My very British mum has called Asheville her home for the better part of the last decade. She was there before the tourists and snowbirds flocked, before the artists and buskers took over, and before the real estate prices went sky high.
Now, Asheville is pervaded with overpriced coffee shops, art galleries, and even a dreaded Urban Outfitters in the center of town. But before that, she migrated there for a peaceful community, with which she would explore its mountain trails.
There was a bar in the center of town that we used to frequent on my visits, the Flying Frog. It was a cocktail bar, and typically she knew most of the locals perched on the barstools, and so it was a fun, easy jaunt for a night out.
Since then, she left Asheville, traveled around Europe for a year, and stayed with a friend in Tampa for another two. This past month, she returned to her beloved Carolina mountain town. I headed South for a Labor Day visit and to help move her things out of storage and back into her home.
For me, a visit to Asheville is nothing but life rehab. It’s a long weekend of hiking, yoga, running, relaxing, and reading—all of the things I deeply enjoy but rarely have time for when running amok like a headless chicken around Washington.
This past weekend was no different. Although my younger brother and I spent much of the weekend moving boxes, there was still plenty of time for peace and relaxation. I lapped up every minute: I ran miles on the trails; I finished a book (and bought two more at Malaprop’s); and I spent plenty of time on mum’s porch rocking chair, admiring the Blue Ridge mountains.
For Sunday brunch, we wanted to head to Over Easy, which is easily the best and most popular brunch spot in town these days. (Lavender French toast—need I say more?) We drove into town and were immediately stuck in traffic due to the Lexington Avenue Arts Festival, which had shut down blocks of Asheville’s downtown.
The increase in foot traffic from the festival meant that the wait for a table at Over Easy was out the door, so we kept driving, and ended up in the center of town at an establishment that had once been the Flying Frog—now called Isa’s Bistro.
I was skeptical. The restaurant had a bit of a cheesy look—hanging plastic crystals and the like—and there were open tables, considering how busy downtown was. Alas, they were quick to seat us, and there was a sign for Bloody Mary flights, so we committed.
Let me tell you about these Bloody Mary flights. Essentially, it is three full Marys for $5. I’m not kidding. And the selection is amazing. Three of us at the table got the flights, so we were able to taste them all. My brother even lost his Bloody Mary virginity that day, tasting a Mary for the first time.
The selection is huge: the classic, a house-made Mary mix with vodka and pickled asparagus; the Bull, a Bloody with beef jus, nitro stout, and vodka (not my favorite); the Swine, made with ham-hock jus and vodka, with a bacon salt rim and country ham; the Champion (my fave), a super-spicy mix with vodka, ghost pepper sauce and hellfire habanero bush bitters; La Juanita Loca, a tequila Mary with cilantro and jalapeno; and finally, the Il Caprese, made with muddled basil, lemon, and oregano.
We tried them all. Our favorites were the Champion and the Swine. We loathed the Bull, which was more like a weak beer than a Bloody Mary. The $5 flight was the best Bloody deal I’ve ever experienced, as we were expecting tiny shot glasses in the flute but instead received full cocktail glasses.
The drinks took a while (there were a lot to make, of course), but the food arrived pretty quickly. I ordered the Ashley Farms fried chicken and biscuits. It was glorious: a big filet of boneless fried chicken and a farm egg, set atop a tasty biscuit and covered with chorizo gravy. On the side, a tiny salad of greens, which I barely touched.
My brother had the steak and eggs. It wasn’t a big filet, but rather thin slices of beef nicely cut and set on a flat plate with the sunny-side-up eggs and salad. It wasn’t a ton of beef, but it had a lovely crème fraiche and even though my six-foot-five brother complained that it wasn’t enough steak, with all the sides I think it added up to a nice meal. The red fennel hash was a nice touch.
Mum went for the healthy route, having just come off a 30-day hippie cleanse of some sort. (I don’t ask anymore.) She ordered the baby spinach and roasted mushroom quiche. It was a small quiche, which looked as if it was made in a cupcake tin, but was packed with goodies. She loved the side of salad even more than the main dish.
The final dish was a glorious sandwich, almost too big to finish, the shaved North Carolina turkey club. It had big strips of Benton bacon and shaved turkey. The winning grace was the miti blue cheese tarragon aioli, which added all the taste. She swore the bread had melted butter rubbed on top, it was very tasty. It had the tiniest chives on top. Even better was the red bliss potato salad, which came in a dish on the side.
For dessert, we shared the special of the day, a French toast. The toast was stuffed with apricot slices and blueberries. A cup of raspberry syrup on the side, we smothered it with the crème and sauce and all dove in.
Our server was lovely, and even replaced our ‘Bull’ Bloody Marys when we protested we didn’t like them. We ordered iced coffees galore to keep us going, and had plenty of great people-watching out the window onto the main street.
For a new restaurant, with dubious reputation (most of Asheville’s winners have lines out the door), Isa Bistro was a nice surprise. We all left completely full and satisfied.
The Bitches say: A. This could become a classic Asheville spot for brunch. We loved the Bloody Mary flights, what a steal!
1 Battery Park Ave.
Isa’s Bistro serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.