Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Elf and Big Solid Go to Asheville

Apologies for having been away for a while…first it was to prepare for the TRIP, then it was the TRIP and then it was recovering from the TRIP. SOOO, now it’s time to catch y’all up on our excellent adventure. The good, the not so good and the fun.

We make no bones about it…we LOVE Asheville North Carolina. It is a mecca for foodies like me who are plant based, a bohemian arty town (some folks call it “Boulder East”), it’s a springboard to the Blue Ridge Parkway with all the hiking and trails that you can wish for, it is also within easy driving distance to another little town we love called Hot Springs which is a haven for hikers on the Appalachian Trail (or as we now call it ‘The AT’). I can release my not-so-inner hippie and Big Solid can people watch.

I don’t know what it IS about being on the road, but damn, it seems as soon as you pull out of the drive way, it’s time to eat something. I think we made it as far as a little ways into Alabama on day we left before stopping for food. Since we were overnighting in Birmingham with our/my step-son, we didn’t get away tile late morning so by the time we got into Alabama, it was time for lunch.  Vegan eating on the road can be a challenge, so we try to watch out for Subways. We stopped at the Subway in Livingston AL—located of course in a service station. You know how sometimes a stranger can just make your day? Well, the gal who fixed our sammiches surely did…she was personable, funny, engaging, and an absolute joy. In this day and age, happening on a person who actually ENJOYS what they do is a rarity and this gal was having a ball. I WISH I’d taken her picture because she made our stop delightful as did the very elderly gentleman who very, VERY slowly made his way into the Subway, eased his overall clad self into a booth. We started talking about the weather and how hot it was. He said, “It can’t get too hot for me. I love the hot. When everybody else is burnin’ up, I’m happy.” Gotta love it. Anywho, I had a veggie sandwich…the delightful server couldn’t quite GET that I didn’t want cheese or bacon or mayo but that just gave her another thing to enjoy (and me too).

We got away from Birmingham fairly early the next morning and once again, got hungry pretty quick. Big Solid never met a Waffle House he didn’t like, so we had a nice little breakfast along the way.  I have learned that dry wheat toast and a side order of sliced tomatoes makes a fine breakfast when all about you are eating omelets, sausages, bacon, waffles, pancakes and the like.  I have also learned to take my own non-dairy coffee creamer as Waffle House does not offer non-dairy alternatives.
The Vegan Waffle House breakfast!
As is typical, we got lost or we’d rather think, misguided, and got to Asheville exactly at the 4 p, check-in time. We stayed in a lovely little rental house in the Biltmore Village area, having decided that we’d rather be closer to town than our previous trip when we were about 15 miles out. Our neighborhood was a wonderfully eclectic area set in very hilly terrain. Heck, we didn’t have to go anywhere to hike…just out the front door. As SOON as we got settled and all our stuffs put up (clothing, travel Keurig, k-cups, Wildwood Creamer, booze, ‘sausages’, etc.) and sat out on the neat little back deck for a bit to unwind, it was time for SUPPER!!

I think the best way to organize this blog now is by restaurants we visited in order of preference and enjoyment.  First and foremost is--


Our first meal absolutely had to be Laughing Seed Café on Wall Street in downtown Asheville. This is a MUST eat place for us. We had a great server named Rachel and were able to sit outside (unheard of in the MS August heat).  I celebrated with a Kir Royale and Big Solid had a beer, I think. Our dinner was DIVINE!! Big Solid got the non-veganized version (meaning it had cheese in it) of the “Low Country Rollups--Sweet and tangy tofu barbecue wrapped in whole-wheat tortillas, baked with Monterey Jack cheese, and topped with tahini-mustard sauce. Served with brown rice and southern slaw" (not pictured).” I got what I ALWAYS get at least once at Laughing Seed and that is “Spinach-Pesto Manicotti--Zucchini ‘noodles’ stuffed with live sunflower-spinach pesto, cashew ricotta, and fresh basil; served over sun-dried tomato marinara with house-marinated olives.” Now, the coolest thing about this dish, aside from the fact that it is UNBEARABLY GOOD is that it’s all raw. Never in a million years would I have EVER thought I’d like this dish….until one time when Shannon Hall (aka SPIDEY-NURSE) and I were working in Asheville, she was game enough to try it. I tried it and had a tastegasm. Ever since, it’s a must have dish for me.

