The boxy neoclassical hotel holding down the corner of Third Avenue and Church Street has a chin-out look, like it’s never going to budge. Historians often comment that the exterior has scarcely been altered; however, over the building’s almost 100-year history, a bunch of entrepreneurs have burrowed past the stolid exterior to tinker with the venue’s identity.
Most recently called the Inn on Church, the hotel got rechristened The Henderson last fall by its new owners, Jeanne and Michael Gilligan. After sprucing up most of the rooms and modernizing some key hospitality points— it’s now a pet-friendly establishment and geared more toward families — the Gilligans transformed the public in-house restaurant, installing a new kitchen and renovating the bar, lobby, and dining area.
Named after the classic James Stewart movie Harvey, about a man who owes his quality of life to the oversized imaginary rabbit of the film’s title, Harvey’s Restaurant & Lounge inside The Henderson is an anachronistically modern little bistro. As engineered by Michael Gilligan, a decorated executive chef who’s run Ritz-Carlton and Michelin-starred restaurants, the menu is a high-end scroll of small plates, served tapas-style but not confined to Mediterranean cuisine.
Instead, the offerings are a mix of au courant expectations (Angus-beef sliders and pork belly), French classics (escargot and crème brulée), elevated pub grub (Scotch eggs), and quite a lot more. The visual star is the Caprese salad, which recalls a Mondrian painting. Dark lines of a savory vinaigrette form a tic-tac-toe grid, with the salad’s ingredients — teardrop tomatoes, mozzarella, cilantro replacing the more common basil — rescued from tossed anonymity and arranged solo inside the squares, like delicate relics in a natural-history museum. It’s a trophy salad, and exquisitely pretty, the kind of artistry that makes the cover of foodie magazines.
Offering it as a dish to share is creaking the small-plate concept to its limit, though. Freed of its fancy trappings, the entire “salad” comprises a single large bite. Don’t start your meal with this masterpiece if you’re feeling food-aggressive from an empty stomach, or you might find yourself in a fork fight with your dining companion. The shrimp ceviche also clocks in a little shy of a true “plate to share,” but the rebellious inclusion of sweet potato in this traditional Latin American dish is a witty touch. (A hunk of gratis rustic bread or an olive-and-pickle spread would be a good way to fill out any small-plate scarcities.)
The delicious wild-mushroom-and-truffle empanadas are more generously plated. Served with cauliflower sauce, they’re simply executed and toothsome to the core. The Scotch eggs score another 100. Gilligan uses quail eggs for this fantastic version of a UK comfort dish where the main ingredient is hardboiled, cradled with sausage, and deep fried.
The cuisine throughout is strongly European, although local touches such as Carolina chow-chow and seasonal fruit pie also make the menu. Harvey’s cheese-and-charcuterie plate is abundant and worldly, featuring, among many fine selections, sharp Irish cheddar and black-peppered salami, plus fig jam, everything emoting an across-the-pond flair. The house cake is made with coveted French Valrhona chocolate.
In addition to the small-plate dinners, the restaurant serves up a public Sunday brunch, and here the Gilligans go big, mixing no less than 11 artisanal cocktails, all of them variations on mimosas and Bloody Marys. The food is a rich queue of favorites spanning trendy avocado toast to crab cakes Benedict with chipotle Hollandaise. There’s Scottish smoked salmon, there’s Belgian waffles with Nutella, there’s steak and eggs punched up with a pork-belly potato hash. For light appetites, there’s a demure seasonal fruit plate with non-fat yogurt. The syrup for the blueberry pancakes is made in house and infused with vanilla.
Obviously, Gilligan has included every possible taste on his brunch menu, though he notes, “[it’s] all a la carte, not buffet. After Royal Caribbean, I don’t want to see another buffet again!” This is a chef who’s been set free to spin out his influences in his own good time, with no one looking over his shoulder except that eponymous, inescapable rabbit, pushing the power of imagination down to the tiniest gesture.
Harvey’s Restaurant & Lounge at The Henderson, 201 3rd Ave. West, Hendersonville. Open 5-9pm Thursday through Saturday and for Sunday brunch from 10:30am-2:30pm. For more information, call 828-696-2001, 828-696-2601, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or see thehendersonnc.com.