Let’s face it, the word sour gets a bad rap. Expressions like “turning sour,” “sour grapes,” and “sour notes” all have negative connotations. But not at Cultura, the restaurant opened in May by the owners of Wicked Weed brewery. Here, on Asheville’s edgy South Slope, Wicked Weed co-founder Walt Dickinson and chef/owner of Table restaurant, Jacob Sessoms, pay tribute to all things sour.
Next door to Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium, which is devoted to producing sour and mixed-culture fermented beers using natural yeasts and bacteria, Cultura ushers beer into the realm of fine dining. “We’re taking the old-world idea of using cultures and fermentation in food as the common thread that ties the restaurant together,” Dickinson says.
“Our goal is to define and exemplify the flavor profile of cultured food and beverage,” adds Sessoms. “To explore the flavor that, say, lacto bacillus has on the sour beer that Wicked Weed is producing and the food we’re producing.”
Dickinson agrees. “There’s something really beautiful that happens during the fermentation and culturing processes. There’s a nuance of flavor [that] expresses whatever that ingredient is in a more unique way. We’re focused on working with local agriculture and local purveyors and producing something that is modern in its presentation, profile, and thought process, but very old-world in its technique.”
They call it “new agrarian cuisine,” and every dish incorporates a fermented element. “Our cuisine is driven not just by how we procure and source food, but by our approach in how we put food together,” echoes Chef Jacob.
It’s equally about bringing people together. “Jacob and I are very much about dialing back the pretentiousness of the [fine-dining] experience and allowing people to choose their own adventure,” Dickinson says. So in addition to the menu of small plates—think tender sous-vide octopus served atop “inked” rice and cultured coconut; and shredded Brussels “kraut” tossed with smoky bacon lardons and tart cubes of apple—Wilkinson and Sessoms have designed large-format meals called Feasts and Bacchanals (no ordering necessary) that cater to groups of four or more. Credit for the excellent nightly execution goes to Chef de Cuisine Eric Morris, who headed the kitchen at Katie Button’s now-shuttered restaurant Nightbell.
Wrangle a group of six friends and reserve one of the two private booths cut out of huge foeders, barrels used to age the sours. Then consider the Country Club Feast, which presents steak and lobster on a silver platter, or the Charleston No. Six that heaps three different kinds of crabs on a mini-surfboard alongside a bowl of Carolina Gold rice. A meal here ends with a gossamer fluff of cotton candy, flavored, perhaps, as ours is, with a sprinkling of powdered hops.
Though the wine list cites an impressive number of natural wines, the beverages of choice are Wicked Weed’s sour beers, which Dickinson describes as beer-wine-cider hybrids. “We use huge amounts of fruit and spices and herbs in these beers,” the brewer explains, “and we approach them more from a chef’s perspective than from a scientist’s perspective.”
Through this exploration of bold and distinctive flavors in both food and beverage, Cultura lends a delightful new meaning to the term sour.
Cultura, 147 Coxe Ave, Asheville, NC. (828) 417-6970, wickedweedbrewing.com. Tues–Thurs, 5–10pm (last seating at 9pm); Fri–Sat, 5–midnight (last seating at 10pm).