It’s the last day of our road trip, and a sad day indeed. But we still have some great activities scheduled, starting with the most important meal of the day. Biscuit Head had a line out the door, but that’s a good sign, right? It gave us time to peruse their menu and make up our minds about what to get for breakfast, which wasn’t easy. They make “cat head biscuits”, so called because they’re the size of a cat’s head (recipe here, if you’re interested – let me know how they turn out!) and breakfast is mostly a selection of cat head biscuit sandwiches. So good! You’ve got to love any place that features a bacon of the day.
Fortified by sky-high biscuit sandwiches, we made our way over to the River Arts District. No great mystery here, the name says it all – a bunch of old factory buildings near the French Broad River (seriously, that’s what it’s called) that have been converted into artists’ studios and galleries. The area’s very walkable, and we saw a huge variety of art. There are glass blowers (take a lesson if you’re interested), painters, potters, sculptors … you name it, you’ll find it here. The nice thing is that it’s a very low-pressure environment; a lot of the time, the artists are actually busy working, or not even there (plenty of signs along the lines of “If you’re interested in buying something, slip the money under the door or speak to Steve in the gallery to the left”), so you can browse in peace and engage when you feel like it. We arrived shortly after 10am in the morning, and were told that a lot of places don’t open until 11; I feel arriving at 11:30 or 12 would actually be ideal. By then, the cafes and pubs will have started opening up too.
Having pleasantly wiled away our morning, we drove back to downtown for what I consider the highlight of the road trip: the Asheville Food Tour. This is a walking tour that covers some of Asheville’s best restaurants (the line-up changes with every tour). I had booked this in advance, and at $50 per person, I feel this was incredibly good value.
We met at the beautiful Grove Arcade, and proceeded through 8 stops over 4 hours (it was supposed to be 3.5, but no-one minded). Our first stop was Modesto Wood Fire Kitchen, where we tried a fried green tomato with pesto on the side and a little blue cheese melted over. We washed this down with a few sips of white wine. The food was very well executed, and the chef explained their farm to table approach and innovative food concepts.
From Modesto, it was around the corner to The Chocolate Fetish. The husband and wife team that currently runs this chocolate store takes great pride in manufacturing small-batch chocolates and truffles right in downtown Asheville. Their most charming offering is a “smash cake”, a three-tiered chocolate shell resembling a wedding cake that can be filled with all kinds of surprises. You can then take a hammer to it to get at the contents. Unfortunately they can’t be shipped. We hugely enjoyed the samples they served up.
From artisan chocolates, we moved on to the Blue Dream Curry House, where we sampled the Midnight Masala, which was described as a UK-style curry. I have to admit, I’ve never eaten a curry like that in England, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the tomatoey, creamy creation – if we’d stayed in Asheville for any longer, I would definitely have come back here. There was a small glass of beer on the side, so Stu lucked out and got to drink two. The Blue Dream is on a mission to provide employment that can actually support families. Staff at both the front and back of the house are paid well above minimum wage, and on top of that, they distribute 10% of earnings every month. This translates into no tipping for customers, and everybody wins.
On the way to our next stop, our guide Paddy spent some time pointing out Asheville’s Art Deco architecture, which is second in the US only to Miami – I had no idea! He also took us past the “ghost church”, which is now just an outline on another building’s outer wall. Rumors and theories abound, since no-one seems to know anything about this church – when or why it was torn down, which denomination it served, nothing. We then arrived at Bhramari , which serves a fresh, ever-changing menu accompanied by some good brews. This place really seemed special and innovative. We sampled a hash brown stuffed with drunken pork carnitas, along with a small beer (Stu happily chugged both of ours).
Next stop: The Blackbird, where we sampled their excellent roasted beet salad. This is another restaurant that takes its mission seriously to provide fresh, local food.
At this point, most of us were beginning to feel a little full, but we still had 3 more stops to go. Next up, the White Duck Taco Shop. According to Paddy, this is the only restaurant that always serves the same menu item when the food tour stops by. Their shrimp tacos were once sampled and liked by Martha Stewart, and what’s good enough for her … We were also treated to some tortilla chips with warm queso sauce, and our shrimp taco portion was very generous. I know the picture makes them look like pickle tacos, but there were actually a lot of shrimp underneath!
With ever fuller stomachs, we now made our way over to stop number 7, the Social Lounge, a sister establishment of Strada Italian restaurant, where we sampled a slice of their thin-crust pizza, as well as their Caesar salad and some hard ginger lemonade – all of them excellent.
To our delight, our last stop was something completely different, and didn’t involve any real food, which none of us could have handled at this point. We visited the Asheville Bee Charmer, a store selling both local and internationally sourced honey and honey products. We learned all kinds of interesting things about honey, and were then able to sample several local honeys, as well as a number of infused ones tasting of chocolate, coffee, chili and other yummy flavors.
By the time we left the Bee Charmer, the tour had taken over 4 hours, and we had enjoyed every second. We were also glad we’d canceled our dinner reservations, since there was no way we were eating anything else that day. Ideally, you would do this tour on your first day in Asheville, so that you can then go back to the ones you liked the best, or pick other restaurants to try. And that pretty much concluded the road trip! I’ll be posting a bonus review in a few days from a stop we made in D.C. on our way home, so keep a lookout for that. And before somebody asks about the elephant in the room: Yes, you’re right, we did not visit the Biltmore Estate. I had originally planned to, but was seriously put off by the amount of money we’d have to invest to even spend the day there. Entry to the estate is $55 per adult (and that’s off-peak, if you’ve bought the tickets a week in advance, otherwise they can go up to as much as $70), and that doesn’t include a guided tour of the house; even the audio guide is extra. To properly explore the extensive grounds you’ve bought access to, it would be nice to rent bikes, but prices are pretty steep and add up quickly. I had been looking forward to afternoon tea at the Inn at Biltmore, but you need to buy admission to the grounds to partake, so a reasonably priced meal suddenly turns into a very expensive one. Even staying at the Inn doesn’t give you admission. The only other activity included in the price of admission is the wine tasting at the Antler Village Winery, and given that I’ve never even heard of Biltmore wines, I decided we’d pass. Maybe we’ll go down to that neck of the woods some other time and focus on the Biltmore Estate. That would allow me to keep my eyes open for a reasonable package, and possibly stay at the Inn at Biltmore itself for the full experience.