DINE BY DESIGN
Tasting menus leave the choosing to the chef and the enjoyment to you
BY KAY WEST
Intrinsically, dining out is a treat. Casual pizzeria, boisterous burger joint or full-service table linens and Riedel stemware, the very fact that someone else is planning, preparing and presenting your meal—not to mention cleaning up after—is a gift.
Several Asheville restaurants take that dining experience and give it extra finesse with chef-curated menus, multiple courses, paired beverages and private rooms. Amid the pressure of daily life, what could be more of an indulgence than a leisurely meal of dreamy dishes and personally attuned service?
Whether gathering with friends, hosting family, gifting that person who has everything or simply treating yourself, these three local tasting-menu experiences are a perfect fit.
ASHEVILLE PROPER: FIRED UP
The Art Deco décor reflective of its address in the historic Grove Arcade—marble floors, plush seating, warm lighting and flames leaping from a custom-made live-fire grill—signal a luxe experience to diners when they arrive at Asheville Proper. The name announces chef-owner Owen McGlynn’s intention to create a timeless, classic, sophisticated restaurant, properly done.
Nearly every item on the menu has an element of fire, ember or smoke, and the steak lineup is first-class. Narrowing it down to a starter, steak and side is a challenge.
Let go and let Jason do it.
Sunday through Thursday nights, Executive Chef Jason Sweeney creates the Chef’s Tasting Menu: an amuse-bouche, bread starter and five plated courses with an intermezzo between three and four. The format is exactly how Sweeny prefers to dine.
“When I go to a restaurant for the first time, if they offer a tasting menu, that is absolutely what I order,” he says. “It gives you a good overview of the restaurant and is fun because you get to try lots of things.”
Sweeney came on board as chef de cuisine at Asheville Proper just as it was opening in 2020, plunged into the Covid headwinds. He recalls the first year as just trying to stay on their feet and establish themselves. He found inspiration on a trip to Austin, where he ordered the restaurant’s tasting menu and was reminded of what a great experience it can offer.
“I felt like we had the product and the talent in-house to do something really special, so I put together a menu, priced it and presented it to Owen and Mindy [McGlynn, co-owner with her husband]. Chef said he had been thinking about adding one and gave the go-ahead.”
Since introducing the Chef’s Tasting Menu in early 2022, Sweeney says they have fine-tuned the logistics but also rely on spontaneity according to what’s available. He also encourages his staff to offer contributions. One thing that is consistent is nothing is taken directly from the Proper menu. “There will be items, of course, but we present them in different ways every week,” he says.
Similar to a wine tasting, the dinner begins with the lightest thing: a single bite. Amuse-bouche may be emu tartar on a house-made sourdough cracker. The bread of the day is always served with the restaurant’s house-made tallow candle, which is lit and melts on the plate for dipping. The meal progresses through small plates, always with a fish of some type, usually followed by duck, and builds to the steak fourth course—recently it was grilled Wagyu Zabuton steak with sweet potato dauphinoise potatoes and grilled local squashes. The meal ends with dessert, and all courses can be paired with wine, served in half-pours.
“Tasting menus make the meal an occasion,” Sweeney says. “The less time you spend making decisions, the more time you have to enjoy each other’s company
CULTURA: CULTURE CLUB
Wicked Weed Brewing first opened Cultura restaurant in the South Slope in 2019, making a splash with a trio of unique culinary experiences dubbed Bacchanal, Grand Bacchanal and Dine Like a Chef. The first two were family-style feasts; the third, a multi-course tasting menu.
In March 2020, Covid shut down indoor dining in Asheville, which gave Executive Chef Eric Morris and general manager Candice Dvoran time to fine-tune the concept. When Cultura reopened in September 2022 with a freshly painted tropical exterior mural and gorgeously reimagined dining room, they debuted the Tasting Menu, a seven-course dive into Morris’s commitment to local farmers, foragers and fermentation.
“For us, the idea was refinement, to create a space in Asheville that can be both casual and elevated, and create a magical experience for our guests,” says Dvoran. “It gives our chefs the opportunity to put their artistry into individual plates.”
“The idea is to give people the option to have lots of different textures, flavors and experiences in one meal,” adds Morris. “I come from a small-plates restaurant in New York, and this is an expression of that dining culture. Here, our goal is to offer that in a way that allows us to be flexible with seasonality.”
