I was invited last Thursday to a media dinner at The Red Stag Grill, located inside the Grand Bohemian Hotel near Biltmore Village and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The dinner was to showcase some new menu offerings from their new chef, Scott Ostrander.
Having never been in the hotel before, the entire experience was new to me. I arrived early, and as I waited in the art gallery, I seized the opportunity to speak with the General Manager and Chef Ostrander both before the others arrived.
I found the chef to be warm, well rounded, intelligent and creative. He spoke of the paintings by which we were both transfixed, speaking of how it reminded him of where he grew up, on a farm raised by Depression-era grandparents. He seemed relaxed and confident about the dinner facing him, and seemed to have come into the gallery to center himself and get a break before starting on the massive affair to come.
Chef Ostrander’s point of view is one of taking advantage of local resources, developing cooperative agreements with the farms and shops set up here in Asheville, and of utilizing every piece of food he can. He saves meat scraps and makes his own house sausage. He pickles his own vegetables – one of which we got to sample in our rabbit course. He brings the perspective of a farm right into the dining room in every way he can, and he does it with elegance and class.
The hotel itself is gorgeous, themed as an old hunting cabin, and every detail taken into consideration. Every design element is in theme. Each floor features the work of a single artist; natural scenes were commissioned in various seasons to further enhance the theme. Niches were put into the ends of the hallways so that there was never a boring place to put one’s eye while walking down a long corridor. Even the elevator music was themed to be the most pleasing at various points of the day. They seemed to have attended to every detail.
Dinner was grand, as the hotel’s name would suggest. After three hors d’oeuvres in the gallery and a play on a mint julep called a Carolina Cup (recipe at the end of this article), we sat down to a seven course meal. Called the Black Forest Wine Room, our space for the evening featured backlit obsidian, branch chandeliers and hyperrealistic wine paintings.
The service was impeccable. Scarcely did a sip of wine leave my glass before it was immediately refilled. Course dinnerware and silverware disappeared and were replaced with a new course with barely a stirring. As we got up to photograph the full course meals displayed in better lighting, the wait staff was right there to help us in and out of our chairs. Truly the highest level of service is one of their strengths.
The food was exceptional. Not perfect, but very, very close.
Our hors d’oevres were served in the gallery. There were a dozen or so of us milling around expensive and beautiful sculptures and paintings, and I felt very uncomfortable eating and drinking around such objet d’arts.
Now to the menu and my thoughts on each dish:
Deviled Local Eggs, House smoked Tasso, Pickled Shrimp
This was a beautiful piece, and I would never have put shrimp and deviled eggs together. I am an avid fan of seafood, so when I felt the shrimp fall into the spicy but flavorful yolk, I was delighted to find that two of my favorite dishes work so well together. This will be at my next picnic, though I’m sure I won’t do as good a job as Chef Ostrander did.
Wild NC Cherrystone Clams, Bacon and Spring Onions
This dish was served on a spoon. Unfortunately the wood taste of the spoon sort of overwhelmed this stuffing. The bacon stood out, but the clams did not lead this dish. I would have liked to have sampled more of it in a different setting where I wasn’t crowded by people.
Hickory Nut Gap Pork Shoulder, BBQ Spices, Sorghum
This was served shredded on a piece of toast for a quick bite. It tasted much like the other sweet pulled pork sandwiches I’ve had. I prefer my barbeque Carolina-style, without the sweetness of Texas style sauces. It was fair, but the pork was well cooked and still tender, not dry.
Drink: Troy & Sons Carolina Cup
I generally very much dislike whiskey and bourbon. However, this play on a traditional mint julep utilized a whiskey called Blonde, by Troy & Sons, distilled right here in Asheville, along with our very own Bee Charmer honey, substituting for sugar in the traditional. Chef Ostrander went the extra step and created a mint foam for the top of the drink, but I was won over by the smooth whiskey and surprised that I was not repelled by the flavor. They actually sent us home with goody bags containing a bottle of whiskey, samples of the honey, a beautiful julep cup and the recipe for the drink (see end of article). I enjoyed several of these over the weekend, though I do not often drink, and never do I drink whiskey.
Chilled Watercress Bisque, blue crab, cucumber, horseradish.
This dish, prepared like vichyssoise, used Vidalia onions instead of leeks. In the center of the bisque sat a small crab salad with a horseradish sauce. I could never have imagined such a small green could have been transformed into a smooth, fresh and creamy bisque. There was a mild fish aroma, but the bisque was light, the crab was well prepared and its sweetness complimented it perfectly.
Wagyu Carpaccio, Lusty Monk Mustard, New River Micro Greens
This traditional beef carpaccio had a subtle, nuanced and mild flavor, accented by the arugula and micro greens, but the Lusty Monk Mustard stole the show. It was tangy and spicy and carried a slight impression of their beer.
Sea Scallop, Lobster, Corn, Fava Beans and Golden Beet Butter
This dish was beautifully presented and aromatic. Scallops are some of my favorite seafood proteins. It was perfectly seared, tender inside but caramelized on the outside. The corn was fresh and crunchy, contrasting with the texture of the lobster and scallop. Interestingly, it was adorned with pea tendrils from a local farm, Recovery Ventures, that supports patients recovering from substance abuse. This made the dish more meaningful to me.
With these dishes, we were served a white wine, Gruner Valtliner, Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige, 2012. I am not a wine connoisseur, and I actually do not enjoy drinking wine very often, so I could not comment on this except to say it was mild enough for me to enjoy with these early dishes.
