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I was really excited to finally get to check out Nightbell. I had been aware that it was under the same ownership as Curate, which is a restaurant we have had largely good experiences with (we’re looking at you, loud, drunk bachelorette party at the table next to ours) and I was eager to give their latest endeavor a taste!
As a local, one thing that stands out to me that I appreciate is the somewhat off-the-beaten-path location of Nightbell. It is on South Lexington, which is a much quieter road than Broadway/Biltmore on a busy Saturday night. In, what has now become a town full of shops and restaurants catering to tourists, I favor businesses that are geared to locals. Not saying that is Nightbell’s agenda, necessarily, but the address lends itself to that demographic. Speaking of local’s spots, I must take a moment to give a nod to the Rankin Vault, where hubs and I dropped in on this otherwise ‘Nightbell Night’ for a pre-holiday shopping cocktail. The Vault also happens to be the spot where we fell in love seven years ago and is near and dear to us for that reason.
Walking into Nightbell, we were greeted by vintage decor, friendly and attentive hosts, and a staircase that led the way up into the dining room. We were immediately impressed by the offer to hang our coats, which I don’t think either of us had ever enjoyed before.
Next, we were led upstairs to our table – a small two-top by the wall. I sat down and immediately cringed. It was cold. And I didn’t have my jacket any longer. I sat conflicted about if we should ask to have a different table, or if I should retrieve my jacket from downstairs, but empty tables were scarce, so I convinced myself that after we got a drink and a few bites of food, I’d warm up. I didn’t. There was cold air coming in both through the window that I was under and through the brick wall itself. We moved the table out from the wall about a half-foot, shimmying our way closer toward the center of the restaurant, but that really made very little difference. The cold temperature at our table made a significant impact on my overall experience on this evening. For the worse, unfortunately.
I will say, this is probably not an issue eight months out of the year. But when it’s 36 degrees and windy outside, it makes a difference. So, a word to the wise: if you make a reservation at Nightbell and you have a small party (it seemed that all of the two-tops are against the brick wall, whereas the larger parties are seated away from the draft) do yourself a favor and request a table away from the brick wall, or dress appropriately (I’m talking long underwear, people!).
Tapas Style Dining
We noticed immediately looking at the cocktails list, that all of their speciality cocktails are named after Leonard Cohen lyrics. I went with Consented to be Wrecked, their version of a Manhattan, and it delivered. Our server advised up to order 5-8 plates to share, so we took our cue from her and starting things out with hush puppies and caesar salad. This caesar salad was not only delicious and flavorful (anchovies for the win!) but its presentation made it the most interesting caesar salad I’ve ever had: it was wrapped in a thin slice of jicama and served up like a taco. So clever.
Next on the list for me was the steak tartare. Again, the presentation here rocked. The steak was served up in a “feuille de brick cone” and had a delicious horseradish sauce layered throughout the meat. It was savory, and fun to eat.
Feeling adventurous, I asked for suggestions from our server, and then requested that she bring me two of the three top options. That resulted in the grilled ‘hen of the wood’ mushrooms and the seasonal fish. Both were good dishes: well prepared and unique. However, I must admit that my next trip there will likely include neither. On the contrary, I took a few bites of the fingerling potatoes that hubs ordered, and knew we’d found a dish to revisit for many Nightbell trips to come! Overall, I was really impressed by the sharpness of the flavors and use of seasonings in several of the dishes, and their innovative presentations.
We had planned on dessert but by the time we had made it through our many dishes, we were well stuffed without a chance of enjoying anything more. I schlepped my jacket back upstairs with me to warm up while we enjoyed an after dinner drink. This time I opted for A Secret Chord. It was good, but played runner up to the first cocktail in complexity and personality.
Nightbell is part of the Heirloom Hospitality Group, which sounds like a hotel chain, and is a companion to Asheville’s hit hip spot, Cürate. When looking up the menu online before our date night, I was a little thrown by the strange naming arrangement, but soon enough, I figured it all out and was looking forward to what seemed to be a great date night venue, based on the website. Seeing that it was the “American side” of the Cürate small plate experience, and the same people were involved, I had a feeling we’d be in for some tasty goodness.
