My first-ever tapas experience was with five friends in college. At the time, it was the most expensive meal I’d ever had and was a birthday luxury, but it was also a chance to try nearly a dozen different foods – everyone ordered a couple things and we each took little nibbles of it all. It was so luxurious to try so many different items!
I moved to Spain only a few months after that birthday, and I learned that tapas aren’t a fancy thing in Spain. I found my favorite local spot that put the Real Madrid soccer matches on their televisions and brought tapas for free when you bought a beverage.
I also found that many restaurants had two serving sizes: small-plate tapas and large-plate raciones for sharing. There were occasional dishes that were intended to serve a single person, but for the most part, you cobbled together a meal with whoever else you were eating alongside.
There are always things you miss when you leave a place, and the decadent example for me was berenjenas con miel, a fried crispy eggplant dish drizzled with honey. It sounds strange, the savory of eggplant alongside the super-sweet of honey, but together they are pretty much the perfect way to eat a serving of vegetables.
Cúrate has been a hub of downtown dining for many years, opening in 2011 after chefs Katie Button and Jose Meana spent years in the industry working in some of the most renowned restaurants in the United States and Spain.
When I walked in on a cool late June day with overcast skies, I was immediately greeted by friendly hostesses. I had a reservation at the back bar, where the open kitchen is just across a marble counter from you.
One of the prep cooks was chatting as he worked, telling two guests about piquillo peppers, and others were bustling without a hurry, getting all kinds of items prepared since it was early in the shift while also cooking and plating items that were heading out to customers.
If you opt to dine at Cúrate alone, the bar is a great place to do it, both to save seats in a restaurant that is regularly packed and to have a bit of a show, with bright dishes getting cooked at high heat. I saw a cook place fresh herbs on hot coals in an oven to char them for one of the dishes on the menu – it’s like getting a cooking show with your meal!
My server mentioned that two to three tapas or small plates per person is pretty typical, though I understand that some of the dishes would fill more of your appetite than others, and often people order in big groups and share it all.
I ordered a cortado, a small coffee drink consisting of espresso and just the slightest hint of milk. It reminded me of cortados in Spain since in the States, there tends to be a much bigger dollop of milk in them and this one was perfect, with the espresso flavor front-and-center and intact.
As I awaited the arrival of my first dish and sipped my coffee, I took in the space. There’s a living wall of plants in the front of the room, bringing bright greens to the color palette, but for the most part, the room is all warm neutrals – from terracotta-hued geometric hexagons on the walls and a hexagon tile pattern on the front of the bar to the wooden chairs and tables.
Edison bulbs graced most tables and suffused everything with a yellow light that muted the contrast between the warm nature tones of the dining areas and the stainless steel expanses of the open kitchen.
The ceiling is exposed beams and brick on the top parts of the walls, with the visible ductwork that has become a staple of industrial-chic interior design. Even the kitchen was full of small touches that looked aesthetic, like a floating stainless shelf that carried six or seven bright blue glass bottles.
My first dish was the always-nostalgic berenjenas con miel, an eggplant, honey, and rosemary dish that isn’t a recognized flavor combo in the States but is everywhere in Madrid. The rosemary, though, is a real major player – each bit seems to permeate through the whole dish.
The batter is crisp and simple, and the eggplant is in the perfect sweet spot of firmness, neither soggy nor tough. It features a bright salt note that is part of why people love salted caramel so much, I think. There’s no better way to eat a slice of eggplant… or five.
I notice that everyone seems to work well together – I’m there early in a shift, so I get that when everyone’s exhausted at the end of a night, things probably look different, but it was genuinely refreshing to see cooks and servers all pleasantly address and thank each other for things. It made the meal feel a bit more like a home-cooked meal rather than dining out, a little closer and more connected.
Next to arrive was a half baguette, sliced up and baked in-house. Baguettes were part of pretty much every meal when I lived in Spain – it’s basically standard to have a little torn-off bit of baguette next to the plate of any home-cooked meal, even on a very standard weeknight.
Next to come to the table was the dish for which the baguette was destined: gambas al ajillo. I’d actually just watched the cook add arbol peppers, rough-cut garlic, herbs, and sherry to a pan of shrimp and set it ablaze – the fire cooks off the alcohol and brings the sherry and other flavors together in a savory and bright broth. I organized my bites to include bread soaked in the broth and a bit of shrimp, bringing as many textures and flavors together as possible.
As I finished my last shrimp, I was thrilled to see my final small plate arriving: baby squashes with romesco sauce. If you haven’t had romesco, you’re in for a treat. My server mentioned after I raved about it that they basically always have something with romesco on the menu.
It’s a bit like a pesto in that it features some kind of ground nuts, usually almonds, pine nuts, or hazelnuts, alongside roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers, and garlic. It’s at once rich and earthy and with a heavy drizzle of olive oil on the whole dish, it was even better.
Seared at high heat, I expect, the baby squashes inspired me to up my cooking game at home, since my garden frequently yields a lot of squash, and I still frequently make squash soggy. These squash were as crisp and caramelized on the sides as you’d expect on a home fry potato – but on a squash!
The inside was tender but firm, and it was all perfectly complemented by the nutty romesco and decadent olive oil. I was lucky enough to discover a spare dollop of romesco after my last bit of pattypan squash, and I used the last of the baguette to eat it – no morsel went to waste.
One thing I really liked about Cúrate’s broader menu was that it didn’t exclude any part of Spanish cuisine. There was octopus in the style of the Northwestern Spain region of Galicia, a toasted noodle and shrimp dish from Cataluña, the region where Barcelona is, and handmade cured sausages that are popular all over Spain. If you brought a friend with Spanish roots here, chances are that they’d find at least a few dishes they love, despite Spain being a country with a very diverse culinary landscape.
I definitely left satiated with my tapas and my coffee, but I had the lingering feeling that it’d be fun to come back and try many of the other menu items. The other fun element is that with seasonality being a major value at Cúrate, the menu’s actual items change frequently, meaning that you’ll find plenty of novelty even if you visit every time you come to Asheville for a trip.
By this point, many locals have tried Cúrate and have seen how its reputation and positive energy have benefitted downtown, even if so much of Biltmore Avenue is a tourist zone to those who have lived here for decades. Getting a reservation can be a challenge if you’re only making it a few days out, so it’s clear that it is still a high-demand spot.
Still, I’d encourage locals and tourists alike to make a point to visit Cúrate and adventure with a friend, with a big group for a fancy occasion, or for a date night. There’s so much to talk about with this food, so many details that the team is clearly proud to discuss.
While reservations can be a bit dear, given how popular and well-known the place is now, look a couple weeks out and see if you can make it happen. Hopefully, you’ll leave as warm and satiated as I did, the last lingering tastes of espresso and romesco on my tongue.