Sunburst Trout, Carrot Puree, Sugar Snap peas, and Maitake Mushrooms
The chef faltered a bit on this dish. The trout was thin and overcooked. It did not have much flavor. The mushrooms grounded it and saved it from failure by providing an earthy, moist balance for the overcooked fish.
Hickory Rabbit Loin, Rabbit Confit, White Asparagus, Pickled Rhubarb
I am not a big fan of rabbit in general, but the preparation here was superb. Chef Ostrander took pieces of rabbit loin, rolled them in local truffles, and wrapped it in the flat belly muscle before cooking. This led to an earthy, moist preparation of rabbit. White asparagus, which is plain green asparagus that’s been deprived of sunlight, was tender and mild, and the surprise flavor in this dish was the house-pickled rhubarb. The pleasant tang of the rhubarb complemented the earthiness of the rabbit and rounded out the dish.
With these courses was served a Bourgogne Rouge, by Albert Richot, 2012.
Apple Brandy Rib Eye, Vidalia Onion, Heirloom Tomato, Herb Chimichurri
This locally sourced ribeye steak was cooked beautifully rare, sliced and laid over what tasted like a traditional Italian herb mix in olive oil. To the side, a small watercress salad with tomatoes and vidalia onions balanced off the simple flavors of the ribeye and herbs.
Looking Glass Dairy’s “Ellington” goat cheese, with Strawberry-Rhubarb Preserve.
Generally, I find goat cheese to be too tangy for my palate, but this was a mild, solid cheese with a texture similar to swiss cheese. It went well with the sweet and tangy preserves.
These dishes were served with a glass of red wine, the Bohemian Collection Blend, by Raymond California, 2011.
Pecan Carrot Cake, Salted Caramel Chocolate Torte, and Blueberry Mascarpone Cheesecake
Served with a Madeira, Blandy’s 5 yr Malmsey, from Portugal, NY.
The Madeira set the tone for dessert. Intoxicating aromas of toffee and nuts set the palate for a delicious surprise with the strong but sweet flavors of the wine.
The Pecan Carrot Cake was average. Nothing incredibly outstanding, thought I found the light icing to be a nice change from the usual cloying cream cheese frosting.
The Salted Caramel Chocolate Torte was the show stealer for the entire evening. It is based on a flourless torte, rich, tender and saturated with deep chocolate notes, but the thick layer of creamy caramel accented with salt elevated this to another level entirely. It actually brought tears to my eyes, and groans told me when each of the other patrons tried this particular dessert. I understand it is not yet on the menu, but it is this dessert that would bring me back to the Red Stag again and again.
The Blueberry Mascarpone Cheesecake was a nice surprise. It was served as a small circle of lightweight cheesecake, and the bottom half was entirely blueberries. I do not know how well this scales up; if the blueberry proportion remains the same in larger portion sizes, it could be easily unstable and cloying, but in its small form, it was delightful.
After our dinner, we were delighted to have a few minutes with Chef Ostrander. While he regaled us with tales from his childhood, I saw his eyes light up most when he spoke of his grandparents, and their frugal values that helped prepare him for using as much of his food as possible, and gave him a profound respect for farmers, for the food he uses to create his visions, and his culinary point of view.
“I’m just a kid from the farm that likes to cook,” Chef Ostrander said, almost bashfully, but with a certain gleam of pride in his eye.
Perhaps the most outstanding was his personability. Chef Ostrander was kind, well rounded, and a pleasant conversationalist. I hope to experience his translation of farm values into sumptuous meals again soon.
I was invited for a media event. My experience was engineered from the moment I walked in until the moment I left, and done so very well. I did not have a typical experience. Since I have not been to The Red Stag Grill independently, I cannot personally attest to the average customer experience.
A little research revealed recent inconsistencies in both food and service. It seems either a person can expect exceptional service and food, or a very poor experience including both food and service. Valentine’s Day seems to have tripped the staff up, and there may exist some bias in how an obviously wealthy couple is treated versus a younger, more casually dressed person. I do not know the source of the inconsistencies, although I hope they solve their issues before I drop the average $200 per couple to dine there.
If you decide to try The Red Stag Grill, I would suggest arriving appropriately dressed in suits, dresses or professional wear, tipping well, and expecting to spend a tidy sum. I feel certain if poor service was reported to the attentive Director of Food & Beverage, R. Peter Hingson, it would be handled promptly.
Recipe: Carolina Cup
- 2 oz Troy & Sons “Blonde” American Whiskey
- 2 Tbsp Local Clover Honey
- 3 Tbsp House-Made Mint Foam (recipe below)
- Fresh Mint Sprigs
Muddle mint and honey. Add whiskey and swirl in ice. Strain over a single ice cube into a Julep Cup. Add ice and top with a dollop of mint foam. Garnish wish a sprig of fresh mint.
- 8 oz pasteurized egg whites
- 3 oz Lemon Juice
- 6 oz House-Made Mint Syrup
In a large glass or metal bowl, whip egg whites until foamy. Add house-made Mint Syrup gradually and continue to whip until soft peaks form.
- 12 oz Simple Syrup
- 5 large sprigs or 7 medium sprigs of fresh mint (leaves kept on the sprigs)
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Meanwhile make an ice bath in a separate bowl. Holding the stems of the mint, plung the sprigs into boiling water for 15 seconds, immediately transfer to the ice bath for one minute. Remove from ice bath, pat dry with paper towels. Pick the leaves from the stems and blend with simple syrup on high for one minute. Fine strain and keep refrigerated.