Creamy cheese melted over a hot granite slab, a selection of savory or sweet accompaniments, a glass of wine and good conversation: This is the essence of raclette, the centuries-old Swiss dining tradition introduced to Asheville in late November by Creperie Bouchon.
Chef and owner Michel Baudoin brought the tabletop cooking concept to his restaurant in an effort to create a lively, cold-weather dining option as he prepares to keep Creperie Bouchon open during the winter months for the first time. Baudoin says it is uncommon to find raclette service outside of Switzerland and France.
“The company I bought the [raclette] sets from said they had never sold them to anyone in the United States before,” Baudoin says. Blake Butler, who does public relations for Creperie Bouchon, says he believes Asheville is the first city in the area to offer raclette."I don't think there is anyone in the Southeast doing this," he says.
A rustic version of raclette, which comes from the French racler, meaning “to scrape,” involves placing a large piece of semi-firm, Raclette cheese in front of an open fire, then scraping off the melting parts to mix with boiled potatoes, pickles and dried meat on slices of baguette. The cold December evening I visited Creperie Bouchon, however, I was happy to embrace the more urban version, which offers an electrically heated, flat stone and a tiny skillet called a coupelle for melting the cheese.
The server brought out platters with sliced cheese, gherkins, cocktail onions and boiled fingerling potatoes for my dining companion and myself, along with a plate of sliced French bread. We then chose add-ons from a list that included the savory (mushrooms, roasted pepper, andouille or duck sausage, bacon and honey-roasted ham) and the sweet (fresh strawberries, pear and apple.) Baudoin recommended that the meal be taken with a glass of wine.
My dining companion and I were meeting in person for the first time that evening, and we found that the process of choosing our options, melting the cheese in the coupelles and assembling each custom-made portion for ourselves with the bread was a great ice breaker. The warmth from the stone griddle drew us in and made for a nice, homey focal point for our conversation.
Those who are not up for a very hands-on, do-it-yourself dinner should look elsewhere. There is plenty of opportunity to make a jolly mess (I sent more than one tiny, pickled onion rolling across the table,) and, if you are clumsy or not paying attention, there is a small chance of burning yourself on the stone. But it was surprising just how sociable and fun the whole experience was. This is not, by any means, fast food. We hurried our meal somewhat because of another engagement, yet we ended up spending two leisurely hours there, chatting, melting cheese, eating and sipping our wine.
“I call this a 'social cheese plate,'” says Baudoin. “Raclette is for visiting and relaxing, having some wine, enjoying yourself with friends.”
The combination of the subtle cheese, earthy vegetables and piquant charcuterie was very satisfying. Although the selection of food appeared to be more like an appetizer than a meal when it was first brought to the table, in the end it was far too much to eat, and I was forced to forego the temptation of the raclette dessert offering: s'mores with house-made sugar cookies, marshmallows and Nutella.
At a price of about $16 for the basic raclette plate for two (add-ons are extra), this makes for a unique and affordable winter meal option for a family or group. Visit www.creperiebouchon.com for details.
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