A Foodie Tour of the South...Part 1.

When my wife and I planned our trip to Asheville and Savannah, it became clear to us pretty early on that dining was going to be the focal point of the vacation. Granted, it's pretty much the focal point anytime we go out of town, but it was to an even higher degree on this trip given the wide array of award winning restaurants in both cities. I'm not exactly a "fly by the seat of my pants" sort of guy when it comes to dining on vacation. While many are perfectly comfortable just showing up to some place once they arrive, I prefer to know what I'm getting into before I get there. Needless to say, I spent many hours in the months leading up to our departure planning exactly where and when we would dine. That investment of time paid dividends many times over...

The first, and pretty much only, rule I made when selecting restaurants was pretty simple: If it wasn't ranked in the top 25 on TripAdvisor, then we wouldn't be dining there....period.. (Perhaps I should have made this rule for hotel selection in Savannah also, but I digress). It's been my experience that for the most part these reviews don't lie, and while they may miss some hole in the wall places fit for Guy Fieri, they could be trusted to point us in the right direction.

For our first evening, I selected Rezaz Mediterranean Grill, which was conveniently located right across the street from our hotel, The Grand Bohemian. I selected this restaurant because I found their four-course menu (excluding dessert) intriguing, plus they got rave reviews on TripAdvisor, earning a #8 ranking. However, the first monkey wrench in my plans arose, as we arrived during a huge snowstorm which had shut down most of the city. As a result, most of the restaurants in the area were not able to open due to staff being unable to get to work, and sadly Rezaz never opened that day. Given that we had no other suitable options, we elected to dine at the hotel restaurant, Red Stag Grill.

While dining at our hotel restaurant was certainly an option in the planning stages, it didn't make the cut for various reasons. First and foremost, they were ranked #60 on TripAdvisor...not even close to the standards I had put in place. In addition, over the last several years the menus at the Kessler Collection restaurants seem to have all become the same. They all have Kessler Calamari, a crab cake, the wedge salad, and the "Kessler Chophouse" menu. Choices of dishes unique to the area seem to be lacking, and I didn't want to dine somewhere that I felt I could have anytime at home. But alas, we were left with no choice, so Red Stag Grill it was...

Over the years of dining in the Orlando location, I had tried the vast majority of what was on the menu, so I opted for a few dishes that were unique to Red Stag. First, we split an appetizer of fried green tomatoes. Since my liberal palette is a fairly new character trait, this was my first experience with these little slices of heaven. I was quite certain I was halfway to Nirvana after my share of this dish, and it was to be just the first of several servings of fried green tomatoes during the trip. For my main, I opted for the elk tenderloin with truffle mashed potatoes. This also was a great dish, and I found the leanness of the elk really enjoyable. Of course, anytime I can get truffle anything, I'm sure to be a happy camper also. Overall, it was a great meal, however it is a bit lost in the shuffle of memories of the meals that followed...

The next evening I had planned for us to head to downtown Asheville to Zambra Tapas Bar. There was quite a bit of snow still on the ground, however, and most of the taxi services were not running. Thankfully the hotel knew of a car service that could take us downtown, and most importantly, bring us back. We headed to downtown early and first made a stop at the Battery Park Book Exchange. I had read about this place on TripAdvisor, and it was one of the highlights of the Asheville portion of our trip. Part used book store, part wine and champagne bar, Battery Park was the perfect place to enjoy being out of the hotel before dinner. We opted for a bottle of Cava and a cheese tray to get us in the right frame of mind before dinner. After, we visited their basement where all of their books were 50% off. I found a first edition copy of President Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," and figured for $7 it was the perfect souvenir for me from the trip.
After our awesome before-dinner snack, we trudged our way through the snow covered streets of downtown Asheville over to Zambra. The first thing that struck me about this restaurant was that it was actually underground. In addition, what drew me to Zambra in the first place was that their tapas menu changed on a nightly basis.

Having worked our way through a bottle of Cava already, we opted for a pitcher of sangria as opposed to a bottle of wine with dinner. This proved to be a great decision, as the tapas we were about to enjoy were anything but suited for one kind of wine. First there was peekytoe crab salad, next were the scallops, then the mahi mahi, then the duck confit, followed by beef tenderloin medallions, and topped off with coffee flavored flan for dessert. Needless to say, it was a great adventure.

While it was probably the most casual dinner we had on our vacation, this was what set Zambra apart from our other stops and helped it to stand out in my mind. The food and atmosphere at Zambra certainly belied their #14 ranking on TripAdvisor, which was the lowest of the six restaurants I selected in advance. It was a great experience, and certainly made me wish there was a similar concept in our hometown, or at least nearby.

With two nights down on our trip, there were still four fantastic dinners that lay ahead. I wasn't sure how the next night would top what we just experienced at Battery Park and Zambra, but I was certainly ready to find out. Given that our next stop had recently played host to POTUS, I knew we were in good hands......

In case you're wondering, that's President of the United States.

~Insert Dude-like Closing Here~

Red Stag Grill on Urbanspoon
Zambra on Urbanspoon

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