Cúrate- Asheville, North Carolina

It was April 2011 and I was on the road trip of all road trips, driving through vast green landscapes in the beautiful Carolinas with like-palated friends on a united quest for great food.  We were still riding high on one of the most sensational dinners ever, one hosted by Chef Sean Brock at Husk the night before, so filling and fulfilling that we needn’t have any breakfast that morning.  But by mid afternoon hunger struck and our GPS was honed in on Asheville, North Carolina for a quick pitstop on our way to Chilhowie, Virginia.
It was just our luck that a new 1 month old Spanish tapas restaurant called Cúrate was on our path, an attractive alternative to the numerous Waffle Houses and Cracker Barrels along the highway. We were excited to eat Spanish tapas by a chef who was raised in the Ferran Adrià/José Andrés family through stints at El Bulli in Spain and The Bazaar in Los Angeles, a young chef named Katie Button who opened Cúrate with her fiancé Felix Meana.  Button couldn’t have asked for a better partner in Meana who runs the beverage program and the front of house at Cúrate, and comes with a wealth of experience- as chef de rang at El Bulli for several years and most recently as the Director of Service at The Bazaar.

It’s no wonder then, that the minute we walked into this bright spacious restaurant in downtown Asheville we were given the warmest welcome and the most attentive service imaginable.  How it came to be that this couple left the brights lights and big cities to settle in a quaint and somewhat removed part of North Carolina (albeit with an edgy artsy vibe reminiscent of Berkeley) is a mystery to me, but they managed to create a comfortable and inviting space where these 4 out-of-towners felt right at home.A glorious leg of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermín summoned to us from the marble countertop amidst a dizzying perfume of flambéed sherry wafting from the open kitchen, and we happily obliged with an order of España’s finest, shaved, with wedges of pan con tomate.

There were creamy croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, garlicky gambas al ajillo and pincho moruno (lamb rubbed with Moorish spices), among numerous other staples of traditional Spanish tapas on Cúrate’s menu, and plenty of chorizo and bacalao to go around.  With nearly 40 items on their menu we had to practice restraint, a difficult thing to do, for we were on our way to a 20 course tasting dinner in a few hours.  We had ‘chistorra & chips José’s way’, spicy little chorizos wrapped in sliced potatoes and deep fried to a crisp, on the brink of being too oily yet tasty nonetheless, a popular dish served at José Andrés’ Jaleo.

Roasted red peppers, onions and eggplant drizzled with a 30 year sherry vinaigrette were crisscrossed with salty and briny Spanish anchovies in the escalavida con anchoas dish.

Tender thick stalks of Navarran white asparagus, tossed with lemon zest and a tarragon vinaigrette, were arranged as vertical towers against a backdrop of fluffy mayonnaise espuma.

Thanks to Meana there is a great selection of beverages to complement the food, from imported Spanish beers and sangria made table side, to Cavas and numerous other Catalan wines like Montsant and Priorat.  Swirl Rioja in your wine glass or spill a drop or two of panaché on your face as you attempt to drink from a glass porrón with your head tilted back.  It will all go down well with setas al jerez, mushrooms sautéed with sherry, olive oil and a sprig of thyme.

The handful of dishes that we had that day were good- certainly shy of what we’ve had and could have in Spain- but extremely promising, with a solid grasp of the essence of Spanish tapas and the beauty of its simply yet intensely flavored cuisine.  Asheville is fortunate to have this new addition to its culinary scene, and with Meana at the helm to maintain its superb level of service, it’s a Spanish oasis that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anybody traveling through the Carolinas and anybody needing to ‘cure yourself’, cúrate, with a good time.

Cúrate Tapas Bar

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

(828) 239-2946

Random trivia: Did you know that the largest living organism known to man is a mushroom? There is single specimen of honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, covering 3.4 square miles of land in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, that has been growing for some 2,400 years- and is still growing.

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Bistro Paul Bert- Paris

Bistro Paul Bert

Bistro Paul Bert

For the ultimate Parisian bistro experience with classic French cooking, Le Bistro Paul Bert in the 11th arrondissement, not far from Bastille, is the perfect location.  Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, this bistro is small, quaint and unpretentious.  Bustling with locals and a few scant tourists (that’s us!), I could tell that this was a place of warmth and comfort from the soft yellow glow of lights and the sounds of laughter and clinking wine glasses emanating from the small storefront as I approached it on the dark street.

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Chalkboard menu

The menu is written on a medium-sized chalkboard that is passed around from table to table.  The formule menu for 34 Euros includes an appetizer, entrée and dessert.  Even though it was still only 8:30pm on a Wednesday night, the place was packed and they had already run out of many entrées.  My poor friends were crushed when our waitress initially told them that she would save the last langoustine plate for them, only to return a few minutes later crossing her arms in a big X with the dreaded “c’est fini!”

IMG_5482Asperges blanches au parmesan de vache rouge: White asparagus with parmesan cheese.  A very simple dish of steamed white asparagus with salt, pepper, olive oil and shaved parmesan cheese.  Mild and delicate in taste, the white asparagus was meaty and thick.  Since it was the tail end of asparagus season, I could sense a hint of bitter finish in the vegetable, in contrast to the succulent sweetness of those I had during the peak season.  Still, I was happy to be able to enjoy a plateful of these giant stalks- it’s hard to find them in the US.

