Saturday, June 29, 2013

POSANA CAFE: Conscious Artful Cuisine from Farm to Table

by Pasckie Pascua

POSANA Cafe's most-sought appetizer Lobster Mac and Cheese—a refined delight of ricotta gnocchi, chives and aged cheddar cheese, punctuated by premium Maine lobster—could pass off as an entree to a light diner. Such a thought doesn't worry Peter Pollay, executive chef and owner, of the 4-year old restaurant on Biltmore Avenue in downtown. He has more to offer. 
     Two choices from the menu's main dish lineup: the Chili Marinated Tofu and Zucchini Noodles (top grade bean curd surrounded with braised cippolini onions, jalapeno, tomato, caramelized eggplant) and Hickory Smoked Scottish Salmon, tossed in a sumptuous bed of roasted gold beets, grilled asparagus, basil, Looking Glass goat cheese cream, with confit lemon vianigrette—should make dinner a mini-feast. We don't end there though... A mouth-watering cornucopia of “artful cuisine” is a surefire come-on but Posana Cafe's main attraction is essentially Asheville's focal magic as well.

"THE biggest thing about us is we are 100 percent gluten free and organic,” Pollay told The Indie. “That completely separates us from everyone else.” Posana Cafe has been awarded the Gluten-Free Food Service Accreditation from the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America and caters to diners suffering from a broad spectrum of food allergies.
     Suffice to say, the Pollays' (Peter and wife Martha) brainstorm found its soulmate in Asheville, long considered as one of America's go-to destinations in terms of “clean eating.” Residents and transplants alike achingly quiz even a “health” store and vegetarian restaurant details surrounding food products and ingredients. Thus, Posana promises on its website: “We know the best meals start with fresh ingredients straight from the garden that just need a little washing before they’re prepared for your plate.  We want the next generation to have this same love and understanding.”
     For the past four years, Posana Cafe celebrates its May time anniversary by supporting the education of the younger generation through the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Growing Mindsinitiative. The primary focus of the Growing Minds initiative is to connect students and farms in all ways possible.
     Peter and Martha believe that it benefits the community to have a strong relationship with local food, and teaching youths the benefit of supporting local growers and producers is important. “We buy everything from close to 40 different local suppliers,” says Peter. “At any one time, up to 80 different products, all the way from fruits and vegetables to condiments to beers and beverages, all are local.”
     Posana Cafe banners Pollay's simple food philosophy: Source premium ingredients, work closely with the local farming community and never take short cuts when preparing a dish. “Because of that philosophy you will discover practically every item is made from scratch using high quality, natural ingredients. From the flavored syrups and freshly squeezed mixers behind the bar to the bun and pickles on your burger,” adds the website.
     Simplicity doesn't necessarily mean innovativeness is not a possibility. Truth is, Posana's menu offers lots of it. While a number of the offerings, at least those that I tasted, exude an Italian plate's classic simplicity, whipped up around five to eight closely selected ingredients—these dishes also suggest Southeast Asia's complex flavors yet aromatic balance of fundamental taste senses. What results is a harmonious finish that is both elegant as it is delicious.
     Sample the intriguing Kale Salad—toasted pumpkin seeds, currants, Three Graces Dairy manchego style cheese, lemon, Theros olive oil—sweet, salty, and bitter. A balance of detail and variety. Then there's BBQ Spiced Sunburst Farms Trout—stone ground Boonville Mill Grits, white cheddar, fennel-olive oil slaw, charred tomato vinaigrette. Calabrian delight by way of the Appalachians!
     The Pollays' move to Asheville from Los Angeles ten years ago was almost like a natural progression. They had just their first child and believed LA wasn't the place to raise children. “We had a few friends that had moved here and we came to visit. We liked it. We liked the seasons,” Peter, who hails from Chicago, recalls (Martha came from Wisconsin). “The winters weren’t as harsh as the midwest so we decided to move here and this would be our home.”

THE  young family immediately found instant affinity with this tiny mountain city, which at the time, was all over national radar with a number of accolades, such as one of the "Best Places to Reinvent Your Life," "Top Seven Places to Live in the US,” “10 Most Beautiful Places in America," and "25 Best Places for Business and Careers," among others.
     The birth of Posana Cafe as a “conscious artful cuisine” bloomed as the Pollays nurture their “new” comfort zone. It fits their lifestyle as they fit within Asheville's mystifying persona. “Back in LA, we would go to the market and buy ingredients from tailgates or fresh market then go home and make it for ourselves. We figured there were already a few restaurants doing it here but not to the extent we wanted to do it.”
     So in the spring of 2009, the Pollays started looking for a restaurant spot. But the hunt for a place didn't come easy until a friend's suggestion finally satisfied them: 1 Biltmore Avenue in downtown. “You can’t beat the address. We are right next to the park, next to Vance Monument. We have the museum and Diane Wortham across the street. We always have activity here, people always walking around... It really is one of the best locations (for a restaurant) in Asheville,” Peter says.
     The economic downturn that drove a number of Asheville restaurants to fold up didn't faze the new transplants. Their sole passion for food and the building of healthy communities was enough to get them going. “It was a hard time at the start, we knew it was slow at first, and we had to purchase strategically, as well as hire strategically,” recalls Peter. “But we slowly grew as the economy grew so we didn’t have to slam on the brakes with the downturn because we started with the downturn. So we didn’t know any better. We just knew the bad times.”

     It also greatly helped that Asheville's relatively small but tight downtown community and its peripheries were already well-entrenched years before the Pollays' arrival. Although the city's climb from bankruptcy in 1930s to a degree of prosperity onwards through the 80s was slow, it was sure. Hence, two decades later, Asheville was already flourishing—as steady migration and continuous investments poured in from new residents and entrepreneurs.
     With the coming of new spirits in the mountains, a communal fervor and “new age” idealism—in all facets of life and living—set in. “This community is founded on the basis of why everyone is here,” Pollay philosophizes. “We all like to support each other... Just like saying hi! on the street or being nice to people, or holding the door open. More importantly, the locals really support the local small businesses here, including restaurants, which is great.”
     Pollay, who brings with him an education at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, plus years of restaurant experience to Asheville, adds: “You always need to re-invent yourself, stretch yourself and kind of get the vibe of what the public wants. If you don’t change with that or adapt with that people will stop going to you and sooner or later you will have to close.”
     It seems simplistic to say that philosophy alone makes a business endeavor succeed. Apparently, in the case of Posana Cafe, it is almost an understatement to conclude that, indeed, the Pollays know what their market wants: Gluten-free, organic, local cuisine—adulterated, unpretentious, straight through. They don't need to tinker with that. Yet in the end, as Peter boasts, “Our focus is the service... and the food.” He meant, in part, why don't you try the Lobster Mac and Cheese for a start...

[POSANA CAFE is located at 1 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, NC 28801. (828) 505-3969.]

PHOTO: Peter Pollay, executive chef and owner.

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