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Asheville dining spots show ambition, support

By Helen Schwab
Restaurant Writer

Care to venture a guess on why Asheville restaurants can do the adventuring they do?

Sure, it’s partly the college-town atmosphere and partly the locavore ethos and partly the resources available. Surely, it’s also partly the quality of life in a laid-back town that has healthy tourist traffic, too.

But when the James Beard award nominations came out this year, Cúrate’s Katie Button in Asheville was the only area Carolinas chef nominated in the “rising star” category, while Elliott Moss snagged a nod among semifinalists for best chef Southeast.

Only (and predictably) Charleston had more chef names among the nominees. Charlotte? Zip. (Only Sean Brock of Charleston’s Husk and McCrady’s made it through to finals, that in the Outstanding Chef category; winners are announced May 6. My 2011 look at Husk is at bit.ly/10uoW6u.)

“Wow! cmon CLT,” Paul Manley tweeted in February. Manley, co-owner of Crepe Cellar and Growlers Pourhouse in Charlotte, continued: “Surely we could compete. Recipe is 3 (parts) talent, 2 parts PR, 1 part drive-blend & spin.”

Agree? (I particularly like the drive-blend & spin part.)

In the meantime, let’s check the current Asheville scene:

New is Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder, from chef Mike Moore, who’s been running his Blind Pig Supper Club themed dinners and working at the Admiral the past couple of years, and partner Jason Caughman, from Pisgah Brewing.

Here, Moore is playing with pig parts too, but in a farm-edged setting that employs mason-jar vases and wood beams, farm-stand signage and wood-slat booths. Farming and farmers (and heirloom foodstuffs) are dear to this place’s heart, and it shows in everything from the Sea Island red pea hummus to the vegetable plate – Anson Mills farro verde, pickled rutabagas, hickory-smoked mushrooms and mustard greens dotted with pecans, Asher Blue cheese and a drizzle of Cheerwine vinaigrette.

Smoked pig tongue comes over a hash of sweet potato and jalapeno, the pepper’s heat harnessed enough to set off the rich and tender meat nicely. A thick Berkshire pork chop from Eden Farms comes with a grit cake, collards and a bit of fried fatback, with a “Down East vinegar chop sauce” perfectly balancing it all.

Braised mountain goat over Brunswick stew was a daily special; Moore is drawn to the culture and cooking of southern Appalachia, with its deep farming and animal husbandry roots. “The food here is unique. It’s special and we are tied into that.”

Add to this an extensive lineup of bourbons and ryes, plus a significant array of other whiskeys and spirits – all with proofs listed – and you’ve got a place you can spend some time in. And not necessarily a lot of money: Small plates run $6-$16 and entrees $16-$29.

Seven Sows: 77 Biltmore Ave.; 828-255-2592; sevensows.com.

Pizza Pura

Also new: Pizza Pura, the second restaurant from Laura Reuss and Ben Mixson (they opened the lively and delicious White Duck Taco about two years ago).

In the interim, Reuss studied with the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (a nonprofit founded by Italian pizza makers aimed at preserving the integrity of Neapolitan-style pizzas), and arranged for the wood-fired oven for the new space, which is also in the River Arts District.

That oven cooks at about 905 degrees. The result? Simple, gorgeous, 12-inch pizzas ($10-$12) with some bubble and char, topped with housemade mozzarella that has actual flavor and imported-for-the-most-part ingredients, from soft-grain Italian flour for the dough to prosciutto di Parma as a topping.

Toppings are few in number and appropriate in portion – meaning not skimpy but not overwhelming to the fabulous crust. Margherita couples San Marzano tomato sauce with mozzarella and basil. The Pimpi (!) adds prosciutto, parmesan and arugula to that: Terrific. Housemade fennel sausage is paired with leeks; figs with Gorgonzola; roasted mushrooms come with tarragon, brie and truffle oil in the only off-the-path pie.

The menu’s small now, and may stay that way: a mixed green salad, olives or cheese with baguette as appetizers, and a short wine and beer list.

Straightforward and excellent.

Pizza Pura: 342 Depot St.; 828-225-2582; www.pizzapura.com.

Chai Pani

Finally, though it’s not new, don’t miss Chai Pani. Billed as a purveyor of Indian street food, this is a marvelously brightly colored space with inexpensive dishes to share and a few killer plates – like okra, sliced thin lengthwise, fried to crispiness without breading and doused with lime juice and salt. Addictive.

Uttapam (rice-lentil crepes) come with coconut chutney, or potato or paneer (fresh cheese), and sambar on the side for dipping; that’s a slightly spicy, soupy vegetable-based liquid. There are wraps of vegetable and potato hash, or potato dumplings or chicken kabobs – and there’s a “Sloppy Jai” – turkey hash served on two buns. Small plates – “chaat,” which are street snacks – include the stuffed pastries called samosas along with Bombay chili cheese fries, and there are salads, too.

Chai Pani: 22 Battery Park Ave.; 828-254-4003; chaipani.net.

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