Saturday, April 30, 2016

Doc Taylor's, Virginia Beach

We asked our server at Eurasia the night before about where to eat breakfast the following morning. She and the other waitstaff were all in favor of Doc Taylor's down at the beach, so we planned to head down to the beach, have breakfast, walk on the beach, and make our way back to the Sandler Center by noon for the concert.

After a 10-minute ride down to the beach the next morning, we found out that parking at the beach is a gigantic pain in the ass even during the off-season. After going around and around with no luck, I was looking for a place to turn around, so I pulled into a driveway to start turning around. Once in the driveway, I spied a tiny sign saying "Parking only for Doc Taylor's." Pulling around behind the building, I got the very last parking space. After 10 minutes of frustration, this seemed like a good omen.

Good omen, except, they were on at least a 30-minute wait. Not knowing anything about Doc Taylor's, we didn't understand that waiting here is not that big of a deal. Right next door, they have a lounge with a long bar and $2.50 Bloody Marys. And the bloodies are pretty damned good too, the glass being rimmed with lime juice and Old Bay. Our wait was probably closer to an hour.

Bloodies and Coffee Get the Morning Going
Good thing the bloodies are good because the food is not so great. I had one of their most popular dishes, the Ray Ray, a fried egg, bacon, cheese, and grilled parmesan tomatoes on an onion roll. I got mine with grilled potatoes rather than hash browns, figuring the hash browns would be terrible. These so-called grilled potatoes look pretty bad and they tasted worse.

The Ray Ray
I think Ann fared better than me by just a hair with her Eggs Benedict, but only by a hair. Her hash browns were terrible as expected. Thank goodness for the Bloody Marys.

Ann's Eggs Benedict

Sailfish Sculpture Outside Doc Taylor's
After breakfast, we strolled the 100 yards or so to the beach and walked for a little bit. The rain had stopped, but the day was cold and grey and the beach was largely deserted.

Empty Beach; Grey Day

Windy and Chilly on the Boardwalk

Lots of Wind for Kites
After our quick foray to the beach, we headed back to the Sandler Center. They actually let me take my camera in, probably because it wasn't a professional performance, but it was too dark and the stage was too far away (we were in the first row behind the orchestra pit) and my lens was too slow to take anything useful.

The concert was just amazing. There were two choirs made of the best kids from each district in Virginia who came together on Thursday, learned new music under the direction of guest conductors, and then put on a wonderful performance on Saturday morning. They spent the vast majority of time in rehearsal and really had no free time to get into trouble. And it showed in the quality of the performance.

The Sandler Center

Sculpture Outside

Ann Gets a Rare Hug

Ann, Carter, and Joey
After the concert, we stopped back at the hotel so Carter and Joey could pick up their bags and change and then we hit the road for the long ride back to Winchester. What should have been a 4.5-hour trip ended up taking nearly 6. At times, we were creeping along at 5mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95. It was a long, long day.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Eurasia, Virginia Beach

After such a wonderful night the evening before, it was really disappointing to think about leaving Asheville, if not because Asheville is such a wonderful place then because it meant that our only vacation period of the year was quickly drawing to a close and that we would soon be staring workaday reality in the face again for another 51 weeks. Our final breakfast at Carolina B&B started with fantastic blackberries in a basil-infused syrup with loosely whipped vanilla cream. After this, we were served a bacon and broccoli egg bake with asparagus and a banana muffin. It was a great breakfast, but we couldn't linger, as much as we would have liked to, facing a 7-hour drive to Virginia Beach.

Delicious Blackberries

Bacon and Broccoli Egg Bake, our Final Breakfast in Asheville
We were checked out and on the road by 10am, tentatively putting us into Virginia Beach around 5pm which was fine but I was worried about Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic. We didn't have dinner reservations until 8:15 so there was no real rush. The drive east and north from Asheville was a long boring interstate trip with no views, but we did note that the rest stops in NC are super, clean, and very well maintained.

Leaving Asheville, it was a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the low 80s and we were rolling with open windows, blaring classic rock on the radio. By the halfway point though, it was clouding over and getting noticeably chillier. By the Virginia state line and cruising east on US 58, we had the windows up and were struggling to find any radio station not playing Christian music or conservative talk. Both my families are from Southside Virginia but that still doesn't make it feel like home. And what a culture shock after leaving the crazy and totally leftwing Asheville.

