On Tapa the World

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Once upon a time, Jesse Roque was a waitress. She wanted to be a cook, but the guys in the kitchen told her that she couldn’t come in unless she had a culinary degree. “That’ll shut her up,” they thought, but they underestimated Jesse in a big way.

Fast forward 15 years. With experience in such prestigious kitchens as Miami’s Fountainbleu Hilton and the Charleston Inn (and a culinary education at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, SC), Jesse and her husband Edson are cooking up a wide-ranging culinary storm right here in Hendersonville. As Jesse puts it, “This is the culmination of my career, and the restaurant is a blueprint of all of my cooking experience.”

Never Blue is aptly named; you can’t help but smile when you walk in. Such a happy looking place, with bright orange and neon blue colors bouncing off the tin ceilings. Upbeat music, an enticing bar and original artwork complete the ambiance. “My Mom and I really wanted to create something together,” says Jesse. So, while she was pregnant with her daughter Violet, the duo renovated this large, Main Street space using old doors to build the bar, installing tin ceilings to reflect light and carpeting walls to absorb sound.

Opened in February 2008, Never Blue has focused on a tapas menu. Originating in Spain, tapas can be served as an appetizer, which provides good company to a before-dinner drink or a whole array of small plates that comprise a meal. The tapas menu at Never Blue spans the culinary world in terms of taste. You’ll find inspiration from Mexico, Spain, Greece, Italy, Cuba and Asia throughout the menu.

In addition to cooking, Jesse is a mix-master of cocktails. Inventing drinks on almost a daily basis, there are ten specialty martinis on the standard menu, with spur-of-the-moment inventions as well. Sangrias, shooters and revved up coffee drinks are also enticing.

What started as a solo visit turned into a party, as I was surprised by three young foodie friends. This turned out to be the best way to enjoy Never Blue, as we shared drinks and small plates, and lots of laughter. I ordered Jesse’s drink of the day, a “Tangerine Speedo.” Although I kept calling it an orange thong, the drink was delicious. Made of X-Rated Blood Orange liquor, vanilla vodka, and homemade tangerine sherbet, this large martini tasted like an orange popsicle, but with enough citrus tang to keep it from being too sweet.

Other favorite drinks of the night were the Teacher’s Pet, which had a red apple (vs. the usual green) twist and the Buddhaliscious, a green tea and Zen liquor delight that I’m pretty sure had medicinal benefits. At least it seemed that way at the time. Accompanying each drink was a small plastic surprise on the rim — mermaids, donkeys, etc. Although silly as a concept, they added yet another layer of frivolity to the evening.

Did we eat, you ask? We certainly did. Small plates such as hummus start at $1.50. Jesse’s goal for the tapas menu is, “Four-star dining at a no-star price.” Almost every plate can be ordered in either tapas size or entrée size. The menu is eclectic not only in ethnic varietals, but by size as well. There are 32 choices that cover the gamut of meat, chicken and seafood to salads and flat breads. Surely even the pickiest eaters can find something to ring their bell with this menu.

One of our personal favorites of the evening was the tostada, which is a crisp corn tortilla topped with tender, fall-apart pork, caramelized onions and a creamy tomatillo sauce. A squeeze of fresh lime was the perfect citrus finish. The “Chings” — one dozen Thai cashew-peanut drenched wings with a lime dipping sauce — were a unanimous favorite as well. The creamy peanut-buttery wings were truly delicious and, at less than 50 cents apiece, seemed a bargain as well.

Cocas were described to us as Spanish style flatbreads and, at $4-6 for what turns out to be the size of a small pizza, another fun treat to share. We tried “Eve’s Delight” with fig preserves, shitake mushrooms and gorgonzola, and the “Majorca” with goat cheese, basil and olive oil. The more straightforward Majorca was the favorite of the group, as it let the flatbread hold its own and the flavors of chèvre and basil shine.

Never Blue is just plain cheerful. My advice is to grab a bunch of friends you don’t mind sharing with and order a variety of drinks and dishes. I’m pretty sure that anyone in a funk to start with will be much less “blue” by the end of the evening.

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