriguing setting of a former nightclub (you’ll notice the colorful disco lights here and there).
Katie was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation
Rising Star Chef award in 2012 and 2013 and a nominee in 2014, semi-finalist for Best Chefs in America in 2015 and a nominee for the JBF Best Chef Southeast award in 2018. She was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2015
, and she hosted an international television series, The Best Chefs in the World
Katie and company source ingredients mostly from small, local farms, and a nose-to-tail butchery program, in partnership with her Cúrate
, has them serving sustainable (often lesser-known) cuts. Nightbell gets its name from the days when guests rang the “nightbell” for entrance after 5.
What we loved: the “deviled eggs,” which are an airy mix of corn sabayon, sunburst smoked trout gravlax and pimenton in an egg cup (certainly like no other deviled egg we’ve ever had); brown butter skillet cornbread with chicken butter and seasonal jams; grilled baby beets with bresaola, puffed Carolina gold rice and béarnaise yogurt; seared scallops with roasted sweet potato, sour corn and dashi; and house-made French fries with rocket sauce.
32 South Lexington Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
Open at 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Before heading home, we went to Limones
for brunch. This cozy, downtown restaurant specializes in Mexican and California cuisine.
We shared a plate of lobster nachos with crema, guacamole and Serrano peppers to start. Other favorite dishes highlighted the inventiveness of this kitchen and included roasted fennel and organic snap pea slaw enchiladas with mole Amarillo, chipotle rice, crema, guacamole, queso fresco and pickled onion; huevos divorciados with chipotle rice, bacon, refried beans, queso fresco and avocado; and smoked chipotle chilaquiles with two eggs, epazote, refried beans, crema, queso, pico de gallo and Southern farm bacon.
If you go, begin with the awesome bloody Mary or the Basil Refrescante (Oronoco rum, muddled basil, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup) or a peach-chipotle margarita (Patron Reposado, Patron Citronge, fresh lime juice and house-made peach-chipotle puree).
And you must end the meal with a cup of anise-scented hot chocolate served with the best churros ever!
13 Eagle Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Monday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
We made one more stop before we left–a quick trip into Mast General Store for some last-minute souvenirs: postcards, local honey and a black bear-shaped cookie cutter. Perfect! That cookie cutter is going to my dear friend Maria who lives in Germany and makes amazing sweets. The postcards already have arrived, she told me.
April, thank you for a wonderful weekend … and for helping me share the love and your special place!