Stubborn Seeds offers an international culinary celebration
By KAY WEST
Photos by CHELSEA CRONKRITE
When Kristina “Kiki” Donikian and Clarissa Fawver decided in 2023 to open a restaurant together, they wanted to bring something different to Highlands, which despite being rich in culinary options was a little scant on global curiosity.
“Diners here lean a little conservative,” says Donikian. “Big plates with big proteins.”
Adds Fawver, “Highlands has Italian, pub food, steakhouses, contemporary American. We wanted to do something unique.”
The eureka moment came via Spanish tapas. An established dining style in Spain steadily gaining momentum in the U.S., restaurants have increasingly expanded and renamed appetizer sections ‘small plates’ while entrees or ‘large plates’ have been pared down.
In July 2023, within three weeks of signing the lease on The Bridge building and two weeks after Donikian gave birth to her first child, the partners opened Stubborn Seeds. The name, they say, is an acknowledgment of the work, focus and determination it takes to start an independent restaurant. “Kiki and I had talked about how often as young women we met obstacles because of our age or gender or both,” says Fawver. “We called each other stubborn, which sometimes has a negative connotation.”
The two turned it around. “Women work extremely hard and two women together, twice as hard,” Donikian says. “We never gave up; we fought for this and made it happen. The seeds represent the growth we want to bring to our community.”
Both have solid hospitality experience. Fawver worked at country clubs while a student at Clemson and knew Highlands from hiking there with her mother. After college, she was in the fitness field, then large event and festival planning. When the pandemic shut that industry down, she retreated to Highlands and took a job at Midpoint restaurant on Main Street, eventually becoming manager.
Donikian brought an international resume to Highlands – born in Sophia, Bulgaria, she and her family lived in Madrid for a couple of years when she was quite young. She fell in love with the hospitality industry through restaurant jobs in college; while an exchange student at WCU, she worked at a country club in Highlands. She spent time in Greece, Miami and Chicago before returning to Highlands in 2018, taking the GM job at Cypress restaurant. When chef/owner Nick Higel decided to sell, she grabbed the opportunity, renaming it Midpoint and bringing in a Vietnamese chef. Pastry chef/chocolatier Oksana Shchelgachova, now owner of Edelweiss, was one of her first hires.
She inherited cook Gustavo Villota, a native of Ecuador who had worked in Asheville; he frequently brought her dishes to try. “Everything he made was better than the one before. He brought such layers of flavor to every dish. I made him executive chef of Midpoint, and he transformed it.”
When a gas explosion closed Midpoint in early July, Fawver and Donikian were already transforming The Bridge – which had closed Memorial Day – to Stubborn Seeds. The footprint was in place for guests – a small foyer with a sofa; a large room with floor to ceiling windows, a U-shaped bar that seats 20, high-topped tables and upholstered booths; and a smaller dining room bordered on one side with an open kitchen. All of it in creamy neutrals and multiple textures, conveying warmth and sophistication. “We wanted to create a vibrant social scene,” Donikian explains. “Make a reservation for a table, or just drop in for a glass of wine and tapas at the bar, which is always like a party. You’ll make friends there for sure.”
The menu was grown from the ground up, working with Villota to include traditional Spanish tapas like patatas bravas, albondigas (meatballs), mushrooms in an olive oil-based sauce with garlic and spices, shrimp sauteed in garlic and oil and braised, boneless short ribs in sherry wine glaze. The cubes of fried potatoes have an ideal crisp, drizzled with smoked harissa aioli rather than roasted tomato. The mushrooms are plump and meaty, and the meatballs dunked in a thick tomato sauce.
The standout among the slate of 20 tapas is the pulpo a la plancha – coins of succulent grilled octopus, charred cherry tomatoes and sliced roast potatoes on a bed of pureed parsnip. That winter root vegetable is also the base for two seared, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth jumbo scallops.
In response to the question, ‘What is the future of dining?’ posed to a panel of Eater Carolinas writers, one contributor boldly predicted ‘The death of entrees!’ Stubborn Seeds says not so fast and offers a thoughtfully edited six to eight large plates, including big proteins like elk tenderloin and a Korabuta porkchop. Take a trip to Spain via the paella for two – a gorgeous presentation of golden saffron rice, bright green peas, diced tomato, seared scallops, sauteed shrimp and broiled lobster tails, the perfect dish to complement the tapas and Spanish wines.
Pastry chef Katelin Chambers brings international flavor and a deft touch to desserts, in particular the Indian-inspired Gulab Jamun – a milk donut centered in a bowl of subtly sweet saffron lassi and strewn with toasted pistachios.
A rotation of 20 wines by the glass are always available, and beverage service is very accommodating of those who want a grown-up drink minus the alcohol.
In Stubborn Seeds, Donikian and Fawver have cultivated a vibrant restaurant and experience abundant with flavor and fun, and they promise they’ve just begun to grow.