Review: Nightbell rings true with its imaginative menu, well-crafted cocktails, and exemplary service
By Tim Rutherford
ASHEVILLE, NC -- When Curate opened in 2011 it set the pace in Asheville and across the region with its artful design, one-of-a-kind menu and exemplary attention to detail. The Spanish-themed menu was borne of Chef Katie Button’s ingenuity and her amazing repertoire of dishes. Curate was the shot that newly formed Heirloom Hospitality Group fired to signal its devotion to standard-setting food and drink experiences.
When Nightbell opened in 2014 the small plates that had distinguished Curate anchored the new restaurant’s strategy. Nightbell takes the tapas approach and artfully weaves in a pantry rich with indigenous foods: Local cheeses, pasture-raised poultry and beef and locally-brewed craft beer find flavor packed niches on the cleverly designed menu.
The simple, single sheet menu taunts guests with plates designed to share, single bite offerings perfect to explore and more traditional entrée-sized small plates. Casual, well-paced service means food steadily streams to the table while diners savor each delectable bite.
My party shared a regionally-sourced cheese plate featuring bites of blue cheese, cheddar, goat cheese and brie. The cheddar – Chocolate Lab from Fairview, NC-based Looking Glass Creamery – was our overall favorite on the plate. My less cheese-inclined friends graciously left the blue for me to savor all by myself. House baked crackers, sweet honeycomb and a juicy bowl of pickled berries rounded out the nicely proportioned plate.
There were two bites that I had to sample. The Wicked Oyster foundation is a nicely briny and chilled raw oyster topped with “snow” crafted from brewer Wicked Weed’s Lunatic Blonde beer. A bright shot of lemon and a hint of cilantro packed this creation with flavor. One was just enough, it was so richly flavored I think another would have sent my taste buds into overload.
The French may have perfected the paper-thin, crisp dough known as Feuille de Brick, but Chef Katie has mastered its use as a delivery vehicle. A fragile little cone was just perfect for three bites of dry-aged apple brandy beef tartare topped with smoked horseradish “whipped cream.” I was all set to move into a larger plate until I spied the “deviled egg” chosen by one of my party. Pretty soon, I had one of my own.
The brown egg shell cup is filled with delicate sweet corn sabayon, a colorful sprinkle of pimenton and a flavorful hint of smoked Sunburst trout gravlax. I dug to the egg shell’s bottom and brought up a spoonful goodness, the endeavor rewarded with flavors that were at once garden fresh and smoky satisfying. The sabayon was executed perfectly: light, creamy and fresh.
Service was impeccable. Water glasses were topped off frequently, empty cocktails were noted and other beverages offered. Spent plates were cleared, flatware replaced and answers always, always at the ready. The service team truly knows this menu and enhances the kitchen’s imaginative skills with a passion for pleasing guests.
For my last dish, I dipped into the “small plates” menu for a delicate crispy waffle accompanied by duck confit poutine. Chef’s take on this dish substituted delicate cheddar mousse for more traditional cheese curds. Bravo for the interpretation! The duck confit was both plentiful and deliciously tender atop a hot bed of hand cut frites. My enthusiasm for the dish caught the eye of a another diner who quickly ordered the same dish.
We each enjoyed a before dinner cocktail, another of Nightbell’s hallmark features. There are some excellent reinterpretations of classic cocktails and some inventive new creations from Nightbell’s bartenders and mixologists. I did raise a question about the wine list, which is compact, beautifully paired to the menu and pleasingly priced. I noticed that no varietals were listed – just label names and tasting notes.
Our server explained that the beverage director Felix Meana wants guests to explore the wines rather than be swayed by devotion to varietals. The strategy takes guts in a market where diners are more partial to varietals than really thinking about how flavors go together. My server was able to tell me the varietal of the wine I ordered – an earthy French Grenache. I wanted to know out of curiosity; the tasting note sold me on the selection even before I knew its grape variety.
In all, we were ecstatic about the experience. Food and beverage, service and atmosphere surpassed our expectations. An added surprise were menu prices, ranging from $3 on the individual bites menu to a high of $18 for small plates selections. I will be back often and look forward to arriving early for a visit to the cozy and inviting cocktail lounge before dinner.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Asheville and dozens of remarkable dining choices. Chef Katie Button’s playful and fastidiously executed dishes firmly lands Nightbell among the best of those choices.
32 South Lexington Ave.
Asheville, NC 28801
Hours: Open at 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Tim Rutherford produces HunrgyMansGuide.com. He is a freelance writer, photographer, social media content producer and marketing campaign developer. Send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.