Seven hours after departing peaceful spectacular Asheville, we arrived in the land of the 6-lane interstates and high-rise buildings just in time for bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic and a low gray ceiling that shrouded everything in a mist too large to be a fog and not enough to be rain. It was a cold, dreary, damp, aggravating afternoon when we pulled into the hotel near the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts where Carter and his fellow students from all over the state would give their performance on Saturday afternoon.

After resting for a little while at the hotel, it was a dark, rainy, crappy night when we set out for Eurasia just a few blocks off the beach. Friends had recommended that we try this restaurant, located in a strip mall. Sorry in advance for the crappy photos; the lighting was just low enough to make everything on the cellphone camera grainy.

We started with cocktails. Ann had a cocktail called Absolutely Perfect made from Absolut Mandarin, St. Germain, cranberry juice, and prosecco. It was quite nice and I wouldn't be surprised if we don't rip it off for the restaurant. Jazzed by the Crusta that I had at Rhubarb, I asked for a Sidecar and I sort of got a Sidecar, but really, in a rocks glass with a little ice and a slab of lemon? Not the best bar work that I have ever seen.

"Absolutely Perfect," A Really Good Cocktail

A Sidecar?
I was just glancing at the wine list in preparation for digging into it when I saw the same wine we had the night before in the 2012 vintage and I looked no further. This was equally delicious as the 2001 but without the benefit of bottle age. It was however, way, way less expensive.

Baby Barbaresco
As usual, I pretty much let Ann figure out the food while I figured out the wine. She decided on Ahi Tuna Tartare with ginger, sriracha honey, diced egg white, quail egg, and wontons. If you're going to do a dish that everyone does, you need to step up your game to make it shine. Sadly, this tuna was really middle of the pack. The tuna itself was underseasoned and needed texture. The egg whites were crudely whacked making me wonder about the care that the kitchen actually puts into their dishes.

Tuna Tartare
Served alongside the tuna was a beet and burrata salad with "grains" (whatever they were), an avocado mousse, preserved lemon, black pepper crackers, and toasted almonds. The dish really didn't hang together as a salad for me, the burrata was OK but not memorable, and the beets were woefully undercooked.

Beet and Burrata Salad
Next up was olive-oil poached octopus with orange, grilled scallion, hoisin, and a plantain chip. The octopus was fairly good, but I don't understand how the other ingredients play together or help the octopus in any way. It reminds me of a junior cook throwing a bunch of ingredients at a plate because they sound cool.

Olive Oil-Poached Octopus
The best dish of the night and the one that hung together best concept- and flavor-wise was rock shrimp with cavatelli, oyster mushrooms, and ramps in a butter sauce. The delicate shrimp and pasta was buried in an avalanche of cheese and there was way too much butter sauce for the amount of ingredients. This could have been a stellar dish, yet it ended up being heavy-handed and clumsy.

Shrimp and Cavatelli
Ann was also intrigued by the dish called Chef's Steak & Eggs: Guinness-braised short ribs, white polenta, crispy poached egg, and braising jus. The egg was really well done but the rest of the dish wasn't at all memorable. I'd hoped for some awesome short ribs; they weren't.

Steak and Eggs
We wanted to have more wine but with us having to drive and it being dark, rainy, and us in an unfamiliar place, that wasn't a good idea. So I took a chance and asked the server if we could get another bottle of wine to go along with a cheeseplate. She made both happen in fairly short order. Back at the hotel, we had our dessert: cheese and Barbaresco from Dixie cups.

Barbaresco in Dixie Cups

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Out on the Town, Asheville NC

After our late lunch at HomeGrown at which I only ate a fun watercress salad to save room for dinner, we went back to the B&B to rest, shower, and get ready for Happy Hour on the front porch. Back to the swing, we stayed for a serenade by the Song Sparrows and a glass of wine before heading downtown to celebrate our final night in Asheville and our final true night of vacation before heading to Virginia Beach to watch Carter perform in his concert.

