Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Food and Music in the AVL

I may have just had the best weekend in the history of weekends.  Excellent company, spectacular music, and amazing food.  Pretty much the Hungry Lady trifecta of good things.  So where was I, that I enjoyed such a wealth of awesomeness?  I was in Asheville, N.C. for the Warren Haynes Xmas Jam. This magnificent event is a weekend-long festival of fun and music, put on solely to benefit Habitat for Humanity.  So not only was I having a blast, I was also upping my good karma by charitable giving (no really.  In addition to the concert itself, I donated a ton of winter clothes/blankets to the Grateful Bread clothing drive to benefit the homeless of Asheville).  I had such a good time, that I'm trying to figure out if it's too early to book a hotel for next year.

So on to the main event:
The Jam itself was on Saturday night.  Thankfully, the good people involved with this event put together quite a program on Friday afternoon, Friday night, and Saturday afternoon to keep us occupied.  I made the trek into the mountains on Friday morning, and got to AVL a little after noon.  My friends, N & D, were making the trip down from the great white north, and didn't expect to get into town until later that afternoon.  Never one to let the opportunity for good music to pass me by, I headed to the Lexington Avenue Brewery (LAB) for Friday's acoustic jam and some lunch and beers.

I got to LAB just before the music started.  Though I wanted to see the first band, my need for food and beer took precedence.  Luckily for me, the performances were being piped through the restaurant, so I still managed to listen to the American Babies set.  I grabbed a spot at the bar, and took a look at the beer list.  LAB is, as the name would suggest, a brewery, meaning that the only beers on tap are those that are made on the premises.  I ordered the American Pale Ale, and it was fantastic.   Nice and hoppy, but still pretty well-balanced.  And it went great with the Scallop Po' Boy that I ordered for lunch.  Most everything on the menu looked great (and the burgers that the guys next to me ordered looked fabulous), but the po' boy just kept jumping out at me, so that's what I ordered.  I'm 100% sure that I could eat this sandwich every day for the rest of my life and never tire of it.  The roll was made in-house and the scallops were coated in an awesome beer batter.  The whole thing was topped with romaine lettuce, tomatoes, pickled onions, and a Cajun remoulade, which added a very nice spice to the whole dish.  The onions were so flavorful and crunchy, that I think the lettuce and tomato were a little superfluous.  The sandwich was served with french fries that were skinny and really well seasoned.  I think I only ate a handful of them though because the sandwich was so good.  And it was filling.  By the time we got to dinner that night, I was still so full that I could only eat half of what I ordered.

Most amazing sandwich ever.
Once I finished my lunch and beer, I headed to the back of the LAB to catch some music and have another beer or two.  I got to see Tall Tall Trees, Kevn Kinney, Granpappy, Velvet Truckstop, and Ray Sisk before N & D got to town.  I switched up my beer, and tried LAB's IPA, which was good, but I didn't think it really compared to the APA.  So, for my last beer, I switched back to the APA.  Some good acoustic jams, an amazing meal, and some tasty beers?  Not a bad way to spend 4 hours on a Friday afternoon.

Lexington Ave Brewery (Lab) on Urbanspoon

N & D called, and I headed back to our hotel to meet up.  We spent some time catching up, and then decided to head back to downtown AVL for dinner, beers, and whatever entertainment we could find.  I had asked around on Facebook, Twitter, and assorted other sites for restaurant/bar suggestions (thanks to all who offered their opinions!), and someone suggested the Bier Garden.  After checking out the menu (what would we do without smart phones?), we grabbed a cab and started our evening with dinner.  The beer menu alone would have convinced us to stay here, but N & D were hungry (I, not so much, as I was still a bit full from lunch), so the promise of good food is what brought us here.  We started with a couple of appetizers to share - chips & salsa and bier-battered veggies (asparagus & pickles).  The chips & salsa weren't really anything special, but fried asparagus just became my new favorite fried veggie.  You can't go wrong with fried pickles, but have you ever had fried asparagus?  Exactly.  Not something you ever would have thought of, but paired with a chipotle ranch sauce, and it was fabulous.  My only complaint was that there was a little more breading than asparagus, but really?  How can that even been a legitimate complaint?  "I'm sorry...there's too much fried goodness on this plate."  Yeah.  No.