I am a sucker for the vintage speakeasy feel, and Nightbell had plenty to offer. The entrance was a small lobby area, with a really cool host stand, some interesting decor, and a big staircase leading up to the main dining area, which wasn’t visible from where we came in. This was the only restaurant in Asheville where I’d been offered actual coat-check service, and I thought that was a pretty cool touch. Even the ticket they give you in exchange for your coat had a vintage feel to it.
Heading up the wooden staircase, a cozy and inviting atmosphere revealed itself. It was open, with an ornate bar and some high-top tables nearby. The main seating area wasn’t huge, but it had a nice romantic feel, and we had a great little two-seater table nestled among some others.
Don’t Check Your Coat Just Yet
Unfortunately, the brick/rock wall we were seated next to was frigid to the touch, and I could feel the draft of the cold night air coming in right next to me. This didn’t bother me as much as it did the wifey, who had us scoot the table a foot away from the wall, and who later ventured back downstairs to retrieve her coat before we were done eating. Unfortunately, the coldness came up as a topic several times over the course of the evening, and that was a definite downside.
They had a bunch of cocktails named after Leonard Cohen lyrics and songs — an interesting idea that made for some long and difficult-to-recall names. Wifey tried a couple of those. I stuck to the bourbons: a Russel’s Reserve and a Virgil Kaine High Rye, both neat. I had never had the latter, and it turned out to be a good, smooth rye that was perfect for the end-of-dinner wrap-up drink.
We studied the menu for quite a while, trying to choose a number of plates we might share and experiment with. The server was very helpful in offering some suggestions. For the appetizers, we went with the amazing grits hush puppies. The honey-based dipping sauce was clearly the bee’s knees variety, as it was very tasty. Something about the way those hush puppies were fried was fantastic. I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but we devoured them.
We also had the caesar salad bites as an appetizer, which were presented more like soft tacos in jicama wraps. Not bad at all, though they didn’t stand out as much as the hush puppies. I had mine without the anchovy, She had hers with.
For the bigger plates, I went for things I know about that didn’t involve mushrooms: the fingerling potatoes, the green beans, and the burger.
The “Blistered Green Beans” were interesting. They were very tangy and had candied peanuts intermingled with the goat cheese cream sauce. It was a very intense taste, not at all what I was expecting, but not at all disappointing, either. I couldn’t finish them all, but I found myself picking out all the peanuts to eat before moving to the next thing.
The “Gaining Ground Fingerling Potatoes” were the best part of the night for me. This was the kind of thing you remember, get a craving for later, and want to come back for repeatedly. They were perfectly cooked, smooth, soft, and literally melted in my mouth. I could have just had two or three plates of this and been very happy for the night.
By the time the burger came, along with its big bowl of fries, I was finding myself getting full. Still, I dove in and finished the whole thing off. It was a very, very excellent burger. I was a little wary of it when I ordered it, as the menu said it had Lusty Monk mustard on it, and I can’t stand Lusty Monk mustard. However, it also had Maitake Mayonnaise (never heard of it), which balanced out the mustard very well, leaving you with a very rich and creamy sauce concoction that went well on the perfectly cooked, juicy burger.
I wish I had been able to eat more of the fries. They came with something called Rocket Sauce, and I really liked it. I just couldn’t stuff myself much more, unfortunately. Needless to say, this also led to us not taking part in dessert.
Next time, I will order fewer items so that I can enjoy the main course more. I could easily drop the green beans and the caesar bites, for example, leaving me with a bunch of amazing plates of food: the hush puppies, the potatoes, and the burger.
By no means was this a cheap date, (~$150 with the tip), but it was very good food in a very nice atmosphere. It’s perfect for a special occasion date night, or perhaps a nice drink on the way to go somewhere else. I think we’d both be happy to go back for dinner, but we’d definitely request a table not near the wall if it is cold outside.
I got the impression that the chef really likes to take chances with her food. The flavors had gusto and zing and kept us guessing in a delightful way.
Did I mention the temperature issue? That was a real bummer. I’ll look forward to our next trip there in the summer…
A great speakeasy vibe, good bourbons, excellent food once you sample enough things to find what you like.
Spendy, and uncomfortably cold near the wall. The server disappeared for a little longer than typical at certain times.