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

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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!!)

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.

Himalayan Dishes at Lower Altitudes at Kathmandu Cafe – Asheville, NC

Kathmandu is a hidden gem in plain sight. Easily passed over because of it’s outer appearance, this restaurant shouldn’t be judged on looks alone. Once inside, it looks more like a traditional Indian restaurant but wide open and welcoming. But none of this really matters when you consider the fact that it’s the only place in the area where you can feast on Nepali food.

Letters next to the dishes indicate where the dish is from (T = Tibetan, I = Indian, N = Nepali), but you’ll have to ask servers about the spiciness since it’s not marked on the menu. Our waiter was fantastic and extremely knowledgeable about the menu, making suggestions and letting us know what was mild and spicy. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many spicy options for vegetarians, but what they lack in heat, they make up for in flavor.

I ordered the Aloo Bodi Tama which is a mixture of potatoes, black-eyed peas and bamboo shoots in a fragrant Himalayan curry sauce. It was very mild, but the sweetness and spice mixture popped with the heartiness of the potatoes and black-eyed peas. We also got an order of garlic naan which was warm, freshly baked and not over-poweringly garlic flavored.

My boyfriend had one of the specials – a lamb dish baked with vegetables and served with a yogurt sauce on the side. It didn’t come with the curry or masala broth that most Indian dishes come with. Apparently it was flavorful nonetheless, and it came highly recommended by the waiter. If there’s a vegetarian version of it, I’ll definitely be trying it next time.

If you’re adventurous, this is a great place to go and try something new.

 

Recommended: Yes

Overall Score: 8/10

Price: Breads and sides are a few dollars each, most entrees are around $12 except for lamb dishes

Blackbird – Hidden Gem of Black Mountain

Note: I’ve finally succumbed to adding food photos on my blog. I just thought that it might be nice to look at some of this not so delicious food for reference. But be nice, please!! Because all I’ve got is my iPod for picture-taking!

About thirty minutes from Asheville, the meaning of farm-to-table comes to life at the Blackbird restaurant. This quaint yet classy restaurant is tucked away in Black Mountain, part of a small cluster of cafes, businesses and restaurants with all the charm of downtown Grove Arcade. And it’s not just the allure of twinkle lights and a picturesque mountain setting that set this place apart from other restaurants: it’s the food.

As soon as you open the door and walk inside this small but welcoming restaurant, you’re nostrils are greeted with a delicious aroma of whatever delicacies the kitchen is currently working on. A friendly woman quickly approached the party in front of us to let them know their table was almost ready, and promptly told us the same. And she wasn’t lying. No more than a few minutes passed by before we were seated, and considering the small size of the restaurant, I was impressed.

I overheard the waiter at the table next to us talk about the freshness of today’s catch: local North Carolina striped bass. And as much as I wanted to go for the grouper, I couldn’t pass up just-in local bass.

With my mind made up on entrees, we took a few moments to choose an appetizer: a cheeseboard complete with four cheeses from Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, North Carolina, an assortment of pickled vegetables and a decadent peach chutney. On the night we went, the board was loaded with two generous portions of goat cheese, one of which I believe had fennel in it, along with brie and cheddar cheese. There was pickled okra, pickled onion and olives to accompany the cheese as well as crackers and bread. We finished the whole thing. Well, almost everything. I hate okra.

For my entree, I ordered the striped bass with scallops and risotto and a lemon buerre blanc sauce. The risotto was creamy and the sauce was a perfect compliment to the light seafood flavors. Seared with skin still attached, there was the slightest crispy texture to the bass which was a great contrast to the melt-in-your-mouth quality of the scallops. They may have been the best scallops I’ve ever had.

My boyfriend originally wanted to order one of the specials – a whole quail – but was advised that it was only an appetizer. He got the duck accompanied by mushroom risotto in a black cherry demi-glaze instead, and the plate was clean before mine. I saw the quail at the table next to us, though, and it would have made a more-than-sufficient meal.

Now with all that I’ve raved about, I do have to add one peculiar thing I noticed about this restaurant. At 22 and 25, we were probably the youngest patrons by at least 20 years. And while this isn’t meant to offend, I do think it had something to do with the way we were treated.

The only problem I really had with this restaurant was that our waitress was pretty awful. It took her twice the time to bring us water as the people next to us who were seated at the same time. A coke that was empty halfway through the cheeseboard remained so until the very end of the entree. She would frequently disappear for long periods of time, and she never actually told us anything about the specials. Or even asked if we’d ever eaten there for that matter. When my boyfriend ordered the duck, she asked how he wanted it prepared and he said well done. Before I cut meat out of my diet, duck was one of my favorite meals, so I assumed she would mention that duck is usually best cooked medium. Even medium-well is somewhat pushing it. But she didn’t say a word and rushed off. The reason I think our age had something to do with it is because the next table she took care of who were seated right next to us – and were in there 50s-60s – were afforded every cordial gesture she could muster, including things she neglected to do for us. The other waiter was very nice, so I can only assume that she thought we might not be good tippers based on our age, but, well, that’s her loss not mine.