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Assiette de jambon blanc iberico et sa salade: as simple as you can get.  Slices of delicious Iberico ham with a simple baby greens viniagrette salad.  At this bistro, it’s all about simplicity and good quality.

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Petit anchois frais en tempura: deep fried tempura-style anchovies.  That’s all there is to it, just plain simple battered and fried anchovies with lemon, but oh it was incredibly good.  The fish were so fresh, it made me wonder if they were still alive when they were dropped into the pot of bubbling oil.  Crisp and light, yet moist, tender and succulent on the inside, this was my favorite appetizer of the evening.

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They gave us these purée maison mashed potatoes to accompany our entrées, and I couldn’t get over how adorable the small cast iron pot was. Very functional too, as it kept the potatoes warm throughout our meal.

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Ris de veau, poêlée de rattes et carottes du jardin: Pan fried veal sweetbreads with garden fresh ratte potatoes and carrots.  These sweetbreads were large, moist, rich and luscious.  I’m used to having sweetbread dishes where there are several small segmented pieces of sweetbread that break apart easily, but this dish presented 1 large grand piece of succulent heaven that stood up to the earthy intensity of the morel mushrooms.

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Dos de cabillaud rôti à la crème de morilles: roasted cod loin fillet with morel mushroom cream sauce.  The cod was incredibly moist and flavorful, bold enough to complement the beautiful morel mushroom sauce.  Morels were in high season at this time, and it was such a joy to see it incorporated in so many dishes.  I love the intense woodsy aroma and soft juicy consistency of fresh morels; it’s nothing like the dried counterparts.  A wonderful pairing with the bottle of B. Couralt “Les Tabeneaux” red wine that we ordered.

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Tête de veau, sauce gribiche et sa cervelle: calf’s head with its brains, served with gribiche sauce which is a mayonnaise based sauce with hard boiled eggs, capers, cornichons, Dijon mustard, parsley and chives.  This is hearty classic French bistro cooking at its absolute best.  It’s the meat and skin around a calf’s head, carefully taken off the skull, wrapped around the tongue and prepared in a bouillon for hours until the gelatinous skin starts to melt and soften.  In the photo you can see the thick slice of tongue in the foreground, and sautéed brains to the right.  Every bite of which ever meat I ate, simply melted in my mouth.  The thick outer layer of the face meat was collagenous heaven that dissolved effortlessly on my tongue into a warm enveloping sensation of full-bodied finesse.  The tart and acidic gribiche sauce was the perfect complement to such an intensely robust and nourishing meal.  Because of the sauce, I was able to finish the plate- otherwise, it may have been too heavy even for an organ meat lover like myself.  This was one of my favorite dishes on this Europe trip.

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Ile flottante aux pralines roses: Floating island dessert with pink pralines.  Ile flottante is a light meringue on top of a crème anglaise custard sauce.  I wasn’t too crazy about this dessert, but then again I am not the fairest judge of this dish, as I don’t like nuts, meringue or pralines.  Also, I was still ‘floating’ in tête de veau heaven.  But I do remember the crème anglaise being quite flavorful.

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Soufflé au chocolat et au basilic: Chocolate and basil soufflé.  I enjoyed this dish, but my friends reported that the basil kick was a bit too much for them.  The consistency of the soufflé was perfect- warm, fresh out of the oven, airy and light.

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Baba au rhum façon savarin: Rum cake made in a Savarin mold.  The Savarin yeast cake is made in a ring mold with a rounded contour, making it look like a large donut.  It’s named after Brillat-Savarin, a famous 18th century gastronome and epicure. Since the dessert came with a bottle of white rum, it made us think that the cake had hardly any rum in it.  We were all expecting a nice moist cake with a hint of rum finish, and dove in with our large spoons.  Within seconds we were coughing, hacking and hyperventilating from the harsh alcohol.  This was not a cake with a hint of rum.  This was a plate of rum with a hint of cake.  Blech.  We watched in awe as a gentleman in his late 60’s sitting at the table next to us generously poured several ounces of extra rum from the bottle onto his baba, and finished the whole plate with not so much as an expression on his face.

Although the desserts flopped, everything else satisfied all of my senses.  If you have a bigger party or a bigger appetite, try the côte de boeuf for two (it looked like it was for four), a huge seared steak with frites which is their specialty.  I had a wonderful and happy experience at this neighborhood bistro, where the atmosphere, people and food were all loving and heartfelt.  I remember looking around and seeing everybody laughing and smiling, enjoying life and living in the moment.  This was classic, hearty bistro cooking done right with the best ingredients to nourish the stomach and soul.

Le Bistro Paul Bert-  18, rue Paul Bert, Paris  France

331-4372-2401

Random trivia: White asparagus is made by ‘etiolation’, which is the deprivation of light.  The stalks are kept away from the light by being buried in soil, so that chlorophyll (which gives the green pigment) cannot be produced.