Honest food. It sometimes seems difficult to come by. Since the explosion of foodie TV shows like “Top Chef” and “Kitchen Nightmares,” the entire experience of eating out has changed drastically. Suddenly, every diner acts like part of a reality show when, in reality, he can hardly poach an egg. I am as guilty of this as anyone. The development of websites like Urban Spoon and Yelp only further perpetuate this behavior.
In turn, many chefs have shifted their focus to very modern cuisine, revolving around bold flavors, strange pairings and often served as small plates or tasting menus — a luxury previously reserved for white tablecloth establishments. As someone who eats for a hobby, I find that it gets tiring going through yet another menu boasting truffle potstickers, pork belly sliders, chicken and waffles or any other trendy, semi-fine dining tapas-induced experiment. Sometimes you need a meal that just speaks an honest word, a dish that tells you a story of where the chef came from and how he grew up.
Stone House Market
Dan Rogers and his wife, Debbie, have run a tiny, nine-table restaurant on the northern outskirts of town called the Stone House Market for eight years now. “It’s basically just a small restaurant run by a wife and a husband,” explains Dan as he begins his daily kitchen prep. “We like to think you’re coming over for dinner rather than going to some big restaurant.” Housed in an old filling station from the 1930s, the couple originally renovated the space to be a deli, but as their clientele grew, it evolved into a small, reservation-only restaurant that bridges a gap between fine dining and home cooking. “We don’t turn over many tables,” says Dan. “Take your time, drink a bottle of wine and dine ... we’re not in any rush.”
The original stone walls, vintage booths and a variety of thrown-together tables give you the feeling that you are sitting in someone’s eclectic home and that this meal really is going to be something to remember. It will not be a meal designed by a chef who hasn’t set foot in his or her own kitchen since publishing the menu a year ago. No, this truly is home cooking.
And as is fitting in anyone’s home, it is best not to nitpick with a gracious host. There are no specials. The menu, which is not printed but scrawled out on a large chalkboard, changes on an almost weekly basis depending on what is local, fresh and seasonal. The dishes reflect Dan’s upbringing by two Italian grandmothers from opposite ends of the country who taught him a variety of Italian cuisines. Pastas, breads, sausages and sauces are all made from scratch by Dan and served to you by Debbie: grilled lamb chop with cranberry-pear reduction and raspberries; and handmade noodles stuffed with either balsamic chicken or house-made sausage; crab ravioli with lemon, fennel and olive oil; grilled bass with a house pesto sauce, tomato and leeks. And in classic Italian fashion, if you do not like an ingredient, it will be served on the side, as there are no substitutions.
“The whole dining scene has grown into a very odd situation. Everyone watches ‘Top Chef’ and thinks that that’s what a restaurant is,” says Dan, explaining just what drove him away from the standardized restaurant kitchen to create this two-person operation. “The whole business is really funny and fickle. A lot of people judge restaurants based on things that they have had before or what somebody told them is good. And I think that we’ve lost the concept of just sitting around the dinner table. … But now everyone wants to go out to a restaurant and immediately tell everyone how it was! We’ve got to stop watching those TV shows!”
Stone House Market is at 301 Old Leicester Highway. Winter hours are 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Reservations are strongly suggested as seating is very limited. 828-252-1200
Bavarian Restaurant and Biergarten
The Bavarian Restaurant and Biergarten is hard to miss. Between the blaring polka music, the abundance of knickknacks, the face-in-hole photo board and the Bavarian Shoe Pole — whatever that is — it is decorated with all the tact of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and is quite visible from the heavily trafficked street. A long standing Woodfin institution, the place has been cranking out German standards for years. And while a common criticism I’ve heard of the Bavarian is its high prices, that critique often fails to take into account the amount of labor and love that goes into many of these dishes. It’s not easy to pull off German classics accurately.
There’s the traditional schnitzel, beef rouladen and other classics that feel like endangered species, conceivably unseen on a menu in decades. But what stands out most are the five varieties of handmade bratwursts: traditional, cheese stuffed, and a slew of other delicious, tube-shaped meats.
Some friends and I ventured in one Wednesday afternoon for the schweinshaxe, a slow-roasted pork knuckle that takes more than seven hours to prepare and needs to be ordered 24 hours in advance. Served with a beer and onion sauce and knodle (a german potato dumpling), it is one of the most intimidating entrees I’ve seen in a while.
“Because there is nothing like enjoying the company of three men and a pork knuckle,” said local radio DJ and foodie Sam Steele. Local musician Andrew Fletcher, Sam and I dig into the behemoth shank of meat. The skin is crispy; you taste the iron of your own blood as it pricks the roof and sides of your mouth. “It’s a bit like a chicharron,” says Sam, “but way crunchier. And you don’t get as much of that delicious fat in a chicharron. This is some heavy content.” The meat is, of course, most tender at its core. But that is not to say that the dish is not fantastically marinated in its gravy.
“Still, there’s a part of me that just wants to smother this whole thing in barbecue sauce,” says Sam, gouging the knife into the thick skin of the beast. “It’s good stuff!”
“A lot of this is pretty standard. These are just home fries, and then there’s slaw, pork shank,” he points out.
“Right, but it is standard in America because it all originated in Germany!” I retort. And it is true, a lot of the items on the menu are things that are familiar to our palate, but it’s the flavors and seasonings that are unique. The pop of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves in the gravy gives it a much stronger and more wonderful flavor than our palates are accustomed to — like a scratch-made Dijon mustard contributing a more flavorful twist to what would otherwise be a simple potato salad.
“We get all of our wild meat and game from local sources,” explains server Justin Hensley. “All of our herbs come from the garden just outside.”
I believe that all cooking tells you a story. For many people, it is a story of where they were raised. For others, it is what they rebelled from. And for some it is where they are going. This food that tells you where they came from. And it seems to have been a very happy place.
The Bavarian Restaurant is at 332 Weaverville Highway in Woodfin. Winter hours are 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily through the first week of March. Hot lunch is served 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. bavariandining.com or (828) 645-8383.