Plancha seared cauliflower glazed with fall seed pesto and served with stout brined, wood-roasted onion cassoulet and Lusty Monk and Busy Bee roasted Brussels sprouts are among the standout dishes at Rhubarb.
An obelisque serves little purpose other than as a landmark, many erected well ahead of a need for such a landmark, as city planners attempt placemaking by making a place seemingly important with strategically monumental monuments. Yet others age past their use, marking a place that no longer exists in the collective conscious.
The Vance Monument in downtown Asheville, N.C., erected in 1897, has stood, strong as the granite blocks from which its made, as a memorial to Zebulon Baird Vance, a U.S. congressman who twice was elected North Carolina’s governor during the Civil War. Vance is reputed to have done more in support of religious freedom, particularly in relation to the Jewish faith, than any other American statesman. The monument that bears his name at the crest of downtown Asheville’s well-traveled Biltmore Avenue is thus a monument to our nation’s founding fathers and our most crucial rights as citizens.
It’s also now a monument to Brussels sprouts and cauliflower—at least to me, anyway. These two maligned, misunderstood members of the Brassica oleracea family long have drawn ire, provoking even those of us who eat our green peppers raw and our okra stewed to turn up our noses and push our plates away. However, at John Fleer’s newest restaurant, Rhubarb, the chef celebrates these humble winter vegetables and thus has made a believer out of me.
Let me be abundantly clear—I do not like cauliflower, and, at best, I’d come to tolerate Brussels sprouts. It’s not my mother’s fault. Cauliflower or Brussels sprouts never were served dried out or cooked until it squooshed. My father, eldest son to Polish-Czech parents living on Chicago’s South Side, was vegetable adverse, prone to choosing potatoes in any form, so cauliflower and Brussels sprouts simply never were in our house. I’ve been waiting for Brassica like these.
Halved and roasted such that tender outer leaves give way to a satisfying crunch, Fleer’s Brussels sprouts are cast like a handful of gems across a bed of hearty lentils and onion cassoulet, in which a single, crown of cauliflower, seared and caramelized to tenderness is nestled. Though the flavors are multi-layered, the vegetarian dish (vegan without the cassoulet) remains unfussy and honest.
Much of Rhubarb’s menu is this way—simple ideas that are well executed with quality ingredients. Diners will find products incorporated from some of region’s most recognizable names such as Alan Benton, Sunburst Trout, Lusty Monk Mustard, and Looking Glass Dairy, while other purveyors operate under the “local” label. The menu changes “based on product availability and the whim of the chefs.” Welcoming in the new year were starters including wood-fired broccolini and a Berber pie of Benton’s Prosciutto and local fig-rhubarb jam; entrees of tile fish with marrow beans and braised pork osso bucco; and desserts of a rustic apple, walnut pastry with oat crumble and fanciful turn on a creamsicle served atop tiny slices of grilled poundcake.
Fleer, raised in Winston-Salem, N.C., was a religion and philosophy major at Duke University, studying abroad in Venice when Europe’s “culture of food” awoke in him. He began working in kitchens to put himself through graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. However, it was to the Culinary Institute of America that Fleer ultimately was called.
Today, the James Beard Foundation has named Fleer one of the “rising stars of the 21st Century,” and he’s thrice been a finalist for the foundation’s “Best Chef in the South” award.
In spite of the culinary awards Fleer has collected, Rhubarb remains accessible. Rhubarb welcomes diners to Family Meal—a three-course dinner served at three eight-top tables at a cost of $13-$15 per person. The idea is that all 24 diners will not know one another at the start of the meal, but that by the end they will have connected, experienced something unique, and had something wonderful to eat. The last Family Meal of 2013 featured Cruze Buttermilk and Cornbread Soup, Country Captain Chicken Over Anson Mills Grits, and Pastry Chef Ashley Capps’ family favorite peanut butter crunch bars.
Rhubarb is open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 7 Southwest Pack Square in downtown Asheville. For reservations or more information, visit rhubarbasheville.com or call 828.785.1503.