Because their stated theme is “approachable French,” restaurateurs Janna and Chuck Watson probably couldn’t help naming their new restaurant after Western North Carolina’s famous river. If they ever worried about potential clientele getting The French Broad (subtitled “A Kitchen & Wine Bar”) confused with other high-profile regional businesses using that name — the chocolate lounge, the brewery, the electricity co-op, etc. — they can now rest easy.
So far, the restaurant has proved madly popular, rising in local esteem as fast as the river itself rose last year, closing out 2018 with an epic bout of flooding. In fact, trying to reserve a spot at The French Broad in late December was like trying to find a room at the proverbial inn (forgive the metaphor switch). New Year’s Day dinner, however, proved a leisurely affair.
Happily, January 1 fell on a Tuesday: Bouillabaisse Day. That’s when house chef Arienne “Air” Casebier — who spent ten years in Charleston cooking at foodie enclaves FIG and Husk and running a farm-to-table catering business — wields her coastal connections to bring in fresh seafood. Starting in mid January, the traditional fish stew was added to the daily menu.
She came back to the mountains because she was “ready for a change,” says Casebier, who grew up in East Tennessee. “Asheville is already saturated with exceptional restaurants, so I never even considered it. Hendersonville is so charming — I fell in love on my first visit.”
“It’s an exciting time for Hendersonville,” says Janna, and Chuck adds, “I’ve seen other small cities boom as arts, entertainment, and dining options have expanded.” The Watsons renovated the former Lime Leaf Thai Fusion, an unusual space where the open second story looks over Main Street, as well as commanding a view of all the action on the first floor. Here, the Watsons have installed a 30-foot-long, marble-topped community table in true European style. A nearby chalkboard, festooned with fleur-de-lis, lists seasonal drink specials and the plat du jour.
The décor is a feat of real sophistication. While it does show a combination of elements, the look is not the studied high-low vibe of hipster bistros. There are white tablecloths, but also exposed steel trussing, painted red. Black-and-white movie stills on frameless canvases line the walls, and metal sculptures of hot-air balloons hang from the ceiling, looking at once steampunk and fin-de-siècle glamorous. It all works.
“Chuck and I attended countless estate sales and traveled to antique shops throughout Western North Carolina and parts of South Carolina,” says Janna. “We hand selected every item.”
In the kitchen, Casebier is also doing it her way, using hand-selected ingredients to create a menu where all the usual suspects (escargot, French Onion soup, shrimp croquettes) appear, but with an openhearted, accessible twist. “Liver & Onions” is a delicate chicken-liver mousse with cipollini-onion marmalade, and the Charcuterie plate features locally sourced chorizo, ham, and pickles.
The French Broad’s drink menu is ultra stylish, curated with a distinct sense of whimsy. Some of today’s most memorable craft-beer names — a glass of “Birds Fly South You & I,” anyone? — top the list, and the mixed drinks include a whole team of inventive Mules, not just the ubiquitous Moscow Mule. One house cocktail, “The Last Word,” is comprised of gin, the ancient French liqueur Green Chartreuse, and Amarena cherries with lime sour. It proved to be the smoothest drink in recent memory.
Among the entrées were the expected NC rainbow trout, here pan seared with braised leeks and savoy cabbage; a brick-pressed half chicken with seasonal Brussels sprouts; a “Grilled Heritage Pork Ribeye” with forest mushrooms, butternut-squash purée, and charred broccolini; and a trophy-worthy Steak Frites, the beef an unfailingly tender hanger cut and the potatoes done in the classic shoestring style. A Farm Market entrée, ostensibly offered for vegetarians, doubled as a sampler of all that night’s sides. Traditional Hoppin’ John for the holiday, grilled Brussels, an exhilarating roasted cauliflower with whipped feta and salsa verde, and several other veggies filled the plate. There wasn’t a weak link among them.
The Plat du Jour was the aforementioned Bouillabaisse, the mild broth populated with cod, clams, mussels, and shrimp and served with a saffron-lobster aioli. The dish was confident but down to earth — and that same vibe can be applied to the service, too.
It seems to be a top-down attitude. “I’m not trying to make history,” notes Casebier. “At the end of the day, [it’s about] making comforting food that brings our customers a sense of joy.”
Cue the dessert offerings, which naturally included crème brûlée and a fancy version of chocolate cake. But the transcendent butternut-squash panna cotta, whose texture registered somewhere between a flan and a soufflé, won for creativity. Leave it to Casebier, a celebrated patron of local growers and makers wherever she goes, to incorporate seasonal vegetables even in the sweet stuff.
The French Broad’s winter debut went so well, it’s no wonder she’s looking forward to spring.
“The growing season is very different here [than in Charleston],” says Casebier. “So I’m excited about using different fruits and vegetables.”
The French Broad, A Kitchen & Wine Bar, 342 North Main St., Hendersonville. Open 11am-3pm Monday through Thursday for lunch, 5-10pm for dinner; 11am-3pm Friday for lunch, 5pm-12am for dinner; 11am-12am on Saturday; and 11am-3pm for Sunday brunch. For more information, see the Facebook page, or visit thefrenchbroad.net, or call 828-595-9797.