Inventive Maki Rolls at Ichiban in Asheville

If you’re into sushi and you haven’t heard of Ichiban, listen up. Ichiban is the hibachi-cooking cousin of Asheville’s number one sushi restaurant, Wasabi, and although the menu is different, the sushi chefs here are equally talented. I’ve been wanting to review this place for a while – it was actually the first thing we ate as new Asheville citizens thanks to Valet Gourmet – but it took us a while to actually dine in.

My boyfriend loves the hibachi, so if you like hibachi, I’d definitely recommend it. I’ve picked at the scallops and veggies, and they’re cooked surprisingly well. Not too chewy, and definitely not undercooked. They also give you overflowing proportions, so lunch tomorrow will be taken care of.

But here’s what I really love. Browse the sushi menu, particularly the chef’s special rolls, and you’ll find some of the most unique combinations I’ve come across. Although there’s a good bit of deep frying and eel, neither of which I’m fond of, the rolls are still quite creative. And then there’s my favorite: the Colorful Roll.

What a weird name for a sushi roll, I initially thought. Until I saw it. With chunks of bright orange mango and three different colors of tobiko, colorful is the ideal description considering the Rainbow Roll was coined long ago.

Here’s what makes it so cool: spicy lobster on the inside, white tuna and mango on top and a sprinkling of various tobiko all over. It’s mild, with just a slight sweet spice to it, almost reminiscent of a Thai red pepper and mango salad recipe I came across. Add to that a side of the best spicy mayo I’ve found in Asheville and a bit of fresh ginger (like, non-pink ginger) on top, and this is one of the best sushi rolls I’ve ever had.

It’s filling, too, although at $12, I’d hope it would be.

I hate to gloat over a condiment, but this place definitely has my favorite spicy mayo in town, which is big deal for me. Some people add shrimp sauce to their food. Well, I add spicy mayo to anything and everything. Not to overpower but to enhance, and there’s has a perfect combination of creamy spicy flavors. The consistency is a bit on the thin side, but the taste makes up for it.

I honestly can’t remember the other roll I ordered because I was so infatuated with my Colorful Roll. It really is that good. And they’ve got some great miso soup as well that has a lot of substance; not the kind that skimps on the seaweed or tofu. The broth is potently flavorful and is the perfect start on a chilly day.

After finding my perfect roll, I’m fully convinced Ichiban isn’t the ugly stepsister of Wasabi when it comes to sushi. It’s not better or worse, just a little different, and I think it deserves a fair amount of praise for its sushi, not just the hibachi.

Food: 9/10

Value: 8/10

Overall: 8/10

Praise Krishna! Mela Indian Cuisine in Asheville

Why Krishna, the embodiment of love and joy? Because that’s exactly how I felt after trying Mela.

I’ve walked past Mela a hundred times in downtown Asheville, either on my way to Izzy’s Coffee Den or after eating at somewhere further up on Lexington Avenue. I’ve always wanted to go, but I guess after falling hard for Chai Pani, I felt like it was the only place to go for Indian.

I still love Chai Pani and its Indian street food, but Mela is real authentic Indian cuisine. There’s something about Indian food when made properly that just kind of leaves me in awe of the delicate alchemy involved in combining so many spices into something completely unique.

Mela is everything that is good about Indian food.

The funny thing is, I still have yet to set foot in Mela. We actually ordered our food from Valet Gourmet because I was busy working and couldn’t leave for any long period of time. The picture of Mela’s food on Valet Gourmet’s website was just too delicious to pass up.

Oddly enough, in addition to trying a new restaurant from home, I also tried something completely out of the ordinary. I’m the type of person who finds a dish and sticks to it. I don’t think it’s that I’m boring, I’m just afraid of missing even one single opportunity to eat my favorite dish. Like maybe I will never eat it again, and I wasted my chance to do so. Crazy, yes, but true.

Chickpeas are my go to Indian dish, chickpeas and masalas. And Mela had two dishes that sounded just like what I normally get. What did I get?

Not chickpeas.

Malai Kofta is a mixture of ground cashews, almonds and paneer cheese. The mixture is mashed up into little balls and them simmered in a delicious almond spice mixture. Served with basmati rice, it’s hearty, filling and has a unique, sweet yet spicy flavor.