The night before, Neil had suggested to us that before we went to Rhubarb for dinner, we should go to the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar in the Grove Arcade for a little pre-game. It sounded kind of strange and he mentioned nothing about dogs (dogs?) but he seemed rather insistent that we would like it. Being a sucker for Champagne, I figured it might be worth a stop to have a glass of bubbly before dinner, but I was wholly unprepared for the ridiculously eclectically cool experience that is this bastion of hip urbanity in downtown Asheville.

I was kind of stunned (Screw that. I was totally stunned) when I walked in the door. Think upscale smoking room meets library meets swank bar meets hipster coffee shop with gay queen over-the-top attitude. Blacks, reds, luxurious leatherclad furnishings, warm and eclectic lighting, nooks and crannies, marble and brass: it's all way, way too much to take in at a glance. Think exposed industrial hip-warehouse HVAC, throwback schoolhouse lighting, red railinged mezzanine overlooking oriental-motif carpets, moosehead on the wall, leatherbound books, heavy drapes, grandfather clock, espresso bar, and dogs, dogs, dogs. Can you even wrap your head around all this?

Ever Seen This in a Bookstore?

This Explains it All. Not Really.
As I was standing in the entry trying to take things in, letting my eyes adjust from being outside in the sunlight, and generally trying to avoid Mary Poppins scolding me ("Close your mouth please, Ed. We are not a codfish."), Ann spied dogs, abruptly left me, and made a bee-line directly for the dogs. You now know where I rank on Ann's hierarchy, somewhere way south of dogs.

Dogs in a Bookstore?
Meanwhile, I spied this lovely collection of sparklers on the bar counter and made my way to a stool where I started to go through the wonderfully curated list of Champagnes and other wines.

So Many Choices
After her dog fix, Annie finally joined me at the bar for what turned out to be two glasses each of Jacques Copinet brut. I didn't know Copinet, but I do now. It's really good grower Champagne.

Dogs and Champagne? Annie's in Love!

Marble Bar, Engraved Stemware, $$$$

Really Nice Champagne
We reluctantly had to get going to make our 8:00 reservation at Rhubarb a couple blocks away. When we got there, Ann asked the hostess if we could sit outside and she predicted a 15-20 minute wait for a table, so we sat at the bar until about 8:25 waiting for a table to clear. The first thing that I noticed was real fruit, real eggs, and a collection of bitters on the bar, a clear indicator that this was a serious bar making serious cocktails.

Ann was looking for something different and not sweet so the bartender suggested a Rhubarb Collins made from vodka and house-made strawberry-rhubarb soda. I took a chance on the bartender and ordered a Crusta, an old cocktail that is the forerunner of the modern-day Sidecar. The bartender had never heard of it before so I ran him through it. Aside from the garnish, which should be a wide strip of lemon rind, it was perfect and so superbly balanced. I complimented him on the fine work and tipped accordingly. It is so hard to find a quality bar where we live. Rhubarb has an excellent bar.

Crusta Cocktail
We finally got seated outside in perfect weather and watched the street performers on Biltmore Avenue while we were waiting for our menus and the wine list.

Enjoying the Street Show
Chef John Fleer is widely known for doing creative food and we were really looking forward to sampling his menu. As we like to do, when we don't do tastings, we like to sample several small plates to get a broader perspective on a chef and the kitchen.

The Rhubarb Menu

Some of the Street Performers
My first order of business, while Ann decided what we were going to order, was to find a bottle of wine. The list is quite a bit smaller than I might have imagined a list for a restaurant of this caliber would be, but it seemed to be fairly carefully curated with some interesting wines, though it seemed weighted to French wines especially on the red side. I didn't spend much time on the list because almost immediately I spotted a Barbaresco from a producer with a good reputation. The only question in my mind was that it was a 2001 vintage, and though Barbaresco certainly wants and can take that kind of age, it's always a crapshoot about how it has been stored. I needn't have worried about that: from first whiff of it's lavish perfume of raspberries, tea, tar, roses, violets, and dried leaves to the final sip with it's lip-smacking acidity, the bottle was stellar.

2001 Sori Paitin Barbaresco, So Good!
Fried hominy with chile and lime was outstanding. I want more, more, more. Think ancho-lime Doritos for grown ups.

Fried Hominy! Amazing!
The goat cheese burrata was tender and really well made. The beet, strawberry, and basil garnishes didn't do a lot for me, however. Some Benton's ham and ramp pesto (to put a Southern drawl on prosciutto and pesto) would have been awesome.

