By Mark-Ellis Bennett

Asheville’s vibrant culinary scene has just acquired a new must-go destination with the opening of the Golden Fleece Slow Earth Kitchen.

With 11 restaurants in North Carolina, chef and owner Giorgios Bakatsias is no newcomer to the world of sharing flavors, friends, and hospitality. Those familiar with the former location of the Grovewood Café will immediately notice that the dining rooms sport a strikingly distinct new identity, at the hands of Bakatsias’ own design.

Bakatsias said every concept for his restaurants has its own inspiration unique to its environment and the excellence of the team operating it. General manager Andy Lucas emphasized that the Golden Fleece is no dine-and-dash affair.

“We want folks who come in to stay with us for a while and experience our environment,” Lucas said.

Simply put, the cuisine is crafted from fresh ingredients, thoughtfully prepared “with love,” and presented at the table in imaginative ways. All tables are set with silver plated flatware. Lucas prepared a scotch-based cocktail tableside made with a wide lemon peel. He heated the peel with a small beverage torch until the oils lit up in a bright flash.

The skordalia, a spread made from chilled cooked potatoes, garlic and lemon, was presented in a large ceramic mortar and with a pestle. The addition of toasted almonds and olive oil gave it extra texture and flavor. Served with warm slices of mixed grain bread and pita, the finishing touches were completed in the mortar tableside. Every detail was executed under the watchful eyes of Bakatsias and his executive chef Alexander Ricci.

Tzatziki, another spread made with spiced Greek yogurt and cucumber, was garnished with fennel and olive oil. The lamb tartare was served on a chilled black marble rectangular platter fitted with ram’s horn handles. The tartare was prepared and attractively garnished with salmon roe, brined shaved radish, marigold, honey sage yogurt, shallot and mint.

The wood fire oven grilled octopus would be an obvious choice for the previously uninitiated. It was tender and flavorful with a texture that might approach that of steak. It was served with roasted fennel espuma, garlic confit, olives, and a charred tomato sofrito.

The also menu includes salads and vegetables. The list of slow-cooked entrees includes braised leg of lamb, rotisserie chicken, roasted vegetable paella, wild boar osso bucco, ribeye for two, cobia, lamb chops and kakavia, a clay-roasted sea bass stew with smoked vegetables in a saffron and ouzo broth.

The wood fire grilled whole North Carolina red snapper, a small one I was told, was three inches longer than the length of the platter. The tender meat lifted cleanly and effortlessly off the bones. Its preparation is simple a recipe and standard to Greek cuisine, but when executed properly the result is outstandingly impressive. Golden Fleece has an impressive wine list, and full service bar. If you save room for dessert, the recipe for the baklava came from Bakatsias’ sister.

“When I came to Asheville for the first time, there was something whispering please come back. Now I’ve fallen in love with this location and everything unfolded in a magical way, like the mythical Golden Fleece arriving at the place and time it was supposed to. The community is blessed with a lot of great food and kind people. I’m thrilled to be here,” Bakatsias said.

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