When you pay your check after a night at Benne on Eagle, you may or may not notice the phrase printed just above the customary Thank you!: Go back and get it! the ticket reads. It’s on these five words, a simple translation of the word sankofa, that the whole restaurant rests.
Sankofa is a concept that comes from the Akan people of West Africa, best illustrated by its symbol: “An image of a bird flying forward while looking backward, carrying an egg—a new beginning. It’s about understanding the depth of your own history while you move forward,” explains Chef John Fleer. His newest restaurant, Benne on Eagle, at the new Foundry Hotel, honors the African-American contribution to Appalachian cuisine and, specifically, the Appalachian soul food that once thrived on The Block, a historically black business district of Asheville.
Fleer, who is the chef-owner of Rhubarb and The Rhu and formerly helmed cuisine at Blackberry Farm, wasn’t looking for another restaurant project, and Benne’s chef de cuisine Ashleigh Shanti, a rising star who has worked under chefs Vivian Howard and José Andrés, wasn’t looking for a job in Asheville. But neither could pass up the opportunity to tell the stories of The Block with what they call “modern soul food.”
The fundamentals are familiar, but Benne’s approach to soul food staples emphasizes the clear thread running from iconic Southern dishes back to West Africa. Take the popular braised oxtail and cream peas served with West African–spiced Carolina Gold rice and sumac onions. “That’s a dish that traces through West Africa into soul food and onto our menu,” says Fleer. And of course there’s the benne seed that “symbolizes this journey,” a West African sesame seed that was brought to the South where it became a key part of the cuisine.
Benne’s menu ranges from small, shareable snacks like black-eyed pea hummus to appetizers including fried catfish and waffles and ogbono ribs to heftier entrées such as onion-braised rabbit and smothered pork chop. “Hanan’s” pops up as descriptor to a few dishes in tribute to Chef Hanan Shabazz, who owned a soul-food restaurant on The Block for years and now collaborates with Fleer and Shanti as culinary mentor.
In fact, Shabazz’s portrait hangs on the wall at Benne on Eagle—along with portraits of three other African-American women who owned restaurants or lounges on The Block. The art by Joseph Pearson also includes a striking mural of The Block in the 1960s, painted in muted tones that lend depth and ambiance to the bar. Cognac leather seating, oversized brass light fixtures, and banquette backs upholstered in African mudcloth add soulful warmth that matches the food.
If you start your meal at the bar (which you should, the cocktails are creative), you’ll feel that warmth, too, in the West African ingredient-driven beverage program. An emphasis on rum nods to the Caribbean and its role in African-American culinary traditions.
“There’s no such thing as a stagnant cuisine,” Fleer says. As the waters of Southern cooking continue to move inevitably forward, sometimes in a flood, sometimes at a trickle, chefs Fleer and Shanti are leading the way by looking to the past. Go back and get it.
Benne on Eagle, 35 Eagle St, Asheville, NC; (828) 552-8833, benneoneagle.com