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Please Explain Ashley Christensen to Me (Raleigh, NC)

I loved Ashley Christensen at Enoteca Vin and I've had excellent food at Poole's Diner, although I dislike the ambiance there. I've also eaten at Chuck's and Beasley's and the best I can say about the food at either of those places is that it was okay. Just okay. Not close to acceptable for the price or attitude.
My first (and probably only) meal at Beasley's left me with a poor impression. The food came out nearly instantaneously, suggesting that it all was sitting around pre-made. The vaunted meatloaf was just meh. Both it and the accompanying mashed potates were badly underseasoned, as was my dining companion's chicken. The mac and cheese was rather good, easily the best dish on the table. There was no salt or pepper on the tables, as I'm sure the chef/staff doesn't feel that their food needs it. Wrong! When the check came, my companion looked it over as he was sure he would be charged extra for the requested Tabasco sauce. He was serious. And no, there was no extra charge. Still, that goes to show how Christensen seems to have us trained. The atmosphere both at Beasley's and Chuck's is univiting to anyone over 45 or with any kind of mobility impairment. The seating says, "Don't stay a second long than necessary," and "Don't even bother if you expect any level of comfort." The music level in the afternoon with less than a quarter of the tables occupied was such that I still had to speak very loudly to hold a conversation with someone sitting 2 feet away. We didn't even bother trying to talk.
So what's the deal? Ashley Christensen can most certainly cook and she knows how to run a decent restaurant. I have to wonder if she's running an elaborate social experiment, trying to see how far she push the envelope by serving horribly average food in a wannbe hip setting at grossly inflated prices and waiting to see how long it is before there's a pushback. In other words, how much can I make them swallow?
Considering the kudos she received this week at the SFA conference, all from people who should know what they're talking about, it's clear that she knows which end of the spatula goes in the skillet. I really, really want to like Christensen. She's served me some meals in the past that have made me very happy. So what is going on now? Any ideas?

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  1. I wish I could answer that but have not been to the other places mostly because I rarely find myself in Raleigh and even less so with a plan to eat. I would say to bring your query to the person, herself. Come to the next Stir The Pot Potluck at her house and talk with her or her staff. The music (though not as loud) is what she probably likes to listen to at home and in general. Enoteca Vin she inherited from someone else if I'm not mistaken and so the layout and style of that restaurant was already set. These are her children.. I think she spends most of her time at Pooles. But the potluck may give you a nonconfrontational (and tasty) way to get a feel for her personality so as to better understand what she is all about and to also talk to people who work with her and to talk to her herself.. just a thought even if it is way out there.

    1. I think those are tough questions and having previously raised some similar questions here before after Beasley's first opened let me try to come to Ashley's defense a bit here. As BF notes, clearly these are her restaurants and she is not trying to cater to everyone with these different venues. She's the chef, the owner, etc. and should be able to set up and run the kinds of restaurants she desires. If a sufficiently large segment of the public shows up and supports the restaurants then I think that is great even if a large segment does not. If there is not broad enough support for the concepts / restaurants to succeed, then she may have to reassess but I think she should have the opportunity to structure / operate those as she sees fit and run the risk of succeeding or failing just like any business owner. I don't think most of us wonder why Quentin Tarantino doesn't make feel good family movies--we just accept that he desires to do something different and we are free to partake or not depending on our personal preferences. Does a chef have to be different?

      That said, I've eaten at all the restaurants and had good meals at all and great meals many times. If I were given the choice of having her food at Enoteca Vin or Poole's, I'd probably prefer to go to Enoteca more often but that may just be me. Poole's can be fun for folks of most ages I think on certain occasions and the food has always been great. It is not cheap to be sure and I'd personally prefer to have a paper copy of the menu rather than having to crane around to read and re-read off the board. I'd also like for some of the bar seats not to wobble as much, etc. etc. Nobody's forcing me to go there though and when I do go I generally know what to expect.