Spinach Pesto Manicotti (raw and DELICIOUS!)
Meal Two was a lunch meal. Bein’ as I was on VACATION, I started my lunch off with a Bloody Mary. Big Solid had the Dragon Bowl--An all-raw version of our Harmony Bowl. A layer of cauliflower/nut rice, an assortment of seasonal vegetables, arugula, avocado, and sunflower seed/beet pate topped with housemade kim chee and our organic purple kraut. Served with miso-tahini sauce”. I wavered between a sandwich and the lunch special of the day which was a mushroom cacciatore made with lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms. I opted for the sandwich. I immediately wished I’d gotten the mushroom dish as I have always wanted to taste a Lion’s Mane mushroom. They are just too cool and supposedly taste like lobster. In any event, I wound up with the Veganized “Havana Cuban --Herb- and spice-battered organic tempeh, crispy housemade pickles, black bean spread, tomatoes, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, and Asheville’s Lusty Monk mustard on our housemade focaccia”. It was still a great vegan version of my favorite sandwich on the face of the earth….a Cuban sandwich. Big Solid said his salad bowl was ‘the bomb’.

Dragon Bowl
Tempeh Cuban

 Meal three we were joined by a good friend who spends a month in the Brevard area each August (he too finds the heat of MS in August unbearable) and again, we were there for lunch. A Bloody Mary was once again my appetizer – they do make a good one and it’s healthy because it has an asparagus in it. This time, I got the daily vegan version of the “Gourmet Grilled Cheese-- Selection changes daily and on the day we were there, the selection was artichoke hearts and grilled red pepper”. Of course, we ALWAYS get their signature jalapeno-onion fries. Big Solid had the Cuban sandwich which you’ve already seen. Our companion, Ed Payne, had the “Salad Niçoise--Tender mixed greens tossed in red wine-beet vinaigrette with haricots verts, radish slices, red potato, artichoke hearts, red pepper, house-marinated olives, and capers and topped with shaved Parmesan.”  Ed is not vegetarian or vegan, so he roughed it for us.
Pimento Cheese and Ed!

Since Ole Miss was playing on TV that night, we decided to order Laughing Seed entrees for supper and take them home with us. A totally Brilliant idea! I got the Vegan version of the since Big Solid had loved his order so much the other day. So for his take away dinner entrée, he got the “East West Quesadilla--A creamy Indian-inspired filling of potato, yams, scallions, roasted red peppers, and cheese, flavored with curry and layered with spinach and our classic mole sauce. Topped with red salsa and Monterey Jack cheese and served with black beans and a tossed salad.” No pics of these two dishes; we must have been in a football feeding frenzy and overlooked the photographing of food stuffs.

Our Last Supper in Asheville was of course spent at Laughing Seed. We mad an agreement NOT to order something we’d already had so we went for it. Big Solid had the “Tico Burrito --A whole-wheat tortilla filled with spiced tico tofu, molé sauce, brown rice, grilled peppers and onions, and Monterey Jack cheese. Topped with red salsa, feta cheese, guacamole and cilantro sour cream. Served with organic blue corn chips and a tossed salad.” I had the BEST DISH OF THE TRIP The Daily Entrée selection of a Panag that was absolutely spectacular. No description available but let me tell you, it was delicious!
Vegan Panag

Tico Burrito

I have raved about Plant for a long time. It is an all vegan restaurant in Asheville that, once again, SPIDEY-NURSE and I discovered a few years back while working in the area. It typically rates as one of the best all vegan restaurants in the country.  Big Solid and I went on our second night, anticipating at least one of two more meals there. We made reservations fairly early to avoid any crowds yet it was pretty crowded when we got there. And, much to our dismay, very noisy. It’s a very small restaurant but it just seemed like they had added a few more tables, making it even more crowded. We had a glass of wine each and then ordered.  Big Solid had the “APPLEWOOD SMOKED PORTO’HOUSE* chard with live mustard & garlic · loaded polenta ·  fennel salad·  grape tomato ·  v1 steak sauce” and I had the “WALNUT CRUSTED SEITAN enlightened cauliflower · broccolini ·  caper-raisin sauce · pickled easter radish.” Now, I love good seitan and the times I’ve been to Plant, I’ve always gotten a seitan dish. I asked the chef on a previous visit how he made it so delicious and he said he didn’t make it…he found that Ray’s Seitan is better than he can possibly make, so he orders it from Ray’s. I could not find a Ray’s Seitan site but there are lots of interesting sites that discuss it if you google it. But, I digress…the meals we had at Plant this time were not up to the usual excellence. My walnut crusted seitan was good but the crust was a bit tough..almost like it had been sitting in a warmer for a while. And, Big Solid was not bowled over with his dish either. So, Plant, while still on the “V List” has slipped to a spot below Laughing Seed on this trip.

