When John Fleer, the legendary chef who shone a light on Appalachian foodways and ingredients at Blackberry Farm, silently slipped off the grid, the food world waited, forks at the ready. After several years with seasonal projects in Cashiers, North Carolina, he re-emerged late last fall with Rhubarb in Asheville. This forward-thinking mountain town sits at the crossroads of Appalachian culture and is perfectly suited for John’s brand of Southern.
Touchstones of his legacy (Benton’s bacon, Sunburst trout) are certainly on the menu. But Rhubarb is no history lesson. In this barnlike bistro, he digs deep into the traditions of the region, adds the influence of his travels, and highlights the local larder. As a result, the dishes reflect his big-picture approach to Southern food.
Benton’s bacon shows up in a bowl of mussels, smoky and rich in a silken celery-fennel broth. The roasted whole trout bathes in wood smoke before joining a crisp potato-celeriac latke. The Lamb Merguez meatballs hunker in polenta with preserved lemon and tomato. The addictive brown sugar-and-benne seed popcorn expertly melds sugar and salt.
At Blackberry, John put Southern foodstuffs on the map. At Rhubarb, he’s showing just how far he can stretch them.
RESERVATIONS: Recommended. COST: Apps, $3-$14; Mains, $19-$28. ADDRESS: 7 SW. Pack Square; rhubarbasheville.com