All three of us kept it simple for dinner, and went with burgers/sandwiches.  N had the Southwestern Burger with smoked corn, pepper jack cheese, and jalepenos with a side of onion rings.  D went with the Cuban sandwich, which looked pretty awesome, and a side of sweet potato fries.  I ordered the Chicken Dogwood, which was grilled chicken, avocado, smoked gouda, and bacon with a chipotle sauce, and a side of regular fries.  While I didn't try either of the other dishes, I can safely say that mine was great.  I was a little bummed that I couldn't finish it.  We did have a refrigerator in our hotel room, but I wouldn't have had time to eat the leftovers.  Sad.  My favorite part of this sandwich was the avocado.  I'm a recent avocado convert, and I've discovered that I really like the creaminess and the flavor. (No picture for this one...sorry!  It was pretty dimly lit in the restaurant, and the picture just didn't turn out well.  Take my word for it, that this was a mighty fine looking, and tasting, sandwich).

Bier Garden on Urbanspoon

We took it easy on the beer at the Bier Garden (though someday I would like to go back and explore a bit more), because we knew we were going to be spending quite a bit of time at the Thirsty Monk, or as I like to refer to it, "Beer Mecca."  The bar is two floors - the main floor is all American craft beers.  Then you disappear down a creepy looking set of stairs into a basement that reminded me of everything I've ever imagined the cellar of a monastery to look like.  And, wouldn't you know, down here, they only serve Belgian beers (or Belgian-style beers).  The three of us were in heaven.  We started up top with a beer a piece, but we were really anxious to head downstairs and salivate over the Belgians.  The beer list was overwhelming - not only was there a nice draught selection, but also an enormous bottled beer selection.  Put this on your list of places to go if you're ever in AVL.  And if you like good beer.  I think you could easily spend a month here and never drink the same beer twice.  This place might actually be what heaven is like....

The Thirsty Monk on Urbanspoon

We wrapped it up at the Thirsty Monk, and headed back to the LAB for some more beers and music (huge perk of AVL?  Everything is in walking distance.  Love it).  Unfortunately, the music wasn't holding our attention, and we were all tired and knew that Saturday was going to be a long day, so we called a cab and headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep.

And then it was Saturday.  The day we'd all been waiting for.  There were a few things we absolutely had to do: Drop off stuff for the Grateful Bread clothing drive, the actual Xmas Jam, Xmas Jam by day music, and, of course, eat.  By the time we were all up and ready to head downtown, it was nearing brunch time. We grabbed the first parking spot we saw (yay! walkable city), and wandered a little.  We were going to try the famous Tupelo Honey Cafe, but we were a bit too hungry to wait the projected 45 minutes.  Instead, we wandered across the street to the Jerusalem Garden Cafe.  Good decision.  The place was nearly empty when we walked in, which some might interpret as a bad sign.  However, D whipped out his trusty iPhone and assured us that there were good reviews about the place.  We shrugged, sat down, and perused the brunch menu.  Good, if not very extensive, choices.  Keep in mind, that the cafe specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, so you may see some things that you wouldn't normally see on a brunch menu.  We kept it pretty simple.  N had the shrimp & grits.  It looked to me like the grits were a bit on the watery side - I don't know if they were supposed to be creamy, or what, but it looked almost like grit soup.  D ordered the biscuits & gravy.  It came topped with two eggs.  This one actually looked pretty good to me - the gravy wasn't super sausage-y, but it also didn't have that weird texture that sometimes happens when you have too much flour.  I decided to get the omelette.  I asked to have it made with portobella mushrooms, feta, and roasted red peppers.  Unfortunately, they were out of mushrooms (seriously, the shipment came in about 20 minutes after we ordered), so our server suggested artichoke hearts instead.  Sounded good to me.  And it was.  The omelette came with a side of potatoes and a biscuit.  The potatoes were a little cold, but the omelette was so good, I didn't even care.  The eggs were fluffy, and the insides were plentiful.  The flavor profile was spot on - the tang of the feta really worked well with the artichokes and peppers.  If their dinner is anywhere near as good as this omelette was, I'd really like to go back.