Walnut Crusted Seitan
Applewood Smoked Porto'House

We LOVE LOVE LOVE to try different ethnic cuisines and Asheville certainly has its share of good ethnic restaurants. Nepalese is one of our favorites and there just happens to be a Nepalese restaurant in Asheville. I had “Vege Chau Chau--Pan fried soft noodles with fresh vegetables and ginger garlic” and Big Solid had “Machha Tarkari--Atlantic salmon cooked with fresh curry powder and curry leaf”. My dish was absolutely divine…very simple but seasoned so nicely. It’s a Tibetan meal (and you know I think I was Tibetan in a previous live) so I had to have it. The server was very knowledgeable of the dish and the restaurant’s ability to veganize it and the roti/bread. Big Solid’s Salmon dish was good but I don’t think he enjoyed it as much as I loved mine.  The reviews of Katmandu are mixed on both Yelp and Urbanspoon but I LOVED it.
Vegan Chau Chau

Salmon with curry
On one of our hiking days, we drove to Hot Springs NC which is about 40 miles from Asheville. You feel like you’ll NEVER get there because the road is pretty twisty and windy and lots of elevation and the down into the town. The town is popular and famous for being on the Appalachian Trail and therefore a haven for folks who are hiking it—either as a partial hike or a through hike. We hiked along the French Broad River on the AT but it got a bit steep for our old legs, so we bailed and headed back to town to EAT at a place we’ve frequented before The Spring Creek Tavern. It’s right on a small creek (duh) and it was nice to sit outside, have a cold brew and a nice lunch. It’s amazing to me that a town the size of Hot Springs (resident population of about 300) offers vegetarian options on their menus and most of the veggie options can be veganized. I am not a big beer drinker but it just seemed the thing to do, so I got one—a Scotch Ale called Wee Heavy. It was really good but I only drank about half before passing it on to Big Solid. He had a wrap and I had a salad, so it wasn’t a big deal for lunch—just nice, peaceful and fun. The staff is very attentive and wants to make sure you enjoy your food. We met a man who was celebrating his dog’s birthday by getting him an ice cream cone…most restaurants allow pets outside on their decks or patios. A nice touch.
Wee Heavy Scotch Ale
Big Solid and the Elf
For our penultimate supper meal (saving our last dinner for, of course, Laughing Seed), we stayed in the Biltmore area and went to a lovely restaurant named Corner Kitchen. Once again, I had been there before and remembered it being delightful—in my pre-vegan days. The menu did not seem to cater to vegetarians or vegans but we decided if nothing else, I’d get a salad and/or appetizer.  We ate outside (so nice to be able to ENJOY August) and our server was an absolute gem. I never did get his name but he was terrific. When I told him I was vegan, he suggested that I get “Fried Green Tomato Goat Cheese Stack with Warm Sweet Potato Salad and Grilled Zucchini” and they would take out the goat cheese. He also brought out a lovely little chef’s plate for Big Solid and then had the chef make one for me that was vegan. Big Solid had “Pecan Crusted Mountain Trout with Sweet Potatoes, Green Bean Salad and Bourbon Sauce”.  Since we were both still pretty full from lunch, we did not indulge in any additional courses. The Warm Sweet Potato Salad was an unexpectedly wonderful surprise…didn’t sound that great to begin with but, as usual, I was wrong. It was a most pleasant evening meal and we were happy campers. 

My Martini and My New Favorite Hat

Little Chef's Plate -- veganized

Fried Green Tomato stack YUM!!

Gazpacho and Roasted Veggie Sandwich at Mayberry's in Brevard, NC

Three hummus appetizer at Rezaz in Biltmore Village

Falafel at Rezaz

Big Solid's Balsamic Braised Lamb Shank--Oh dear

The owners/operators of Allgood Coffee in Weaverville, NC. I lost their names!!

Great little Coffee place in Weaverville, NC. Has non-dairy alternatives and vegan food!!
Non-food oriented highlights of the trip were hiking both the French Broad River at Hot Springs; catching up with a guided hike to the Black Balsam Knob.  Almost entirely devoid of trees above 6000', the summit is more reminiscent of New England than North Carolina; a trip to the Arboretum and it’s incredible Bonsai Garden; a lovely little visit with a Facebook friend and her husband who were in the area from South Carolina; and a surprise chance to see one of my favorite authors (Jeaniene Frost) at Malaprops bookstore in downtown Asheville.

'Summiting' the Black Balsam Bald--we are not Mt. Everest material

Hiking the AT along the French Broad River

Jeaniene Frost and the Elf

One of the great Bonsai trees in the Arboretum's Bonsai Garden

Our Facebook and real people friends the Goldbergs
After our final meal at Laughing Seed on Saturday, we spent the evening packing up and loading the car to make an early break for it on Sunday morning. We intended to drive all the way home and we did….of course, making a stop at a Waffle House along the way. It was a terrific vacation and we look forward to returning to the area in another August in another year. It amazes me that a town of about 90,000 (Asheville) supports a totally vegan restaurant as well as a vegetarian restaurant; AND most restaurants in the town offer vegetarian/vegan options on their menus. I am firmly convinced that if someone took the time to try a vegetarian (with vegan options) restaurant here, it would work. So, who’s up for that?

Farewell, Laughing Seed--we miss you.

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