Overall, the poor service can’t pull my overall score for this place down because the food and ambiance was flawless. If you’re looking for a delicious meal that utilizes local meats, produce and even cheeses, Blackbird is the place to go.

 

Recommended: Absolutely, especially for a romantic dinner (the scenery outside is breathtaking)

Overall Rating: 10/10

Price: A la carte entrees are about $20; Appetizers (including salads) are about $10

Mediterranean Mishap at Apollo Flame in Asheville, NC

Recommended: No.

I hate to return to blogging on a negative note, but I’d rather get my only bad Asheville experience out of the way. After passing a billboard promising Asheville’s best Mediterranean food as voted by residents thirteen years in a row, we definitely wanted to try out Apollo Flame. It took us three tries to visit on an open day, and we probably should have heeded that as a sign.

Unfortunately, we didn’t.

The sign outside promising pizzas and subs at a Mediterranean restaurant threw me off, but after so many positive recommendations (including that damn billboard) I continued, undeterred. I guess I made the assumption from the name that there would be Greek food (or because the people who recommended it raved about their Greek salads), but the menu was a terrible disappointment. The only Greek food on the menu was Greek salad and Greek meatballs. Needless to say, I was confused.

Another problem was that most of the dishes were meat-based, and the vegetarian options consisted of five pasta dishes with marinara sauce instead of meat sauce. When I asked whether the waitress recommended the cheese tortellini or the manicotti, she told me they were “the same thing with different sized noodles.” What?! For the record, manicotti is large tube shaped shells stuffed with meat or cheese (usually ricotta) and tortellini is small, ring-shaped pasta with a bit of cheese or meat filling. Manicotti is typically more reminiscent of a cheese lasagna than tortellini, which typically has a much more pasta taste because of the pasta-filling ratio. Or maybe that’s just my opinion. I hesitantly chose the manicotti, but I knew that I was in trouble.

The pasta dishes come with a side tossed salad, but you can substitute one of their “Famous Greek Salads” for $1.40. I love Greek Salad, so I didn’t mind paying a little extra. What. A. Mistake. My $1.40 paid for a single peperoncini, one olive, and a heaping of some tasteless feta cheese that I swear was actually haloumi cheese. That was the only difference between my salad and my boyfriend’s tossed salad. They were both served with salad dressings in enormous self-serve plastic carafes, and the homemade Greek dressing was tasteless and oily.

As if to add insult to injury, the entrees looked as though they’d been slopped on our plates like cafeteria food. The texture of the pasta can only be described as overcooked, and the sauce tasted like it came straight from a can. Fortunately, our waitress never actually checked on us after dropping off the check to ask why we didn’t need carry-out boxes.

This place is a disaster. Fortunately, I only paid $10 for this mess, but it was $10 too much. I can only assume that the moderately low prices are what keep this place open, although anyone could make some pasta in their own kitchen that is both tastier and cheaper.

 

Overall Rating: 3/10 (and only because it’s a lot of food for the price)

So Long Savannah, Hello Asheville! (And all the food you have to offer)

So moving has definitely taken its toll on my ability to update my blog (especially when it is the least profitable [read: not profitable at all] of my writing ventures,) but I have finally settled in enough to have the desire to update.

I must start out by saying the food in Asheville, NC is absolutely amazing. I have rarely come across a place where so many different types of food and restaurants exist in such a small place. From Indian street food to French comfort food, this city seems to have a little bit of everything, and I am slowly but surely eating my way through all of it. Of course I can never replace Zunzi’s (which I crave almost daily,) but the limitless options here make it a bit easier to get by.

And if the allure of tasty restaurants by the dozen in the city wasn’t enough, I need venture no further than neighboring Hendersonville (a 15 minute drive) to delight in all the local delicacies I could imagine. Fresh local fruits and veggies are abundant and priced to move much better than grocery store varieties. Hendersonville also appears to be apple mecca of the universe, boasting numerous U-Pick apple farms on either side of the road for a solid ten miles. I picked my first peck of golden delicious apples last weekend, and will be back for more this week. Speaking of which, I also tried my hand at making fresh apple pie.

Another mind-blowing foodie option is grocery stores with hot and cold bars that sell food by the pound. Now those of you who are familiar with Whole Foods know what I’m talking about, but it’s my first time living somewhere with one in driving distance. EarthFare and GreenLife Grocery both offer hot and cold bars in addition to an amazing amount of health foods. To my personal delight, I discovered that GreenLife still sells Smart Deli Ham, which for some reason has all but disappeared at other grocery stores. It’s really the only one I like to eat, so I’m tickled pink about it.

Anyway, I’ll shortly be adding some restaurant blogs and such since I’ve been plenty of places since my last post.