A Helping of Hope

Photo by Tim Robison

Photo by Tim Robison

High-concept restaurants usually entail trendy themes, haughty architecture, small-plate entrées the size of badminton cocks, or some combination thereof. The idea behind Dandelion, though, is rather more grounded. Even our region’s zeal for earthy produce and hand-mortared grits can’t compare.

Recently opened in downtown Hendersonville, the airy, immaculate eatery is an outreach program of Mainstay Inc., which provides services to families affected by domestic violence. The shelter’s women residents will work as interns in both the front and back of house, training in cooking, serving, and catering, with the hope that they’ll eventually transition meaningfully into the workplace at large.

If hope is the main ingredient here, it is borne out beautifully in the restaurant’s motif. A dandelion sprouts in even the most adverse conditions, is the idea, and the stylish interpretation of the mighty weed by Alexis Deal (Circolo Art & Design) appears in several wall murals, just realistic enough to identify but owing plenty to imagination and, on one wall, an almost fresco-like execution. Spare and light, the colors in Deal’s work, seconded in the overall décor, run to slate, mustard, cream, and a soft, olive-y black.

The restaurant’s tall front windows embrace a wash of sun. Other light touches include sculptural dandelion chandeliers and clever yarn dandelion bouquets. Frankly, it feels great in here.

On the day I visited, the restaurant already seemed to be benefiting from considerable word-of-mouth. Many groups of women friends, and a couple of young families, were happily noshing and chatting. I overheard a well-known downtown business owner telling the restaurant’s director, Robyn Painter, how eagerly she’d been spreading the word.

The two young women working the front of house that day had already mastered a great counter-side manner: helpful, sweet, and authentically friendly without a speck of pushy. It was a balm to the soul, a sea change from the frosty attitude one tends to find in some hip local restaurants that can’t claim a fraction of Dandelion’s aesthetic charm.

In an apparent rush to open, though, management has neglected a few key logistical points that would relieve the staff from having to deliver a lot of apologetic “I don’t knows.” The menu-to-be is printed to go, but without prices written on it, and it was unclear that the delicious-sounding sandwiches and sides listed there — including chipotle-barbecue-chicken and jerk-tofu burritos, truffled-white-bean-with-roasted-garlic and carmelized-onion-and-shallot dips, and fingerling-potato and Asian peanut-noodle salads — wouldn’t be offered till a future date.

Some brief signage would alleviate this confusion.Or even two little words: “coming soon.”

For now, what’s available is written on two blackboards. For breakfast (served only until 10am, a fact which also begs a sign), there are a variety of inventive frittatas and a loaded oatmeal bowl. Lunch that day included two wraps with a choice of homemade hummus with veggies or chicken in Caesar dressing, curried chicken salad on a bed of greens, and smoked pimento cheese on a crusty homebaked roll.

The pimento cheese, a house specialty, was rich, sharp, and delightful …a true keeper. The curry was also done well, although to appeal to mainstream tastes, the restaurant needs to be using more white meat in all of its chicken recipes. (I had a few bites that were on the gamey side.)

A watermelon-and-feta side salad was light and appealing, and the baked goods, sourced locally, are as good as the restaurant’s Facebook promo page promises. One particular delight was a double-decker cupcake, the smaller tier sunk fetchingly into the base cupcake, and proof that, as culinary trends go, the cupcake’s long moment in the sun still holds some glow.

A couple weeks after my initial visit, I stopped back in and was pleased to find that a burrito and a quiche du jour had made it onto the chalkboard menu, along with the promised sides. The BBQ chipotle burrito, paired with rice and beans and pico, was quite nice, with a creamy queso that kept the rice from being too dry. The spice level was noticeable but not even close to obnoxious. A sweet, fresh caprese salad (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette) and the Asian peanut-noodle salad were also available, the latter pleasingly rich and scattered with red peppers and pea shoots.

Already, Dandelion is living up to its promise.

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