I guess since it’s my first time ever trying malai kofta, I can’t say with certainty that this was the definition of good malai kofta, but it definitely was for me. The texture of the cooked nuts and cheese added that extra bit of heartiness that made the meal satisfying. I got that slight taste of paneer cheese, but for the most part, it’s just a total melding on flavors into one complete and satisfying bite.

As with all good Indian cooking, the flavor hit my tongue softly at first, sweet and subtle. Chewing it, more of the spices made themselves known, and it wasn’t until after the bite is finished that the real explosion happened in my mouth. It wasn’t potent or overwhelming, it was just this gradually increasing heat that peaked around a 3 or 4: just enough to make me want to drink some water to wash it down. But the lingering flavor in my mouth made me kind of hold on to it a little longer.

This meal was so delicious that I not only finished way more than my stomach wanted me to, but when I got up the next day, it was all I could think about. Our meals also came with a lovely lentil stew that was a very slightly spiced broth – maybe a bit of curry seasoning? – with ground lentils that formed a sort of powder that could be scooped off the bottom. It added heartiness and an almost nutty flavor to the stew.

Note: it’s not listed as this on the menu, but it may be called dal shorba.

Overall, I’m super impressed. Searching for photos appropriate to this post, I actually came across so many fantastic looking malai kofta images that my stomach is growling for more.

It’s a weird feeling, but for once, I’m actually happily anticipating going back – not to have my favorite dish again, but to try more of their amazing (different) concoctions.

I almost forgot, if you couldn’t tell from this rave review . . .

Recommended: Obviously

Rating (food only): 11/10

Value: 8/10. (My dish was $16 with soup, a bit higher than most Indian restaurants, but it is so very much worth it. And the leftovers!!)

Honey Boo Boo went to Tupelo Honey Cafe South (Asheville)

Honey Tupelo was one of the first places I ate when I moved to Asheville, but I hadn’t been back since. That’s about five months. Despite all the acclaim the restaurant gets, I was not impressed with their veggie burger the first time around. At all.

We went back tonight because I was craving good, home-cooked, southern-style food, and I didn’t want to walk around downtown in the wind. Honey Tupelo fit the bill after I checked the menu and found a tasty-sounding veggie sandwich.

Here’s what got me back. In addition to their south location being absolutely beautiful and fantastic just to be in, they have some really delicious biscuits and appetizers. Tonight the bread was served with some blueberry compote as well as the namesake honey that’s left on the table. I ordered some peach butter for 75¢ which blended perfectly with the bread and honey. I am, however a little disappointed that they charge for butter.

I also had to try the fried green tomatoes served atop goat cheese grits. That dish is omgMOUTHwateringlydelicious. The fried tomatoes have just the right amount of batter, and the batter is nice and crisp with full flavor. What really sets it apart is that the tomatoes are set in these grits that just exude goat-cheesiness. It gives such a different and delectable taste to the tomatoes – something you wouldn’t find elsewhere.

I ordered the veggie sandwich, but I was once again a little bit let down. The ingredients sound so good together, but there’s always that risk with veggie dishes that the chef just doesn’t know which veggies to put together. Maybe because the restaurant is so Southern-focused (my boyfriend seems to think the real-meat burgers are fabulous) they forget about the veggies.

My sandwich had real potential, too. I think what threw me off the most was the cheap mushrooms they used – for such a nice restaurant to not spring for portobellos and charge a dollar or two extra is mind-boggling. Roasted red peppers, onions, spinach, fried green tomatoes and Havarti cheese – the sandwich is just begging for some big, juicy portobello mushrooms! They also overcooked the mushrooms (and the rest of the veggies) a bit, leaving them soggy under the layer of Havarti.

I will say that my side of mac & cheese was very tasty, though!

My last two options – because I have such high hopes for this place! – are the shrimp and grits or the catfish. Those are sort of meat dishes, so I’m hoping they’ll be better.

Or I could always just order breakfast.

I love the sides and apps way too much to abandon this restaurant, so cross your fingers that it gets better.

Clean Eater, Messy Eater

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I don’t know what it is about me, but no matter where I go or what I eat, I always seem to leave a mess. I know dozens of people who go out to lunch with me who leave behind a perfectly clean table, while it looks as though I was trying to make a sixth-grade science experiment out of my food. No matter how many people are at the table, you can always tell where I was sitting by the trail of . . . soy sauce/bbq sauce/salsa/fill in the blank leading off the edge of the table.

