After focusing on Italian, German and Indian food in his many years as a chef, Vijay Shastri is turning to the cuisine of the American South. This spring, Shastri will open Mr. Frog's Soul and Creole Kitchen on Market Street in downtown Asheville, along with co-owner and partner Holly McFarling. Mr. Frog's takes over the space vacated by Simma Down Caribbean Café.
In his new venture, Shastri will turn in the spaetzle for sweet-potato bacon hushpuppies and curries for stewed oxtails in a come-as-you-are environment with affordable food and an accessible wine and beer selection.
“Having the bar that we had upstairs from the Flying Frog was an eye-opener to a more mainstream concept,” Shastri says. The Flying Frog Bar, a somewhat casual offshoot of the long-lived Flying Frog Cafe, was often jammed with people even when the more expensive downstairs restaurant was not.
Mr. Frog's will be located in the Ritz building on Market Street, an area tourists tend to frequent less than the Battery Park Avenue location of the Flying Frog. “We want this to be about locals,” Shastri says. "And we're looking for a place where friends and family can come together.”
As the executive chef of Mr. Frog's (with the assistance of “right-hand man” Gustavo Villota), Shastri will turn out a soul-food menu of buttermilk-fried chicken, catfish and trout, sweet-potato pudding, slow-smoked ribs, cedar-smoked calf’s tongue and Shastri's “calamari of the South,” otherwise known as flash-fried chitlins. Creole-based offerings will include jambalaya, gumbo and étouffée. “Different, fun shellfish dishes with a lot of the New Orleans touch," Shastri says. "And Sunday brunch, of course, will have beignets.”
Recreating the perfect dive
“We're making things properly," Shastri says. "We're making étouffée with a proper roux and making jambalaya with all fresh vegetables, and we're trying to utilize as much local, regional, sustainable and organic product as we can, while doing it in a $6 to $12 price range. It's cheap and still very much based on technique and great product. And even though it's not table service, it's a friendly environment.”
In other words, Mr. Frog’s will offer high-end food without the trappings of fine dining. “It's recreating the perfect dive,” says Shastri. It takes that kind of cliché level of elegance out of it, that expected elegance, and that's what you want. In this day and age, fine dining is dying — and I hate that that's the case.” Shastri say that, while he believes that great food is in no danger of going extinct, white-tablecloth restaurants, where simply having a table set with linens and flowers is costly, are on the decline. Combine the cost of a highly trained staff and a dining public that's increasingly not willing to pay for it, and you have a recipe for decline, Shastri says. That's part of the reason why he and McFarling are working to scale down and make things more accessible to locals.
News kids on the block
With restaurants closing all over, it may seem ambitious to venture into a part of town that's not known for its foot traffic. Shastri says, however, that the neighborhood is exactly right for his business plan. "Certain concepts require certain environments to be taken seriously," he says. In other words, a finer-dining yet "almost divey" concept wouldn't likely go over as well on Biltmore Avenue. Does that make The Block the new West Asheville?
"That area is very interesting," Shastri says. "There's so much planned there with the renovation of The Block. Even though there are few businesses on that street, it's an incredibly viable area for business. It is very safe, and the building that we've got is a great spot. It feels right, it's got every bit of the making of a very successful place. The business owners, the people around there are very wonderful people. We were incredibly surprised by how warm and open the neighborhood was. It's a great place to be."
And even though some restaurants are closing, Shastri says, he doesn't necessarily see a down economy in the landscape of Asheville. "Restaurants are changing, restaurants are expanding. If you look, downtown Asheville's starting to come back a little bit," he says. "I think it's time. Everything is right for things to happen right now."
A familiar face may help create success in Asheville, Shastri says. "The market is peculiar. People are less apt to support the places that they're not familiar with. It's a very community-oriented place and very difficult to get something started when you just move in from somewhere and open up places," he says. "Asheville has its own way of making things happen."