I don't ask for much from a restaurant meal: Great ingredients, well-prepared. A little thought put into it. And I like flavors so strong, they grab and hold my attention enough to make me want to ignore everything and just live in that moment for a little while.
I made my second visit to The Admiral in Asheville recently. It's a strange little restaurant in what looks like it used to be a gas station. It's in West Asheville on Haywood, at what some people call Five Points. Parking is a dice-toss that might leave you circling for a few blocks.
I'd call the interior tawdry-chic: Dark, with a low ceiling, lots of repurposed vintage furniture and touches of yellow and red lighting. There's an old Budweiser sign with neon strategically blacked out so it appears to spell "dive." The cooking line is three guys behind a counter, laboring with intense choreography to turn out a short menu of small plates, entrees and a short list of desserts.
I stick with small plates, to have more room to try things. Pork belly has almost worn out its welcome on menus, but this version took it back to what I originally liked about it: A surprisingly large square of belly, cooked soft on the inside and crisped and sticky on the outside, served on top of red potato salad with crisp fried onions. It was a mixture of creamy, sticky, cool and crisp.
My husband settled on a full-size plate of diver scallops with a vanilla-sweet corn sauce.
But the dish that grabbed my attention was the Ethiopian Beef Tartare. Yes, raw beef can be risky, but if they're willing to serve it, I was willing to try it. It involved raw egg, too. So sue me.
It arrived on a rough, wooden cutting board: A pile of minced red beef mixed with red spices. A little indentation on top with a raw quail egg. A dab of creamy fresh goat cheese. A pile of crisp, hot, french fries. And a small pool of a sweet, fruity house-made ketchup.
The beef was mixed with so much spice, it was intensely hot and salty, almost painful to eat. Just when it got overwhelming, you could mix in a cooling, creamy bit of goat cheese, or a little of the ketchup, or a break from the crispy fries. Every bite was different, every combination a change-up.
It was a little scary and a little dangerous, and it tasted like comfort food in hell. I loved every bite of it.
It was so intense, the powerfully flavorful ginger-lime creme brulee I picked for dessert almost tasted bland. It was so affecting, I was still thinking about it a week later.
That's a restaurant experience worth my bill.
The Admiral, 400 Haywood Road, Asheville, 828-252-2541, theadmiralnc.com. Dinner only, 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Reservations strongly suggested. The menu features local, seasonal products, so it changes frequently. Small plates range from $6 to $12; entrees are in the $25 range.