Nightbell Restaurant & Lounge in Asheville, N.C.
By Luke Connell
Photographs by Evan Sung, courtesy of Nightbell
Chef Katie Button is competing with herself, but that’s a good thing for foodies.
A rising star on the international food scene, Button’s flagship restaurant, Curate bar de tapas, opened on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville, N.C., in 2011. The restaurant features classic Spanish dishes, such as gambas al ajillo — sauteed shrimp and sliced garlic — and pulpo a la gallega — a Galician-style octopus dish served with warm sea salt, olive oil and Spanish paprika. The stylish yet unpretentious eatery has taken Western North Carolina by storm, becoming the No. 1-rated restaurant in Asheville out of more than 600 entries on TripAdvisor.
Button, too, has earned personal adulation, being named a James Beard Rising Star Chef semifinalist for three consecutive years from 2012-2013 and finalist in 2014.
In 2014, Button and Heirloom Hospitality Group — a family-owned business consisting of Button, her husband, and her parents — made more noise on the Asheville food scene, opening Nightbell Restaurant & Lounge, which features contemporary American small-plate dishes and signature craft cocktails.
“It’s hard for me to say why we’ve been so successful. We work hard, and we love what we’re doing,” Button said recently as she sat on a stool at the end of a massive, tapas-style table in Nightbell’s dining room. “And I didn’t want to stay with one type of cuisine. I wanted to keep pushing ourselves.”
Pushing herself and being willing to change course is something Button knows from experience. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemical engineering, she reached a crossroads.
“I had a near panic attack that I didn’t know what I was going to do with this degree,” Button said. “And I applied for some jobs, and I think my lack of enthusiasm was apparent, and I didn’t get any of them.”
In an effort find direction, Button applied for and was accepted to L’Ecole Centrale in Paris, from which she would later earn a BioMaster’s degree in biomedical engineering.
“But the entire time I was cooking,” she recalled, adding that she overspent her student stipend at the Parisian fresh food markets.
Master’s degree in hand, Button entered a neurosciences Ph.D. program, but wilted at the prospect of spending a life in the lab.
“This was the next seven years of my life,” Button said of the program. “And I just wasn’t excited about it.”
She withdrew two weeks before the doctoral program’s start date, instead finding a job as a server at world-renowned Chef José Andrés’ restaurants in Washington D.C.
“And that was the beginning of my restaurant career,” Button said.
Shortly thereafter, she met her husband, Félix Meana, at the restaurant, where it took a year to work her way into the kitchen.
“Meeting Felix, he really pushed me to do something more,” Button said.
That “something more” led to positions in Andrés’ restaurant Los Angeles, working with Chef Johnny Iuzzini at Jean Georges in New York, and two stints in the kitchen at elBulli, Ferran Adrià’s legendary restaurant in her husband’s hometown of Roses on the Costa Brava in Catalunya, Spain.
In Asheville, Button brings that world of experience to bear in her kitchens. While the food at Curate and Nightbell are born of different continents, the underpinning food philosophy remains the same: find great products and prepare them well.
At Nightbell, which seats about 80 in an upstairs dining room off Lexington Avenue, the small plates usually come with a Southern twist. The menu features an endive and caramelized parsnip salad, a Canadian waffle topped with duck confit poutine and cheddar mousse, and Shakshuka grits — stone-ground grits with harissa spiced sauteed bell pepper, tomato, onion and mushrooms.
The atmosphere — think exposed brick and hardwood floors — also contains a nod to the Spanish lifestyle, featuring numerous, large-group tables. The combination of small plates and tables that are conducive to conversation helps create a vibrant place to socialize and dine.
“Everybody at your table all of the sudden starts talking about food,” Button said. “And to me, that’s just more interesting.” E