I like to think that as a messy eater, I simply enjoy food more than the rest. It’s not that clean eaters don’t enjoy eating, I just think they must have their senses tied up in more than eating to keep so clean. And eating is a full-sensory activity: from sight to smell to taste, you need to take it all in to really enjoy it.

OK, I guess it’s not necessary to hear your food.

(Can you even hear food?)

But touching it! That’s important! The texture of food can make all the difference in the experience. Just think of anyone you know who enjoys the taste of a food but has an aversion to the texture. Whether it’s touching it in your hands or the feel of it on your tongue, touch is just as important as any other sense when eating. And how can you possibly experience 4 out 5 of your senses as you eat when you’re paying even a sliver of attention to staying clean?

Look, I’m not out to make a mess for waiters and waitresses. And I’m not trying to hate on clean eaters. I used to even wish I could be like them. But now, I don’t think I would trade being a messy eater for a clean eater any day. When I get up from a table, you can see that I enjoyed my meal to the fullest.

You can touch my mess, you can smell the lingering scent of delicious dishes that didn’t quite reach my mouth once were there. You can experience it with all the same fervor that I try to experience when eating my food.

OK, I wouldn’t recommend you taste my spills. But!

I do recommend you experience messy eating for yourself, at least once.

Are Health Food Store Shoppers Just Plain Rude?

I love my local healthy grocery store. I really do. I love that I can buy fruits, salad and even marinated tofu salad by the pound. I love the huge supply of local fruits and veggies displayed right by a vast array of international food products.

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What I don’t love is the attitude.

Unfortunately, there’s something about health-conscious people, the type who know the difference between quinoa and millet, that just rubs me the wrong way. I guess all of the qualities that I love so much about my healthy grocery store are the same qualities that attract health nuts who have superiority complexes over everyone, even their fellow health food shoppers.

And I’m not talking about the people who work there. In fact, part of the allure of shopping at these places is that the employees are generally friendlier and happier than pretty much any other grocery store. Yesterday, the cashier at the checkout reminded me to check my eggs for cracks. This is the kind of neighborly attitude I want out of everyone at these places.

But what I’m continually confronted with is a group of people who, despite being taught manners somehow feel as though they’ve risen above the need to have any. Clearly, their profound knowledge of bee pollen and spirulina supplements makes them better than everyone else – including all the people shopping there with the exact same knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll still frequent my favorite health food stores to get my favorite supplement-enriched smoothie and boxed spaetzle. But.

Is it really that hard to say excuse me?!

I guess when your brain is clouded from all that unfermented soy protein, it is.

Fantastic Entertainment Compensates for Uninspired Food at Jerusalem Garden – Asheville, NC

I really wanted to like Jerusalem Garden in downtown Asheville.

Really. I did.

Mediterranean and Moroccan-inspired dishes, a few doors down from the delightful Kathmandu, belly dancers, live music and seat cushions instead of chairs. What is not to love?!

Well, the food.

I guess I should add a disclaimer that my first visit to Jerusalem Garden was two nights after they offered a Groupon (which I bought) that offered $44 to spend on an appetizer and 2 entrees for $20. They were pretty busy, with a 40 minute wait and lots of reservations, but frankly, there wasn’t once when the tables were full. So I’m not sure where all these people were who reserved the tables. But in their defense, perhaps the food was lacking because they were busy with the Groupon.

That said, I will probably never return to find out. No matter how entertaining the music and belly dancer were, there was too much wrong with this place to make me come back. I ordered a Turkish blush wine, and when the waitress was bringing it to me, she actually stopped at two other tables to ask if they had ordered it. She only had 4 tables, and we were the 3rd one she asked.

We ordered our appetizer and entrees together to hurry up and get our order in. Of course, maybe we shouldn’t have rushed since literally five minutes later, our food came out. Both the entrees and the appetizer. The hummus was served with no pita, but I assumed the pita on our entree plates was for the hummus, so I dug in. It was fine. It was hummus. And that’s about all there is really to say about it. I ate more because I wanted hummus, and after all, it wasn’t bad, just nothing great.

I should mention that my boyfriend got the special: the lamb shank. He was served a huge leg of lamb with a few extra slices of lamb. He said it tasted like roast beef which he was delighted about, so perhaps the lamb shank is delicious.

