Chef Gavin Baker created the menu, including a sturgeon dish, for Noble Cider’s The Greenhouse in a test kitchen he built in his apartment. Angeli Wright, email@example.com
Opening a restaurant in three parts
- Introduction, What makes a good menu? We spent 4 months in Noble Cider’s new restaurant finding out
- Part 1, With sturgeon on the menu, Noble Cider’s restaurant attempts to tackle a niche
- Part 2, ‘Close-your-eyes delicious’: Prehistoric fish is crafted for new downtown Asheville restaurant
- Part 3, ‘From kitchen to working restaurant: The doors are open. What do diners think?’ will be released in June, shortly after the restaurant opens. Please stay tuned.
ASHEVILLE — Even if practice makes perfect, sometimes five weeks of work yields very little.
On April 18, The Greenhouse, the first restaurant from Noble Cider, was under construction, bearing down on a projected June 21 opening. Chef Gavin Baker had been hard at work on recipe development since winter. As the spring air flowed through his test kitchen, built into the apartment he shares with his wife, the menu was beginning to solidify.
The kitchen might as well have been a laboratory: New hires weighed ingredients on digital scales, periodically referenced thermometers and took notes. On a steel table dominating the room, vacuum-sealed bags were submerged in quietly circulating water baths.
Five weeks after deciding to source Western North Carolina farm-raised sturgeon for its buttery caviar and meat, Baker had not yet discovered how to serve the fish’s fillets in a way that met his standards.
“This is something really perfect for your story, in terms of slowly unlocking something.”
Noble co-owner Joanna Baker had nothing but patience for her brother-in-law’s work.
“I believe in his dedication and believe in the work that he does,” she said. “He’s incredibly creative, incredibly resourceful. He has a vision, and he’s always thinking ahead.”
Back to the drawing board
The chef has done this before, opening a dozen restaurants around the world. Each project meant months of recipe development. It’s tedious work, and not cheap.
“One of the areas with restaurant openings where you have a tremendous amount of food waste is in research and development,” Baker said in February, his menu still a piece of paper scribbled with notes.
“You’re buying all this stuff to make this mini-run, as if it’s going to be on the menu, right? You’re talking 100 pound-bags of flour, things like this.”
Or fish. Lots of fish.
More than a month later, Baker alternately frowned and joked in the test kitchen as he broke down another sturgeon, its muscles tensing like fists as he removed the tough skin.
Another, cooked in beef kidney fat, was closer to the richness Baker sought. Sturgeon acts like meat, so it make sense to cook it accordingly. Even so, it’s important not to frighten customers, and kidney fat-cooked sturgeon might be a bridge too far.
“You want to make the dish comfortable so that the only thing customers have to get their heads around is meeting surgeon, right?”
Fire and salt
The good news wouldn’t come until late May. The key: scorching-hot wood heat.
By early June, Baker estimated he’d spent 120 hours on the sturgeon, including driving to Lenoir to pick up more fish from Marshallberg Farm. The majority, however, was spent in recipe development, with 45 variations in the water bath alone.
During that time, he said, the kitchen staff tested 60 additional dishes, with the goal of opening with 30 near-perfect plates.
As for the sturgeon, “fine” was never good enough, he said.
“My benchmark is close-your-eyes delicious, and it can take a lifetime to get to those flavors. But that’s our goal, and that’s what we strive for, and the sturgeon wasn’t hitting it.”
The Greenhouse’s menu, as written in June, will serve a Josper wood oven-grilled sturgeon “chop” with a barbecue-esque dry rub, smoked-apple fruit sauce and kabocha squash puree.
“It was a good lesson in humility,” Baker said, sitting down in his nearly complete restaurant. “We go into things like this as chefs thinking we need bells and whistles to make something sing. It’s refreshing to come to all you really need is fire and salt.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. There’s a very small window in which the fish is perfect, he said. “It needs wood, it has to be very hot, and it has to cook for a short amount of time.”
And there’s still the matter of waste: Harvesting only fillets can yield pounds of waste, like heads and tails, for every pound of boneless, skinless meat.
“Anywhere where we have waste, we want to eliminate it,” Baker said. The answer: sturgeon bratwursts, with other scraps brined, smoked and served on a charcuterie board.
The sturgeon is only one of two dozen dishes likely to end up on the opening menu, each providing its own logistical challenges.
What’s on the menu?
Besides the sturgeon, The Greenhouse will serve a Red Angus bone-in ribeye from Leicester’s Morgan Branch Farms, where the cattle are fed fermented Noble Cider apple scraps, spent beer grain and pickled hay.
“It’s definitely some of the best beef I’ve ever had in my life, in terms of flavor profile,” Baker said. “I don’t say that lightly because I’ve had some phenomenal beef from different parts of the world.”
The farm only processes two of the cattle monthly, and Baker will use the bones for a stock learned from British chef Heston Blumenthal of Fat Duck, the rendered beef fat for an aromatic butter to be served with the soy- and coffee-marinated orchard-wood grilled chop.
There will be a composed salad of cultivated and foraged greens from within 25 miles of Asheville, which Baker said will be one of the most involved plates on the menu.
Flounder can be ordered pan-roasted on the bone or served fried with a Noble Cider Golden Arrow batter. Either preparation will come with Noble Cider Village Tart Béarnaise sauce and coal-roasted eggplant. “I like the idea of customers having control over the outcome,” Baker said.
Even the kids’ menu gets special treatment, Baker said. “The children are just as important as the parents for myriad reasons. We want them taken care of, and need the kids’ menu to have the same integrity as the adult menu.”
Still, he knows most kids aren’t looking for snipped chives and aged cheddar in their mac and cheese. “Velveeta has its place sometimes,” Baker said.
Eat at The Greenhouse
The Greenhouse will open at noon June 21 at 49 Rankin Ave. An abbreviated menu will be served pre- and post-dinner. Hours will be Tuesday-Thursday, noon-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon-11 p.m.