From $100 caviar service to sea-salted fries, the Bull and Beggar is rich for the palate and rich in options. Created by former culinary stars from The Admiral and Table, this reservations-recommended bistro in Asheville’s River Arts District serves a quirky mix of seafood, French, and classic Southern fare.
Nodding to the latter tradition, most foodie destinations in Asheville turn out something fried these days — and the Bull and Beggar’s crisp, deep-gold hushpuppies with whipped maple butter prompted this comment from my dining companion, a woman who regularly vacations in Iceland, France, and other desirable destinations: “They’ll go down in history for me.”
Flavors of the South also slink into less expected places on the menu: Grits take on a French accent when paired with the slow-cooked Poulet Rouge (chicken with red wine); salt pork flavors the duck-confit Cassoulet.
The Bull and Beggar pushes the cross-species thing to a level not seen since that viral YouTube video that showed a kitten raised by a crow. Neither of those creatures shows up on the table, thank goodness — though it’s fun to think what the chefs here might do with the four-and-twenty blackbirds of the nursery rhyme. Bake them in a pie, for sure. Perhaps with fried green tomatoes?
The restaurant’s signature is an impressive spread of charcuterie. Charred octopus, braised pigeon, raw venison, pig head, and veal brains show up in the small plates alone; a separate “meat & cheese” selection features rabbit rillettes, chicken-liver mousse, pickled pig’s tongue, and potted hough (beef shin), among other delicacies.
We started with the octopus, dressed with a Romesco sauce that my companion said brought happy tears to her eyes. It was spicy and nutty, a passionately savory experience that swam just right with the spongy texture of the mollusk and the al dente lima beans.
The rabbit rillettes, a kind of paté, was sneakily heavy. After a few greedy bites, I spread it more slowly with the accompanying piccalilli (a zesty relish) onto the crisp ovals of crostini. It’s less a starter dish than a start-to-finish dish. Don’t rush it. Think tortoise, not hare.
Side items are listed under the bluntly elegant “Produce.” We got the plate of four, choosing a salad of winter greens, sautéed broccolini, and a decadent potatoes-and-mushrooms pairing seared in bacon fat (plus the hushpuppies). The broccolini was laced with a piquant chili-anchovy butter, and it was hard for the simple winter salad, topped only with sea salt and vinaigrette, to compete. It came off bland by comparison, hardly a surprise in a sea of fare this rich.
On that nautical note, the Bull and Beggar — apparently trying to present everything on hoof, wing, and fin — offers an ambitious array of high-end seafood, including caviar, PEI mussels, and oysters and clams on the half shell. We tried the lobster roll on brioche with roasted chili and found it fresh and satisfying, if a little skimpy.
But the idea of so much seafood so far from the sea veers toward overkill. We watched a couple next to us attack an $85 double-tiered platter, wondering how they could enjoy peeling and eating cold shrimp in single-digit temperatures.
For our own main dish we stuck to native mountain fish; i.e., WNC rainbow trout, one of the four surprisingly standard entrées (the Cassoulet, Poulet Rouge, and a filet mignon being the others). For a not-small-plate, the butter-poached portion of trout was on the petite side, though not objectionably so. Shacking up with grilled radicchio and Cipolline onion, it sat on top of a delightful root-vegetable mash that ought to find a permanent spot in the “Produce” lineup.
Other Bull and Beggar high points include a list of creative house cocktails and a much-raved-about brunch. We sampled the not-too-sweet goat-milk ice cream for dessert but saved our groans for the darkly fantastic ginger-butterscotch pudding, a real masterpiece.
Several servers visited us throughout the evening, which became a little bewildering, although each one was excellent. The décor is industrial-arty, with hard chairs, cavernous ceilings, and exposed painted pipes. I don’t think this brand of stylishness is headed out to sea anytime soon, though I’ll still complain about the inevitable noise level: a din so relentless it requires you to shout at your friend who’s sitting only three trout lengths in front of you.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to go wrong with a business in the River Arts District. One has to pass the always-packed Wedge brewery and dodge cornhole players and a busy food truck to find the Bull and Beggar. A deck invites views of the railroad tracks and neighboring art-filled warehouses.
In a clever though vaguely offensive move, the restaurant snitches its name from a couple of old-time freighthopping terms: The bull is the railroad cop, the beggar the vagabond in the boxcar. It’s hard to imagine Depression-era hobos dining on rabbit rillettes, much less the visceral fringe culture of homeless youth who still hop trains. So eat with gusto — because the cold Ploughman’s Lunch is $35, and it sure doesn’t come with a red bandana.
The Bull and Beggar
37 Paynes Way, Suite 7
Open for dinner and drinks Tuesday through Saturday, Sunday for brunch and dinner