My entree, the house-made (??? really?! It tastes like the boxed kind I buy at the grocery store) couscous in a tomato-herb sauce served with vegetables and the shrimp I requested, was OK at best. I was excited that they gave me an ample amount of medium sized shrimp – much more than restaurants in this price range typically serve. However, when I tasted it, I was really disappointed. The tomato sauce had little flavor, and the sauteed vegetables were no different than the fresh squash and zucchini I make at home (for about $1). And as you can infer from my commentary on the couscous, it was nothing special.

As I’m picking off the tails of my shrimp, I notice the waitress stopping at every table asking if they had ordered a side of pita, at which time I realized that was our side of pita, intended for the hummus we were served ten minutes prior alongside our entrees. She was flaky to say the least. Extremely nice, but it was really disappointing to get our food all out of order.

The entertainment was fun, and it wasn’t so loud that you couldn’t hear others talk. However, I’ve been to a few restaurants with belly dancers, and I found it a bit tacky the way they had the dancer openly dance with a basket for tips. I feel like the tips should be split with her anyway, kind of like the chefs who “perform” at Japanese hibachi restaurants.

Anyway, it’s a fun experience if you’re looking for somewhere to go and have fun. If you love this type of food, I suggest you pass because this place is quite a disappointment for anyone who regularly eats Moroccan and/or Mediterranean food.

 

Recommended: No, unless you’re just going for the belly dancing

Overall Rating: 5/10 (And that’s mostly for the entertainment)

Pricing: It’s expensive, especially considering the mediocre quality. Appetizers are around $6-$8, and salads are even more. The average entree is about $15, with vegetarian dishes being less and lamb dishes being more. The portion sizes aren’t that great, either.

Simple, Tasty Meals at Blue Sky Cafe in Fletcher, NC

I wasn’t really feeling like any sort of food tonight (no Italian, Indian, Thai, etc,) so we went looking on TripAdvisor for something nearby and non-international. What we found was a homestyle restaurant up in Fletcher called Blue Sky Cafe. They promise Creative family dining where there is something for everyone. Promise fulfilled.

What really convinced me was the $9 salmon and extensive vegetarian menu. In fact, on the website, they had a whole section dedicated to their vegetarian and vegan options. I saw the pictures on the website, and it looked like a simple family diner. And that’s pretty much what it is when we got there. The location and decor aren’t anything special, but they offer indoor and outdoor dining. Nothing fancy on the walls or tables – you even get your own menu and seat yourself. The focus is on good service and good food, so don’t expect anything fancy if you decide to visit.

The menu is extensive to say the least. A variety of foods seemed to be influenced by international dishes (a bean bowl with chips, or a hummus appetizer,) but the food is, for the most part, distinctly American.

We started off with a fried ravioli appetizer that comes with 6 small fried cheese raviolis served with a pesto dip and a marinara dip. Both sauces were tasty, but the pesto was pretty perfect. I even kept it to put on the rest of my food! The ravioli was also cheesy and flavorful with just the right amount of crunch.

For my meal I got the salmon plate which appeared to be a pan-seared filet of salmon served with 2 sides of my choice. I got a side caesar and some onion rings. The onion rings were fantastic – perfectly crisp, sweet onion inside, and tasty breading. The salad had a lot of tomatoes, but it was small, the lettuce wasn’t shredded up much (I’m talking whole leaves of lettuce in the salad – very inconvenient) and the  dressing tasted like it came from a bottle. The salmon was tasty. A bit crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, served with a light tzatziki sauce. I actually preferred using the pesto, but the tzatziki was good nonetheless.

My boyfriend got chili, a burger and fries. He says it was good, but the chili wasn’t spicy or anything special. The fries were pretty tasty, though, but I’m a sucker for fries.

I really liked the restaurant. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t fancy, but they served good food and the prices were extremely reasonable. The fried ravioli is fantastic and so are the onion rings. I liked the salmon a lot, but I’ll probably sample their many vegetarian options next time. This is a great place to stop for casual dining and delicious food.

 

Recommended: Definitely

Overall Rating: 7/10 (I’ll bump it up if the rest of the food is as good as the ravioli!)

Pricing: Entrees are all under $10, although there’s some up-charges for premium sides. The sides are between $1-$3 on their own.