Flavor: World cuisine with seasonal produce
Ambiance: Sophisticated but unpretentious
Service: Efficient and warm
Watching Kathy Taylor at work, it's easy to see why, time and time again, Mountain Xpress readers have voted her the best bartender in Asheville.
Many locals will recognize Taylor from her years of slinging drinks at the Charlotte Street Pub. Today, she's co-owner of the Usual Suspects on Merrimon Avenue, and she remains uncommonly efficient, attentive and just downright pleasant. While she does indeed engage in typical restaurant-owner activities, such as making the rounds to greet her customers and get feedback, she's usually got much more on her plate, from bussing tables to taking orders, from delivering drinks to popping into the kitchen to box up a to-go order.
It's not that the rest of the staff isn't equally capable it's just that the woman is everywhere. Indeed, when the Picky Companion and I were throwing darts in the game room at the rear of the restaurant (out of sight from the bar, mind you), our pint glasses were never empty for more than 30 seconds, as Taylor seems to have an uncanny knack for materializing by a customer's side the moment an empty glass touches the table.
Of course, the Usual Suspects has more going for it than star players like Taylor and her business partner, Les Doss (formerly of the New French Bar). For starters, there's the unique atmosphere. The decor could be described as "urban," in an Asheville kind of way, with exposed brick walls and pendulum lights hung from high wooden beams. But the overall feeling is one of a neighborhood pub. The seating is comfortable, especially at the oversized booths, and I've noticed that the filtration system must be particularly strong, since the smoking areas never seem to be too smoky.
The wine list is comprehensive and full of boutique wines, and as Picky Companion pointed out, the list is all the more respectable because it "doesn't seem constructed for mass appeal." In other words, not many "big name" labels are offered, save some of the champagnes. The restaurant is equipped with a temperature-controlled wine cellar, which is something of a rarity around here.
A full selection of liquors is also available, including an impressive array of single-malt scotch whiskies. I suspect that's the work of Doss, who helped me expand my knowledge on the subject when he was a bartender at the New French Bar.
The bar is equipped with 10 beer taps, about half of which are devoted to local brewers, and also an assortment of bottled beer, both imported and domestic.
Though beer was our poison of choice on a recent evening visit, we were intrigued by the short list of house cocktails. The "Suspect Cider," with warm, house-made cider and bourbon, seemed like a perfect warm-up for a chilly night. The bar also serves a concoction that I plan to sample when the next hot night comes along: Made of fruit-infused gin, homemade lemonade and lemon-lime soda, and garnished with a cucumber, the cocktail sounds like the perfect summer drink.
The food selection, which is served each night until 1:30 a.m., is as varied as the potent potables. According to Taylor, the menu, which focuses on global cuisine prepared with fresh, seasonal produce, changes every two or three months. (At this writing, the menu is in its last days before crossing over to more "Springy" fare, so some of the dishes I describe here might not be available until another season.)
In my experience, ordering a sampling of the appetizers appears to be the best plan of attack. Along with standard "pub grub" favorites like chili, nachos and fries, Usual Suspects offers pulled-pork egg rolls for $6, lemongrass scallops for $8, and fried tofu with spicy ginger sauce for $6, among other unique options. My personal favorite might be the creatively cheeky American Napoleon. The dish is a nod at the trendy stack-and-drizzle style of haute cuisine, but it's constructed with decidedly humble ingredients: hash brown casserole, pan-fried sausage, fried onions and mustard.
On our most recent visit, the Picky Companion and I sampled the Latkes and Lox, a straightforward appetizer of potato pancakes, sour cream with fresh dill, and smoked salmon. The perfect complement to a tall glass of pale beer, the dish was surprisingly light and refreshing; the cakes were crispy on the outside and weren't burdened with an overabundance of flour. The salmon (for those who are wary of the "fishiness" of lox) was very mild. Picky complained of a lack of salt but that problem was solved when I pointed out the shaker sitting 10 inches from his plate.
Several salads are also offered. I prefer the house salad; considering its size, the "Usual Salad" is a pretty good deal, especially with the fresh vegetables and the excellent house-made dressings (I like the blue cheese balsamic). A restaurant that offers a wide selection of good, creative dressings demonstrates a welcome attention to detail.
The sandwiches are primarily takes on comfortable classics, like the generous angus-beef Usual Burger, a Cuban sandwich with two kinds of pork, and a tempeh-avocado melt for the vegetarians.
The entrees are fairly interesting, but didn't quite draw me as effectively as the rest of the menu possibly because I usually pick out several things to eat before I even reach the entree section. On my recent visit, I was intrigued by both the braised lamb shank with root vegetables and the jalapeño-brie salmon, but I decided on the Pork Roulade with onion-date stuffing and ginger beer reduction. The Picky Companion chose the sesame-encrusted tuna with bok choy, shiitake and tomato/ginger sauce.
Both dishes were well-conceived, but the pork was a bit lacking in moisture and the tuna was on the raw-ish side of rare, though still quite good. (Perhaps most people prefer their pork more well-done than I do since I rarely find it cooked precisely to my liking anywhere.) The sweet potatoes and kale served with my dish were delicious, and the stuffing was well-balanced between sweet and savory.
At any rate, I found it quite difficult to dwell on any perceived shortcomings because, by and large, the menu is exceptional. The ingredients are fresh, the kitchen seems knowledgeable and creative, and the sheer variety is noteworthy. (There's also a selection of desserts to choose from, but we found that a pitcher of beer and a game of darts finishes up a meal quite nicely.)
The Usual Suspects, which has been open since last summer, is already a true Asheville success story. And no wonder: The folks who run it are experienced veterans of other local establishments, and it's clear they've listened closely to the desires of their customers.