      We tend to eat more at Chuck's than any of the others because of our demographics. It is expensive to be sure but I'm not sure it is so expensive to suggest its overly inflated, fraudulent or raise social engineering concerns. The regular half pound burgers are I think $9. I just looked at the burgers online at Chili's (just for a random comparison) and most of their big burgers with toppings appear to be around $8.69. I don't know much about Chili's burgers but I do know Chuck's taste better and I feel pretty certain that the meat is of higher quality and know for sure the other ingredients are unique enough and of high enough quality to warrant a bit more. A cheeseburger at Firebirds with cheese and LTO is $10. Now that includes fries but for the price I'd much rather split an order of Chuck's fries with the rest of the table (plenty) and I'm not sure you don't come out cheaper. Add to that the fact that Chuck's added the 5oz little Chuck option and I don't think the prices are all that bad. Sure there are times when what I want and are willing to pay for is more along the lines of a quick burger at 5 Guys but I really think that is in a different category. For that matter, there are many times when one could find most of the items on the Poole's menu (or some similar variation thereof) at the K&W. Not knocking the K but I think that's a different category with Poole's doing ingredients and execution on a different level.

      I tend to like Beasley's the least of the restaurants and go there less often than the others. There are many reasons for that including largely the fact that I don't particularly like fried chicken. Because of that preference, I'm more likely to grab a chicken and biscuit at the Bo than spend the time and money to get one at Beasley's. The thing that really threw me the first time at Beasley's was the no free tea refill--I still have a hard time defending that and I think that may have changed since they first opened.

      All of that is just my opinion but I wanted to offer it up as one who has sort of asked similar questions in the past and how my opinion has evolved somewhat as have the restaurants since they were first opened.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Guilty Gourmand

        Fair enough and, after all, this is just opinions anyhow.

        Honestly, I wasn't even thinking of chain places when I took issue with prices. As far as the burgers go, I had the Federal in mind. They've always been one of my favorites and for about $8 you get a very good burger and great garlic fries. Since Chuck's opened (and I'm not suggesting cause and effect) we've seen a rapid escalation in the price of simple hamburgers. I'm very ready for the "gourmet" burger trend to be over. And I really do think it's unfair to say that you can get the same food at K&W for a fraction of the price. It's not the same food, I didn't suggest that it is, and if it really is just as good at K&W there's a much bigger problem here.

        Yes, I guess my biggest problem is that I'm very disappointed with the direction Christensen has decided to take. Her career, her choice. Unfortunately, that's causing me to choose not to patronize her restaurants. I don't like making that choice because I was such a fan of her earlier work. Call me a jilted lover, I suppose.

        1. re: rockycat

          Yep. Just opinions. Those and $11 will get you a quarter fried chicken and a side of mac-n-cheese at Beasley's.

          1. re: rockycat

            The trend of not putting salt and pepper on tables drives me crazy. I don't think I'm salt-addicted, but there are some places that tend to send their food out without enough, and I like to be able to add what I want without causing the waiter to look appalled.

        2. I guess my statement should have simply boiled down to this.. We are not psychologists (well I am not) and so why not get the explanation straight from the person herself. Maybe, eventually, she will do a fine dining minus the rock and roll. Which given that expression reminds me of how I've hard Batali's Babbo described.

          9 Replies
          1. re: burgeoningfoodie

            I don't feel that any of her restaurants are fine dining, rock and roll not withstanding. The food at pools is quite good, don't get me wrong. But, it is not a comfortable place to eat, everyone is crowded together, customers waiting for space to dine are crowded around you. It is not the relaxing, non rushed, meal one experts from fine dining.

            1. re: burgeoningfoodie

              Babbo has rock playing, but not at a volume that I found in any way made conversation difficult. That said I was just with LulusDad - maybe with more people it would be harder.

              I've always wanted to try Pooles, but I have to say these posts are making me less interested.

              1. re: LulusMom

                I certainly have no problem with rock music, says the person who listens to the Clash and the Who at work. I just think that it's reasonable to expect to be able to carry on a conversation with the person sitting next to you without having to raise your voice.

                1. re: LulusMom

                  You should try Pooles, the food can be quite good and it can be fun, just not fine dining and don't take Lulu.

                  1. re: chazzer

                    Why not take Lulu? The wait or the noise?

                    Hey rc, I met the Clash once in my younger days.

                    1. re: LulusMom

                      In their own words from the Web site

                      ARE CHILDREN WELCOME?
                      Weeeeeeeeell, we love kids, but Poole's isn't really the place for them with its busy and packed dining room.

                      1. re: chazzer

                        OK, thanks for the explanation. Totally understand their point of view. Lulu is actually about 32, just stuck in a 6 year old's body. But of course they wouldn't know that.

