Last night James and I took a break from the Carolina Bed & Breakfast and joined two other couples for a Spring Beer dinner at one of our favorite restaurants in Asheville: The Junction. It was an unexpected meal, and in many ways this dinner was a perfect example of the food scene here in Asheville.
The restaurant, as you might expect, is in an old brick building in Asheville’s River Arts District, just across the street from the railroad track. The walls are decorated with paintings from local artists which change regularly. James and I bought an original artwork from them the first time we dined there. It’s pretty basic: metal tables and chairs, a long bar and a recently opened terraced area. The kitchen is visible through the pass which also holds the entire skin of a pig which has been fried into a pork rind and lacquered. Asheville restaurants may cater to vegans and vegetarians but the carnivores here are devoted to heritage meats and traditional products and this is the message the Junction has for it’s diners. This restaurant has never disappointed me and has even changed me. For example, I have never been a big burger fan. To me the flavors in a burger are too often jumbled together. There may be cheese and bacon on the burger but I can’t really taste the difference between cheese and no cheese! But the burger at the Junction? It’s sublime. The meat is ground in-house from the finest cut of local beef. The toppings, from pork floss to fried green tomato are additions to the dish. In short, I love the burger at the Junction. Words I never thought I would hear myself say.
But enough about that. What about last night’s meal– the Spring Beer Dinner with Hi-Wire Brewing? This was a six course meal paired with beers from a local craft brewery. Hi-Wire embraces many of the same philosophical tenets as the Junction: approachable, independent and authentic right down to artwork by a local artist. For this meal, the brewers got together with the chefs, not just to pair the beers to the courses but to help create the pairings. Flavors in the beers were explained and explored and the menu was created as if the beer were an ingredient in the dish. Wine pairings often look for dishes that compliment the wine. This beer pairing felt like the brewers were working in the kitchen next to the chefs.
That being said, the menu was seriously out there. It was a foodie’s dream. Take a look at the first course: Hi-Wire lager, turnip-brie croissant, horseradish mustard, mustard greens, thyme honey, pickled golden raisin relish. Where to begin? There are so many words there that I have never seen together and so much going on that it looked like it might be a train wreck. Except it wasn’t. Horseradish mustard is the skort of mustards. (To the uninitiated, a skort is a pair of woman’s shorts cut to look like it’s a skirt. It tends to be unsuccessful at being either) I can never decide whether horseradish mustard is mustard drowned out by horseradish or horseradish needlessly seasoned with heat. However, throw some thyme and honey in there and the whole thing changes. Thyme and honey is another marvelous combo. Do you know how much I liked this combination? Tonight I spread horseradish pimento cheese on crackers, topped them with dry salami, a dollop of honey and a fresh thyme leaf and served them to our guests. Every one was eaten.
The first course was good but my favorite, favorite, favorite was the next: Gin Barrel-Aged Juniper Saison, whiskey glazed pig tails, toasted walnut oil, juniper-apple stew. Fun fact: “saison” is a style of beer considered to be “farmhouse”. This is the beer that was brewed for the field workers. Really? Find me a field, I’m going to work! Seriously, this beer was more like a cocktail than a beer. The taste of the juniper and gin cut through the beer–it was like a martini shot with a chaser of beer. So the beer set a high bar for the pig tail. Never having had a pig tail before I was imagining something in the curly, crunchy category. I could not have been more wrong. It’s not a pretty dish so I was of two minds whether I should post a picture but I think the picture is needed to explain what’s going on here. The pig tail, which looks unavoidably like a tail, is a very fatty piece. It was slow roasted until it was almost poached in its own pig fat, sort of like duck confit. And, like confit, the meat was succulent and rich and falling off the bone. I am not ashamed to admit to picking it up and eating it with my fingers in order to be able to get at the best of the meat. I do think the plate would have benefited from some green but maybe the relentless brown earthy color was part of the experience.
I could go on but I won’t. You had to be there. But let me say this: if you want to come to Asheville and experience a meal like this, give us a call. I can’t promise anything and you will probably have to plan your trip around the meal, not the date, but I will do my best to find you something special and very, very Asheville!