If the first and second courses—Eric’s larder + fermentation chamber and bread service—announce the theme (in September it was Spain), the third, fourth and fifth courses celebrate the seasons.
The larder course is three small bites—typically one is fermented and one preserved— followed by a regional bread by Sous Chef Daniel Rider. In the Spanish theme, the bread was toasted squares of pan de cristal rubbed with fresh garlic, grated heirloom tomatoes and Manchego cheese.
While the entire table is required to commit to the tasting menu, within the third, fourth and fifth courses guests select one of four options. For instance, within the fifth-course offerings were a porcini mushroom tart, dry-aged NY strip, smoked lamb shank or skate; portion-wise, that course is not an entire steak or lamb shank but smaller cuts plated with locally sourced items like cipollini mushrooms and house-made Oaxacan corn tostadas.
“With the four options in those courses, we can replace one or two things at a time as things become available and give a true reflection of seasonality,” Morris explains. “The format of the menu allows us to be adaptable and move things in and out. Plus, it gives our team the opportunity to contribute. Brooke Adams, one of my sous chefs, has two dishes on the menu now that are fully hers.”
The sixth course is always a one-bite cleanser made by local artisan bakery Beeswax & Butter, known for their whimsical macarons. For Cultura, they made rye alfajores—a Spanish confection—with goat milk caramel. The grand finale is a dessert created by Morris, Rider or Adams.
With level one and level two sommeliers on staff, wine pairings are expertly chosen as requested; often a Wicked Weed beer is suggested with the larder and bread courses.
The full tasting menus are presented Friday and Saturday nights and diners can linger as long as they like.
Dvoran says from her point of view at the front of the house, she loves watching guests sit back and relax into the full tasting menu experience, which she compares to a performance. She encourages Morris to come out of the kitchen, visit the tables and take a bow. “The guests really love that interaction and meeting the chef,” she says. “They get that heart eye emoji when he comes to the table to say hello.”
CÚRATE: ROOM SERVICE
It’s hard to believe, but even as accomplished a chef as James Beard Award winner Katie Button gets anxious entertaining at home. “When you’re hosting people in your home, there’s a level of comfort and privacy and familiarity, but you can’t fully enjoy yourself because you’re run- ning around taking care of all the things running around in your own head,” she says. “Who needs what? Who needs another glass of wine? Is the main course ready? It’s hard to relax into the experience.”
Cúrate, the Spanish tapas restaurant Button chefs and owns with her husband, Felix Meana, offers relief for the harried host in a cozy, sumptuously furnished, subterranean room accessed through their wine cellar. “You’re in your own private room totally separate from the restaurant where you can laugh and have fun and not worry about disturbing the table beside you. And you’re not responsible for making sure everyone’s wine is refilled and food is on the table.”
Cúrate’s private dining experience includes one fully dedicated server per every 12 people, the opportunity to provide your own music and seasonal set menus of three courses each. Every course has three different dishes, for a total of nine, plus dessert. As Button points out, no matter how ambitious or skilled, most home hosts would not cook 10 different dishes.
“The dining experience begins the minute you arrive, because everything has already been decided,” Button explains. “You can start with your sangria or wine and once you’re seated, the best thing about the tapas experience is there is always food dropping on the table. Everyone can self-select what and how much they want.”
Whatever the season, two of Cúrate’s most popular items are always in the first course—pan de cristal con tomato (toasted bread with tomato) and paleta cinco jotas (cured shoulder-cut Iberian ham). “People would get very upset if those two things weren’t on the table,” she says with a laugh. “The second course will almost always have the pulpo unless people tell us they really won’t eat octopus. But it’s so delicious we hate to switch it out!”
The second course will also have Cúrate’s signature piquillo peppers stuffed with Spanish goat cheese; the third course features a rotating cut of beef from local Apple Brandy Farm. Each course is rounded out with seasonal vegetables and salads. The dessert will be chocolate because, well, nobody says no to chocolate.
“It’s just the perfect way to gather with family and friends. You’re tasting and talking, relaxed and enjoying food and wine and each other.”
Asheville Proper Executive Chef Jason Sweeney
Chef Eric Morris of Cultura