Buried Treasure

The restaurant is distinguished by excellent steaks and prime ribs and grand-sized “small” plates.

Like any upscale-casual restaurant promoting local food culture, the Old Orchard Tavern offers a list of small plates. Except they’re not small. At all. They’re tremendous, actually, and that’s the first sign of generosity on tap at this hidden gem inside the almost-year-old, locally owned and operated Cascades Mountain Resort.

Sited over the skeleton of a defunct chain motel, the building keeps a low, almost anonymous profile. Inside, though, it boasts a vast indoor pool, a rather dramatic waterslide, big banquet rooms for seasonal parties, myriad sunken hot tubs throbbing with colored lights, an arcade, a workout room, a gift-and-fudge shop, and 100 sleekly renovated guest rooms, with 30 suites to come in January.

The idea suggests a pocket version of Great Wolf Lodge or one of the other all-inclusive indoor waterpark/hotels, but without the junk-food taint of those franchises. Instead, there’s Old Orchard Tavern, managed by Matthew Barrs with Chef Jeremy Edwards, the latter culled from the Purple Onion bistro in Saluda. (Unlike similar resorts, the restaurant is open to the general public as well as to hotel guests; it includes kids’ fare, sandwiches, and, on Sunday, an all-day brunch.)

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

The dinner menu is tight: Management seems to be dedicated to a handful of dishes done right instead of an endless array of items trying to seduce various demographics. Like the roadside motel lounge it once was, Old Orchard is still aesthetically tuned to that key: dropped ceiling, live light jazz, slippery cloth napkins, and a small bar that functions mainly as … well, a small bar. There’s no corrugated-metal siding, kitschy signage, funky string lights, or any other hipster debris conflicting with the steady focus: namely, a decent amount of local brews on tap — along with old familiars for those one or two relatives who haven’t heard of craft beer yet — and the full lineup of cocktails.

The “orchard” in the name is a clear nod to the county’s apple industry, but the local is mostly in the meat, with beef, pork, chicken, and fish coming respectively from Hickory Nut Gap Farms, Springer Mountain Farms, and Sunburst Trout Company (plus Barbary Fish Company of Cape Fear, NC, sourced for Old Orchard’s several shellfish entrées).

The 12-ounce blackened prime rib, served with the traditional horseradish cream sauce and au jus, is a tender wonder, a delight to behold and to devour — as good as or better than anything featured at Western North Carolina’s fanciest steakhouses (ahem, Sunset Terrace). The 12-ounce ribeye steak is nurtured with bacon-infused sea salt and truffle-oil mist, and the bone-in pork chop, also 12 ounces, gets farm-to-table-y in its topping: a sumac- and cayenne-infused honey-apple slaw.

One of the more original entrées is an “Augusta Style” roasted game hen brined in craft pale ale and served with homemade pimento cheese and cider-cured bacon. The al-dente side veggies emote a smoky-buttery top note, and the mashed potatoes are dense and garlicky.

Photo by Matt Rose

Back to those not-so-small plates, though. The queen of the appetizers is a fried-green-tomato/Caprese-salad combo arrayed on a rectangular dish as long as a server’s arm. Balsamic vinegar is drizzled over the basil, fresh mozzarella balls, and all the tomatoes (red and green): the whole thing is texturally on point and plated in abundance. The house-fried potato chips are another “small plate” juggernaut, ideal for sharing poolside, though they could have used a dipping sauce (maybe mustard BBQ or something in that mode). Promising choices for a future visit include the smoked rainbow-trout dip and homemade pork rinds.

The one dessert that night, cut in almost absurdly large slabs, was described only as “dark chocolate cake.” (Refreshingly, it didn’t bear some embarrassing title, like, say, “The Devil’s Seven-Layered Trophy Case.”) But it didn’t taste as fresh as the rest of the meal. A few simple offerings, maybe a house dessert with apples, would better live up to the rest of the menu — although it’s hard to argue with the portion size in a restaurant so overflowing with promise.

The Old Orchard Tavern (201 Sugarloaf Road, Suite 1, Hendersonville, at Cascades Mountain Resort) is open for lunch and dinner 11am-9pm Tuesday through Thursday and 11am-10pm Friday and Saturday. Brunch is served 11am-8pm on Sunday. Closed Monday. E-mail oldorchardtavern@cascadesmountainresort.com or call 828-595-8157 for more information.

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