                        1. re: LulusMom

                          I have only been to Poole's once. We arrived at 5pm because we had tickets for a show. We sat at the bar/counter until 5:30pm and then moved to a booth in the back. After a while a family of 2 parents, a 5 yr old, an infant and a grandfather was seated at a table next to us. They all seemed to enjoy their dinner.

                          When we left a few minutes before 7pm, the dining room was full, the bar/counter was busy and there were several parties waiting for tables. I did not feel that the dining room was any more "busy", "packed", "hectic", or "noisy" than anywhere else. In my opinion, a well behaved young diner who will be happy with the selection on the menu will have no problems dining at Poole's.

                          By the way, we really liked everything we had at Poole's. I wish we would have brought a cooler so we could have eaten a little less of what we ordered and taken some home for the next day.

                          From what I have read on this board, Lulu is on the AAA+++ list. Go early and enjoy.

                          1. re: boaviagem

                            Thanks for letting me know that kids actually can go there (early), and especially thanks for making me proud (or even prouder) of my girl.

              2. The food came out nearly instantaneously, suggesting that it all was sitting around pre-made.
                ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
                Sorry to tell you this, but without knowing the Chicken dish ordered.......All the food you cite would be premade for service for that particular day.....Unless the dish is sauteed, grilled or broiled.....that's how it's done in restaurants, diners and delicatessens.

                5 Replies
                1. re: fourunder

                  Then maybe the kitchen should have taken the extra minute or two to finish reheating the meatloaf so that it wasn't at room temperature while the side was actually hot.

                  I resent the fact that you seem to assume that I know absolutely nothing about food service. When I say that the turnaround time was nearly instantaneous, I mean under 2 minutes. It takes a certain amount of time to walk to the computer terminal, enter the order, reheat and plate the food, and walk it to the table. Are you suggesting that restaurants are holding all their menu options at serving temperature all the time? In that case, we'd all be eating a lot of overcooked, dried out stuff.

                  And I would really prefer to think that $11 a plate fried chicken is not sitting for hours under a heat lamp like at KFC.

                  1. re: rockycat

                    Just a couple of thoughts on comments above. I also don't understand no salt on the table. I've never seen it as an insult to adjust seasoning a bit, but that being said I don't mind asking for it if a dish is in need. As for the price of chicken at Beasley's, they do use Springer Mountain chicken. It's all natural, not fed any junk and completely delicious. It's also more than twice the price of Perdue or Raeford. The prices at Beasley's are, as related to food cost percentage, lower per dollar than a fast food fried chicken joint. If you take that into consideration, Beasleys chicken is a better deal. I'd personally rather eat better chicken less often and pay more for it.

                    Finally, my attempt to explain Ashley Christensen goes something like this. She's a talented chef who is very passionate about what she does. She knows how to run restaurants and has done a great job with PR, which has led to the opportunity of opening Chuck's and Beasley's. This shouldn't shield her from criticism, but it also shouldn't amp it up. If I walked into either place not knowing who the chef or owner was, I would think they were both pretty cool concepts. I would certainly give beasley's another shot.

                    1. re: veganhater

                      If the Fried Chicken is indeed priced at $11...and is made with Springer Mountain Farms products......then I would say that's actually very reasonable pricing.

                      1. re: fourunder

                        Likewise, the burgers at Chuck's are made from high quality beef and ground daily. I don't mind paying a few bucks extra to know that there's no pink slime in my burger. Also, we should all remember that food costs have increased due to higher feed costs and the like. Now that we live in CH, we don't go it AC's restaurants anymore, but if we're in Raleigh, they're on our short list.

                    2. re: rockycat

                      All of the food at Beasley's is fried to order. The meat is cooked in 2 stages, for moisture and texture, so the frying portion is quite quick, but nothing is ever under a lamp (they don't have them).

                  2. I moved here just before Enoteca Vin closed so I did not get to experience the restaurant or Christensen's' contributions to the venue. I have experienced some less than stellar catering in the between period prior to Poole's opening.

                    I do feel a good part of the popularity of her venues are due to her place in the local hipster community. Her growth as a chef parallels the rise of the "foodie" movement. For many in that group I think she became THEIR rockstar chef. She has been a part of the nightlife in downtown Raleigh (personally and professionally) for enough years to have created a large support base.

                    Her personality and a certain amount of mystique are tied so closely to her venues that I don't think there are many local reviewers who can objectively distinguish between the local celebrity vs the chef.