Winner’s Circle

Tucked into a long escarpment right before the hills of North Carolina give way to upstate S.C., the town of Tryon is curious. Lush and tricky. A mystery.

It’s where soul icon Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon, in a tiny house that was supposed to be enshrined as a heritage museum and complemented by a Tryon jazz festival. The sagging home remains for sale, the festival stalled. Both are haunted by controversy, as were Simone’s life and career.

Tryon is where the wealthy equestrian set indulges their passion, culminating in the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club’s annual Blockhouse Steeplechase. The race commands $5,000 viewing spots at its creamiest level.

The town is the unlikely home of Upstairs Artspace, a gallery that often defeats Asheville by offering Western North Carolina’s most cutting-edge art exhibits. And Tryon now has its own part-time celebrity resident, former Warhol muse and actress Patti D’Arbanville (My So-Called Life, The Sopranos), who graced the cover of Bold Life’s sister publication, VERVE, last June.

Into this milieu, the Lavender Bistro, recently moved from Rutherfordton, is destined for a wreath of roses. Chef Jean-Pierre “JP” Debeuf — thick accent, hand gestures, as French as it gets — and his wife Judith, the GM and chic front-of-house presence, are guiding a winner here. (It’s worth mentioning that Nina Simone died in France, where her musical legacy remains consistently vital.)

The space itself, on Tryon’s main thoroughfare Trade Street, is nothing to bet on. Inside, the bistro is fusty and tossed together, including an unlovely drop ceiling, gray carpet, and images by Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and myriad other usual suspects. The worn prints are haphazardly displayed, like so many postcards tacked on a bulletin board.

But what the restaurant lacks in any meaningful interior — you’ll be safe from the overwhelm of a splendid, echoe-y renovation — it recoups in food. This is the real deal, and it really is a deal: Dinner entrées run $18-$30, and the portions are beyond generous, which made me want to drum my spoon on the table with glee, etiquette be damned.

These are lovingly prepared, authentic meals, with no small-plate preposterousness. The wine list is enormous and varied, and there’s also local beer (naturellement) and a full bar.

My dining companion, an equestrienne herself, discussed related matters with the owners, also horse people. Chef JP regaled us with amusing tales from past Steeplechase events, urging us to join him sometime on the field. (We happened to visit the Bistro the night before the big event.)

Notwithstanding Carolina trout and a trendy Caprese salad, JP mostly resists fusion, offering classic, unassailably French cuisine. Crepes are the major player on the lunch menu.

To start our dinner, we inhaled an exquisite baked Brie en croute, served with fig marmalade and crostini, and a darling round of escargots bathed in garlic butter and topped with their own mini puff pastries.

The Bouillabaisse, listed first on the menu, swims with house pride. Served in a gigantic tureen, the light but herb-rich tomato broth was populated with four kinds of fish: mussels in the shell, shrimp, and thick slabs of salmon and tuna. It came with a delicious garnish of rouille, a spicy, cream-based sauce.

The night’s specials included a lamb tartare appetizer and a prime-rib entrée that was drawing murmurs of approval, but we went for the house risotto — the restaurant’s most popular dish, according to our helpful but never overeager server. Though the risotto is featured on the regular menu, JP changes the flavor nightly, and we got a decadent Parmesan treatment paired with baby asparagus and large, tender scallops. Again, the portion was magnificent. After 20 minutes of velvety bites, I had to quit, but the risotto didn’t suffer at all from traveling home with me for a successive meal.

A French restaurant without good desserts is like a stable without a stud, and the chef performs admirably. From JP’s long line of offerings we picked a chocolate-and-cream tuxedo cake, layered delicate and dense, and a light lemon pound cake topped with fresh fruit.

He revealed to us that the lemon cake was gluten-free, but said he didn’t plan to advertise that fact unless a guest requested a dessert made for such dietary restrictions. “People hear ‘gluten-free’ and they think, ‘This will have no taste,'” he explained. “But this way, if they happen to ask, they are so surprised at how good it is.” JP likes a long shot, and so far it’s paying off tastily.

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