Goat Cheese Burrata
The rabbit-leek rillettes sounded better than they actually were, being melted to the point where they were runny as you can see in the photo. The house-made "sel-tines" were outstanding.

Rabbit Leek Rillettes
Beef belly! What a great concept! I look forward to trying it myself. The result was really beefy and intense in flavor, though a bit lean for me. I would have loved a slice with more fat. The farrotto on which it sat was a loser, being overcooked to mushy blandness.

Beef Belly with Saffron Farrotto
We ordered a cheese plate and asked our server to pick some of her local favorites. Since the cheese plate ended up coming last, it made a great dessert and accompaniment to the last drops of Barbaresco. I couldn't really tell you the names now, but the plainest looking of the bunch on the far right turned out to be the most awesome. I think it was Castanet from Three Graces Dairy in Marshall NC.

Local Cheeses for Dessert
After dinner, as we walked back through downtown to the B&B across I-240, we got to further experience the street life of this eclectic and vibrant town, taking in the various street musicians, artists, and characters. And sadly our arrival back at the B&B pretty much concludes the story of our stay in Asheville. It's wonderful place to visit though it's a little too big for us to want to live there.

Mount Mitchell NC

After our out-of-car foray at Craggy Gardens, we continued north on the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of Mount Mitchell. We decided to drive to the parking lot just below the summit rather than make the long, arduous hike up from the bottom. The drive up from the parkway was surprisingly long. Once again climbing, we quickly found ourselves in spruce-fir forest with lots of moss and lichen. The microclimates on the top of these high peaks are pretty interesting.

Annie Looking Over the Observatory Railing at Mount Mitchell

Pretty Fancy Survey Marker

The Obligatory Sign Shot

Looking North and Down on Mount Craig, Second Highest Peak in the East
While I was up top, I shot a 360-degree view of North Carolina and Tennessee from the summit.

The Mosses and Lichens are Natural Poetry

A Raven Kept Us Company at Mount Mitchell

Ravens are Notoriously Tame and Playful
Our plan was, after seeing Mount Mitchell, to get some lunch in nearby Burnsville and drop in to see our friends Neil and Kay. But it proved that were really hungry, so we thought we might just grab something quick at the restaurant where we parked, but a sign on the door announced that it doesn't open until May first. Damn! It was April 28th.

We didn't really think things through enough to realize that there's no good way off the Parkway at that point to get to food. Though as the crow flies, Burnsville is about 10 miles away, the Garmin was saying that it was an hour to either Burnsville or Black Mountain and that each would still be an hour from Asheville. So we decided just to drive the 45 minutes back down the Parkway to Asheville and eat lunch there.

About halfway back, coming down from the Craggy Gardens picnic area into lower elevations where the trees were starting to leaf out, Ann asked me about a flower she was seeing in the woods but which I couldn't see on the roadside. After a couple miles we managed to find a shoulder wide enough to park on close enough to a patch of these flowers. When we walked back and up into the woods a bit, we were staring open-mouthed at an entire hillside of geraniums and trilliums in full bloom. I don't know enough about trilliums to be confident in identifying these. These might all be Trillium grandiflorum as they are all growing together, but I couldn't say.

Masses of Geraniums on the Roadsides



When we had nearly retraced our route in reverse, we asked the Garmin for nearby restaurants and saw HomeGrown about which we had read, whose slogan is Slow Food Right Quick, and which is a pioneer in the Asheville local food scene. Ann got pan-fried trout with saffron aïoli, sprouts, pickles, and pickled onions. Trying to save room for dinner since it was already mid-afternoon, I ordered a watercress salad with pepper-candied bacon, red onions, pickled watermelon rind, farmers cheese, and strawberry vinaigrette, a daily special.

Watercress Salad

Rainbow Trout Sandwich with Fries
While we sat outside and waited for our food, we tried out a local cider and a local pale ale. I noticed that almost everyone at the place was drinking Shiva IPA from Asheville Brewing. It's a decent IPA. Nothing to shriek about, but it drinks easily enough.

Local Brews

Linguini with Clam Sauce

It felt good to get back in the kitchen yesterday, if only for a few minutes to make a late afternoon lunch of linguini with white clam sauc...