Fork in the Road

Asheville’s Eclectic Admiral

Part blue collar, part white tablecloth, the Admiral is in a class of its own

Photo: Cheryl Zibisky

It used to be a third-shift bar. “NASCAR, pull tabs, and PBRs,” bartender Don Everhart told me when I asked about the roots of the Admiral, a concrete block restaurant serving centrifuge-cooked farm eggs and local-ish riffs on gastropub fare on the rapidly gentrifying fringe of Asheville, North Carolina. “It was that sort of place.”

Those days are over. Gone are the mills. Gone are the mill workers who, after laboring through the night, retired to the bar to watch television and savor breakfasts of longneck beers and fried eggs. Vestiges of West Asheville’s past are still present. Used car lots. Tire stores. But the neighborhood is now a haven for coffee shops and other hangouts for the hip and crunchy, like Digable Pizza, the Appalachia School of Holistic Herbalism, and the Organic Mechanic.

The Admiral is a bit more slouchy than crunchy. It’s hip, too, but not in a way that’s unwelcoming. Line cooks, working the galley kitchen, sport tattoos and wear porkpie hats. Regulars, in plaid shirts and skullcaps, take seats at the black laminate bar to listen to the Rolling Stones thud through the speakers while drinking white wine and devouring plates of fried frog legs, served buffalo wing style. Pilgrims, from already gentrified corners of wherever, arrive early to ogle the netherworld interior, lit by neon beer signs and bordello-red table lamps.

The service is curt, smart, and pleasantly off-kilter. Waitresses sass and smile. Bartenders toss off witty bons mots. When I fumbled through the list, trying to figure out what wine might go best with my shrimp succotash–garnished quail, Everhart stopped me and offered, “Something red and appropriate?” And then he poured me a perfectly pitched zinfandel that tasted of black cherries and graphite.

The young cooks here, led by Elliott Moss, are accomplished. A small plate of swordfish, caught off the South Carolina coast, arrived atop a fluffy hump of whipped potatoes and creamed codfish. The fish was sweet. The brandade smelled of salt marsh and leather. The duo sang.

Those cooks are even good when they’re not cooking. Take their beef tenderloin tartare, piled high to form a kind of meat fez. Laced in the traditional manner, with cornichons and capers, topped with a quail egg, it tasted clean and bright, especially with the accompanying Sriracha aioli.

All that said, the cooking (as well as the not-cooking) can also be a little impudent, which is not surprising in a restaurant that is both a dive and a cuisiniers citadel. How else can I explain those slices of cheddar cheese stacked alongside the fez? Were the chefs making a cheeseburger joke? I’m not sure. But when I combined the two, no Roman candles shot heavenward. Instead, I tasted something like a smirk.

I’m not saying I really minded the smirk. It telegraphed attitude. And verve. And style. By my reckoning, the Admiral has that troika out the wazoo. That’s a good thing.
Too often, young restaurants take the safe course. They surf trends. They operate concepts, instead of restaurants. At the Admiral, the temerity of youth served me well.

That attitude rescued a chicken breast entrée—always a dullard in my book—by way of a perch of foie gras dirty rice and a sauce made with local favorite Lusty Monk mustard. That verve got me a bullet of smoked marinara to go with my skin-on fillet of dotted lane snapper. That style got me plotting a return trip.


Three of Asheville’s other eclectic best

Katie Button has cooked with the superstars of modern Spanish cuisine. At her downtown restaurant, she renders faithful tapas standards like fried eggplant, drizzled with honey and rosemary.

Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack
Inspired by Prince’s in Nashville, Rocky Lindsley adds custardy corn pudding and gooey Coca-Cola cake to his roster of cayenne-sluiced fried chicken.

White Duck Taco Shop
Place your order at the counter, retire to the sun-splashed patio, and prepare for a better brand of fusion, like roasted duck tacos with mole sauce or Bangkok shrimp tacos.