Pretty nice looking plate of food - I like the garnish around the edges.
The inside of my omelette.  Every single bite had something besides egg in it.
Two other things you should know: 1. The coffee was great.  Usually the only time I add anything to my coffee is in a restaurant.  This coffee was so good black, that I happily left the creamer untouched.  2. In keeping with the Mediterranean theme, the cafe is decorated like Morocco.  You can sit on couches or cushions on the floor (there are tables & chairs too).  Rumor has it they have belly dancers on most weekends.  I'd really like to try a lunch or dinner here, as I've read some great things.

Jerusalem Garden Cafe on Urbanspoon

After some pretty quick service, it was time to wander around downtown and do some shopping.  We didn't go to too many places, as we needed to be at the Asheville Music Hall at 1 to catch some tunes, but we were successful in lightening our wallets in the few places we went to.  We got to the AMH, grabbed some beers (I really love that so many AVL bars feature local brews on tap), and settled in for a day of music with Tall Tall Trees, Jackie Greene and Friends, Nova Echo, and American Babies.  The music was killer.  It was so packed for the JG set that we could barely breathe.  But I guess when your friends include Audley Freed, David Hidalgo, Steve Berlin, and a few other super talented musicians, you're going to draw a crowd.  We had to head out about halfway through the American Babies set to drop off my clothes.  Pretty good planning, as the drop box was at Mellow Mushroom.  I dropped off my stuff and we grabbed dinner at the same time.  Win.

MM is nothing new to me, given that we have a few around Columbia.  I haven't been there in quite awhile, despite the fact that a brand new one opened a few miles from my house earlier this year.  I ordered the Philosopher's Pie - steak, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, feta, and mozzarella - before it occurred to me that this was almost identical to the omelette I'd had that morning.  It was delicious - I really love pizzas that don't have red sauce.  All of us had leftovers, so we took them back to the hotel, figuring that they'd make a good late night snack after the show.

We got back to our hotel, enjoyed a beer from the growler that N & D had purchased during their stop at Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain, N.C. on their way to AVL.  We had the Solstice, which is a Belgian trippel.  I'm a fan.  Then we called our cabbie, and headed back downtown for the Xmas Jam.

I could spend another 7000 words detailing the awesomeness that was the Xmas Jam and the sheer brilliance of Warren Haynes, but alas, this is a food blog and not a music blog.  Suffice it to say that I am still reeling from the experience three days later.  The bands (the Xmas Jam Family Band, Bela Fleck/Jeff Sipe with Jimmy Herring, Los Lobos, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Gov't Mule) were incredibly tight.  The sit-ins were outstanding. The song selection was perfect (except for a really trippy and trancy "Dark Star" at 1 a.m. At that point I needed something that was going to keep me awake).  The crowd was nuts, and the company was grand.  I wish the beer lines had been a bit shorter, so I could have tried some of the Xmas Jam Ale (as it was, we didn't bother with drinking at the show...probably a good decision in the long run).  Everything else was amazing.  ***If you really want to listen/watch the show,rohbear4 was kind enough to upload the whole thing to Youtube. I've made all the videos into a convenient playlist for you (though not necessarily in order), so check it out if you want here. ***

I've fallen a bit in love with AVL, and I've only been there twice (both, incidentally, for musical events that lasted past 1 a.m.).  Someday I will take a two-week vacation and head up the mountain to do nothing except eat.  There are so many good restaurants, and we were only fortunate enough to try a couple of them.  Maybe I'll plan it around next year's Xmas Jam.  I wonder if it's too early to book the hotel?

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