Artsy and bohemian in spirit and décor, Never Blue in Hendersonville, North Carolina, perfectly matches the personality of its chef and owner, Jesse Roque. The chef, who home-schools her two young daughters and wears her blonde hair twisted into dreadlocks, originally conceived the restaurant as a coffee shop and art gallery. With her Johnson & Wales training, Jesse baked the pastries and enlisted the help of her mother, artist Pam Cosner, to design the restaurant’s vivid interior—including the bright, swirling mosaic that covers the bar.
The venture soon blossomed into a full-service restaurant where Roque promoted an eclectic selection of tapas. However, back in 2008 the concept of tapas was foreign to most diners. Roque laughingly recalls how locals were reluctant to come to what they heard was a “topless” restaurant. So, she added entrées to make her menu more mainstream.
Growing up in Tampa, Florida, exposed the nascent chef to a cornucopia of cultures, arousing her global culinary perspective. The Greek community in nearby Tarpon Springs inspired her take on the classic Greek salad, and her family’s traditional Christmas Eve meal of Cincinnati-style chili slaw dogs—her mother is from Ohio—likewise creeped into Roque’s seasonal repertoire.
Southern Welcome plate
True to her Southern roots, the award-winning chef features pickles in one form or another in many of her dishes. “I pickle everything,” says Roque. “If I had to pick one food to take with me to a desert island, it would be pickles.”
Edson, Roque’s husband and Never Blue co-owner, showcases his Mexican heritage by slow-roasting mojo-marinated pork in banana leaves for the pork tostadas. His influence also accounts for the chapulines taco, a corn tortilla rolled around crunchy roasted crickets, sautéed corn, and Sweety Drop peppers.
Can’t Beet It // (from left) dark chocolate brownie wrapped in phyllo dough with candied praline ice cream; chapulines taco, a corn tortilla rolled around crunchy roasted crickets, sautéed corn, and Sweety Drop peppers; Chardonnay-ginger-pickled golden beets and Malbec-and-brown-sugar red beets with peppered goat cheese mousse, Marcona almonds, and balsamic gastrique
Roque, who believes that “if something is not going to blow your palate up, it’s not worth eating,” goes bold on the plate. Her flavors explode in a duo of Chardonnay-ginger-pickled golden beets and Malbec-and-brown-sugar red beets, while her classical pastry training dazzles after dinner in a brittle basket brimming with white chocolate mousse and fresh berries with a tart zing from mango and raspberry coulis.
Returning to the tapas concept, Jesse recently revamped her bill of fare with the only large plate options being shareable dishes such as cochinita pibil—slow-roasted pork with tortillas—and Yucatán-style whole fried fish. Roque’s generous tapas portions are driven by her own love of good food. “I want five bites of something awesome,” she exclaims, “not just one.”
Southern Welcome // Nothing warms the cockles of a Southerner’s heart like house-smoked-ham salad and fluffy, cakelike biscuits. Homemade accompaniments punch things up with bread-and-butter pickles, turmeric onions, chipotle-molasses pralines, and sweet tangerine marmalade.
Shrimp & Grits // Chef Jesse’s version of this Lowcountry classic is worth every creamy calorie. Fresh Gulf shrimp and rainbow peppers luxuriate in a tasso ham cream sauce over a bed of grits enriched with smoked gouda and sour cream.
The Brownie // Never Blue’s signature dessert takes 20 minutes to prepare, but you won’t mind waiting for this sinful confection: a gooey, phyllo-wrapped, dark chocolate brownie crowned with candied praline ice cream. Tahitian vanilla bean crème anglaise, chocolate sauce, and pecans are just icing on the cake.
Never Blue, 119 S Main St, Hendersonville, NC; (828) 693-4646, theneverblue.com