Flavor: Modern American, global
Ambiance: Bright and cheerful
Service: Pleasant and welcoming
West Asheville's Sunny Point Café and Bakery has been praised many times over for its breakfast. For its culinary genre, it's about as top-notch as any in Asheville; the prices are excellent, the food is wonderfully consistent (I've had nary a complaint in more than a dozen visits), and the atmosphere is bright and cheery, without being too much of an assault on those early-morning senses. So when I heard that this beloved, already-a-staple Asheville eatery had started offering dinner too, you would imagine I was excited, right?
Not exactly. In fact, I was skeptical and a bit nervous. I've seen it happen before: A highly successful formula is tinkered with or expanded upon with mediocre-to-disastrous effects, when the best course of action was probably to leave well enough alone. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Upon arrival to the Sunny Point, my trepidation was not assuaged, at least not at first. There was only one other couple already present for dinner on a Saturday night, no less, and we walked in to find the entire staff seated around a table, talking. They were friendly enough, letting us know they'd be with us shortly, but my heart sank a bit. Were they not ready yet?
It turned out that the answer was simple enough. We had arrived a quarter of an hour before service, as the restaurant does not open for dinner until 6 p.m. The staff had been discussing the evening's specials when we walked in on their meeting, which must have been a comprehensive one, judging by the astounding list of ingredients our waitress dutifully recited to us once we had been seated.
When I opened the menu, my spirits lifted at the sight of free-range hangar steak, smoked duck, sunburst trout with grits soufflé, and an abundance of seasonal vegetables. As the restaurant began to fill (it seems some people actually check a restaurant's opening time before they arrive), all my nervousness evaporated.
Glancing at the menu, two things about the food struck me immediately: It's sophisticated and affordable. The most expensive offering is a half of a duck for $13.95. Though Sunny Point has done a great job of not compromising its concept, it seems to have stepped it up for dinner service though some breakfast and lunch items are offered.
The menu selections are creative but not overwrought, featuring twists on Sunny Point standards, such as the grits that make an appearance as a soufflé that accompanies the local Sunburst Farms trout. Though the menu follows a Southern feel in many ways, including a very Asheville-appropriate spin on a country classic chicken-fried tofu it veers in worldly directions at times. There is a Vietnamese noodle dish with rare beef, and the scallops receive a dusting of sesame seeds and a tamari aioli.
The restaurant doesn't yet have a beer and wine license though we were told that obtaining one is a "number-one, top priority." I satiated myself with a couple of lemon "Fizzy Lizzy" sparkling juices an excellent, healthy alternative to soda with no added sugar, which I strongly recommend.
Shortly after placing our order with our delightful waitress, we were brought some of the house-made focaccia and a basil-infused olive oil. The baked goods at Sunny Point are excellent; there's a good reason that the biscuits are referred to as "angel biscuits." Through some magic in the baking process, everything that you would expect to be dense turns out lighter than air, and the focaccia is no exception. As for the oil, however, I would have preferred it to have been either unadulterated or infused with something stronger, as the basil somehow managed to slightly obscure the flavor of the olive oil without managing to impart much character of its own.
My Picky Companion entertained himself by watching the kitchen. I had my back turned to the action, but I could tell by the sound of near-silence that the staff was focused and diligently working. It was quiet enough so that I could hear the constant crank of the ticket machine, printing out orders for the cooks.
Our food came quickly, given the volume of early diners that seemed to arrive all at once. We had gone heavy on appetizers, light on entrees, as the day's oppressive heat seemed to dictate.
We had ordered the sesame salt-seared scallops with a ginger/tamari aioli and crispy green beans. Due to the low price of $8.95, we had expected either a small or inferior product, and we were wrong on both counts. The scallops were plump, dry-pack scallops, not the chemical-laden, wet-pack variety, and a grand total of five of the expertly cooked, juicy bivalves rested on the plate around a bed of beautifully fresh green beans. The aioli served more as a lube than an accent, as the flavor of the ginger, which would have provided the punch it needed, was indistinguishable but it was still delicious.
Our next appetizer, the portabella ravioli, was also very good. The filling was hearty, and the entire little package had been perfectly cooked, then topped with a sage butter and garnished with fresh, young leaves of a variegated sage. Though I found it delectable, my companion remarked that "taking the extra time to brown the butter would have brought it over the top."
Our favorite appetizer was a fried green tomato stack, layered with goat cheese and a ham ragout then surrounded by blackened shrimp. When Picky ordered it, I didn't expect to be as impressed by the dish as I was, but it certainly took center stage. The shrimp was spicy, the goat cheese light, the tomatoes were perfect in texture. The flavor of the ragout was complex there was so much going on that I had a hard time identifying all of the different components. Was that lime leaf I just tasted? Maybe it was lemon verbena, or some exotic variant of basil? At any rate, it was delicious.
Our single entree, the hangar steak, was accompanied by a very light, skillfully executed potato/leek gratin, made seasonally appropriate by a moderate amount of dairy. The steak was topped with a blue-cheese butter, a fitting companion. The meat was not quite cooked to our specifications, and it seemed like someone had realized their mistake, slicing the steak open a bit too quickly, prematurely releasing the juices that would have been more welcome had they stayed put. Also, a promised side of a fresh tomato and basil salad was missing. (We didn't notice until our meal was almost complete, by which time we'd had plenty to eat, anyway.) Despite the mishaps, we found the dish to be quite good, and, for the most part, enjoyed every bit.
The dessert menu is fairly ambitious. A chocolate lava cake is paired with port wine ice cream and raspberries, a frozen tiramisu torte is served with a sweet espresso reduction. Seasonal fruit crisp comes with locally made gelato, and a crème brûlé of the day is also offered. We had the stomach capacity for only one dessert, the torte, which was quite good. With its very thin layers of lady-finger, the predominantly espresso-flavored frozen component, and espresso reduction, the overriding flavor was you guessed it espresso. Perhaps a little mascarpone something or other served alongside would bring "tiramisu" more readily to mind. Make no mistake, though I enjoyed it enough to finish it all.
I walked away from my experience at the Sunny Point more than satisfied. With everything we had tried, our final bill (before the tip) was around $50 an excellent deal for the quality. With its welcoming atmosphere, strong sense of self and a staff with obvious culinary talent, Sunny Point is poised to grow gracefully. Now, after all of that pointless worrying, I can finally be excited.