Ten Questions for Sam Etheridge of Ambrozia Bar & Bistro in Asheville, North Carolina

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Ambrozia’s signature deviled eggs paired with NV Gruet Winery Blanc de Noir, New Mexico

Another restaurant stop on my recent visit to my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, was Ambrozia Bar & Bistro in North Asheville, in the neighborhood where my mother grew up and where my uncle, aunt and cousins lived. I had not been to this part of the city in a long time, so imagine how delighted I was to learn of Ambrozia, tucked away in an unassuming shopping center. While interviewing owner and chef Sam Etheridge, I discovered someone that truly inspires me, a person who is committed to family and life-work balance, both of which are difficult to achieve being in the restaurant business. Below is the fantastic story of Ambrozia in Sam’s own words.

What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
I have always been in the restaurant business. I began as a busboy as a teenager and worked at various restaurants throughout high school and college. After college, I attended culinary school in South Florida and the rest is history.

Why did you select your location?
We decided to move to Asheville from New Mexico in order to be closer to family. I grew up in Tennessee and my wife in Florida. We loved the food scene and lifestyle here and the city itself as a place to raise kids.

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Smoked salmon platter paired with 2017 Garzón Albariño, Uco Valley, Mendoza

How did you choose the name of your restaurant?
This is the second restaurant I have had named Ambrozia. The first was in New Mexico. I chose the name because it means “food of the gods” and had a Southern tie-in with the sweet salad you see at church picnics. After moving to Asheville and deciding to open a restaurant here, I kept the name because I just identified with it and loved the name.

Will you share with us details about your restaurant’s design and décor and how the theme complements your menu?
I had a friend of mine come in who is a contractor and help with design and décor. Being in a strip mall, our idea was to make you forget that you were in a strip mall once inside. We wanted an understated wine theme that was upscale and modern, but also comfortable enough to be an everyday hangout.

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Bison Reuben paired with 2015 Tacho Malbec, Uco Valley, Mendoza

What is your restaurant’s style of cooking?
We are modern Southern cuisine with a twist and a focus on farm-fresh, local ingredients.

What are your and/or your staff’s favorite dishes?
Our deviled eggs and fried chicken have long been our signature dishes. We change the menu constantly, so we have lots of favorites seasonally like tomato pie or chile relleno.

How does your restaurant’s beverage program enhance the cuisine?
We are very focused on wine that enhances the food. We don’t want anything too overpowering. We like high acid and well-balanced fruit. We also create seasonal cocktails that are focused on culinary ingredients and seasonality and local beers, for which Asheville is very well known.

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Bourbon butterscotch pudding paired with Notorious Coffee, Marshall, North Carolina

Do you have a philosophy as it relates to food, beverage, and hospitality?
My philosophy is to have fun, whether it be me, the staff, customers, everyone. It’s not always an easy thing in the high-stress business, but I think everyone is better off if they are enjoying themselves and it shows.

Do you have plans to open additional locations or restaurants? Why or why not?
No, I do not have plans. I have kids and a family, so that is my focus. I had tried to have multiple restaurants before, and it was not good for my family life.

Do you have any additional information you would like to share with the readers, such as forthcoming menu items, events, etc.?
We feel like we are a hidden gem in Asheville. Everyone is so focused on downtown, and it is great, but Asheville offers great restaurants all around the city and everyone should get out and explore the neighborhoods as well.

Editor’s Note: I recommend Ambrozia and its prix fixe menu during 2019 Asheville Restaurant Week January 21-27, 2019.

Food and Wine in the Big Easy

Prix Fixe Menu at August
Prix Fixe Menu at August

I just returned from a wonderful, but very short trip to New Orleans. When I think of New Orleans, I don’t think of wine, I think of cocktails. I also have to admit I didn’t realize that New Orleans was such a foodie destination. Shame on me. Below are my reviews of some must-eat, must-drink food and wine destinations (some content originally posted on Yelp).

 Yam and ricotta cavatelli with Brussels sprouts, duck confit, and black trumpet mushrooms
Yam and ricotta cavatelli with Brussels sprouts, duck confit, and black trumpet mushrooms

Chef John Besh’s Restaurant August
Contemporary French made with local ingredients
Neighborhood: Central Business District
My meal began with an amuse-bouche from the chef, an eggshell filled with a crème filling that was very good. I had the three-course Prix Fixe lunch as follows: pâté of local pork with house made pickles, marmalades, and toasted brioche; yam and ricotta cavatelli with Brussels sprouts, duck confit, and black trumpet mushrooms; and dark chocolate hazelnut tart with almond and satsuma ice cream. The sommelier recommended a glass of Côtes du Rhône with my meal, which was a perfect choice. Another good choice would have been an earthy Pinot Noir. The check was accompanied by a truffle and pecan praline. The meal was outstanding, especially for the price of $20.13 + tax and tip. My favorite course was the yam and ricotta cavatelli. The duck confit was similar to pulled pork in texture, but decadently rich. Each course was colorful and full of different flavors and textures. I would definitely return here for lunch.

Grilled mahi and Pinot Grigio at NOLA
Grilled mahi and Pinot Grigio at NOLA

Emeril’s NOLA Restaurant
American, Cajun/Creole
Neighborhood: French Quarter
At NOLA the atmosphere is lively, the food and service are good, and the dress is casual. I had the gumbo of the day, seafood gumbo ($10), and the grilled catch of the day, mahi ($30) with fingerling potatoes, sweet corn, grape tomatoes, fennel-arugula salad, and black truffle butter sauce. Both were delicious. I also had a glass of Pinot Grigio, another great pairing suggestion, which pushed the meal price into the $50-range plus tax and tip. In retrospect, I wish I had tried the entrée of the day, the wild boar chop, as it looked amazing.

The best Bloody Mary ever at Dress It
The best Bloody Mary ever at Dress It

Dress It
Gourmet Burgers
Neighborhood: Central Business District
OK, this isn’t really a wine destination. However, it was a nice place to relax at my hotel. This small restaurant is part of the Omni Royal Crescent Hotel. It’s called Dress It because the primary food is hamburgers and you can “dress” your burger to order. I had just gotten off an airplane and didn’t feel like venturing out, so I stopped in. The restaurant itself wasn’t busy for dinner (breakfast and lunch are more popular), but the small bar was crowded and everyone seemed to be having fun. Instead of ordering a burger, I opted for a daily special: side salad and seafood gumbo and rice for only $10, made especially for me by Walter. It was a great meal for $10. After dinner I ventured over to the bar where all of the fun was and ended up having the BEST Bloody Mary of my life made by Ren, who serves as bartender/server/room service when on duty. I will be back to Dress It, if only for more outstanding Bloody Marys.