September 14th , 2012 9:11 am 1 Comment

Eating Out: Anticipation builds for Tupelo Honey Café

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I was excited in late July to learn that Tupelo Honey Café, a fixture in downtown Asheville since 2000, plans to open a new restaurant in Johnson City in the historic train depot.

The restaurant’s owner, Steve Frabitore, made the official announcement July 31. The target date for opening the new downtown Johnson City venue is fall 2013. Tupelo Honey Café has certainly impressed many other people, too, because there has been plenty of buzz about the restaurant opening next year.

Tupelo Honey opened its second Asheville location in March 2010 in south Buncombe County at 1829 Hendersonville Road. A location will also open this fall at historic Market Square in Knoxville. Until next year, however, fans of the restaurant will need to travel over the mountains into Asheville to enjoy the food at Tupelo Honey Café. I traveled on Interstate 26 on a recent weekend to meet some friends for a meal on a recent Sunday afternoon. I had enjoyed my first visit last year, and had been eager to return ever since.

Tupelo Honey Café on Henderson Road is the most recently opened of two locations for this Asheville-based eatery. This location opened its doors Feb. 2, 2010. Like the original Tupelo Honey Café in downtown Asheville, this location is also known for offering the same fresh, organic, hormone- and pesticide-free, locally produced food made from scratch.

The sponge-painted golden-ochre walls establish a warm feel that welcomes patrons. Repurposed window panes serve as hanging dividers in the dining area. Displays of eclectic examples of art by local artists and artisans help bring splashes of color to the dining area. Ceiling fans hang over the semi-private benches and tables. Patrons can also enjoy their meal in the large covered outdoor dining area, and the restaurant also offers a full bar with daily drink specials.

The eatery’s menu proclaims its trademarked motto, “New South Flavors, Scratch-made Fun,” across the front cover. Indeed, the items on the menu provide some highly creative twists on traditional Southern favorites such as country ham, shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and barbecue pork.

My dining party and I arrived mid-afternoon and did not have to wait long for a table. Once we were seated, the server arrived to take our drink orders and provide menus. All the wait staff wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the THC logo.

Service, at least at the start of the visit, proved somewhat erratic. One of the most disappointing notifications from our server, Jenni, was that the restaurant was out of its famous Jamie’s Rosemary Peach Lemonade. I was instantly hooked when I sampled a glass of this tart, refreshing lemonade to enjoy during my first visit. The infusion of rosemary with the citrusy lemon sweetened with peach made for one highly addictive and refreshing beverage.

In addition to wine, beer and cocktails from the bar, diners can quench a thirst with everything from a variety of fruit juices to Sprecher Root Beer. The eatery also offers Raspberry and Peach Iced Tea and regular Iced Tea in addition to herbal teas and organic whole-leaf teas.

When our server returned with our drinks, she also brought a basket of fluffy, freshly baked biscuits with a tasty blueberry spread, which we enjoyed as we opened our menus.

We agreed to start the meal by selecting some appetizers to share. Menu options included Fried Green Tomatoes served over Goat Cheese Grits, Appalachian Egg Rolls, Homemade Pimiento Cheese and Tortilla Chips, Chef’s Black Bean Cakes, Tupelo Wings brushed with Honey Chipotle Sauce, Tupelo Tofu Wings and Tupelo’s Encore Cheesy Grit Cakes.

A friend and I decided to share an order of the Homemade Pimiento Cheese, which was served as a warm dip for the toasted tortilla chips. The bowl of dip was served on a bed of greens garnished with two whole Jalapeno peppers.

Two other members of the dining party ordered Appalachian Egg Rolls — pulled pork barbecue in smoked jalapeno barbecue sauce rolled with braised greens, pickled onions and shredded carrots — served with Dijon dipping sauce and garnished with jicama slaw. These, too, proved a hit.

Another of my dining companions ordered the ToMAYto, ToMAHto Soup, which can be served warm or chilled. For a still quite warm Sunday afternoon, he chose to have the soup served chilled and reported that it was one of the best soups he has ever tasted.

Choosing an entree came next. Choices extended to sandwiches, entree salads and a variety of main course options. In addition, the eatery offers its breakfast menu throughout the day.

I considered such main courses as the Root Beer Molasses Glazed Pork Tenderloin, Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf and Brian’s Shrimp and Grits before I decided to order the Chorizo-Crusted Colossal Sea Scallops with Basil Cream Sauce.

Other members of my dining party chose the Southern Fried Chicken Saltimboca with Country Ham and Mushroom Marsala Sauce, the Venerated Veggie Bowl and the Petite Tender Medallions of Beef topped with Gorgonzola Butter and Bordelaise Sauce.

If the main courses are a little more than you want for a lunch, the menu also offers some appealing sandwiches and burgers, including the Southern Fried Chicken BLT, Roast Beef Po’ Boy and the Sheer Bliss Tupelo Burger.

From the first bite, I loved the succulent scallops in my dish. The chorizo-coated, plump sea scallop were served in a medley of roasted red peppers and caramelized onions in a white wine and basil cream sauce. The dish was topped with asparagus spears and garnished with an orchid blossom. This is one of the more costly entrees featured on the menu, but I found it worth every penny.

I sampled a few bites of other main courses, including the Petite Tender Medallions of Beef. These succulent sliced shoulder tenders were topped with gorgonzola butter and a rich bordelaise sauce. The beef is served medium rare with cheesy smashed cauliflower and is also garnished with asparagus spears:

All the dishes were presented with an attractive flair and visually appealing plating.

After such memorable and hearty main courses, I still saved some room for a dessert.

The options listed on the menu include Brown Butter Pecan Pie with Vanilla Bean and Caramel Sauce, Naked Chocolate Cake A La Mode, Banana Pudding, Blueberry Hill Thrill Cream Cheese Pie and Old Fashioned Soda Parlor Float with your choice of Nehi Orange, Nehi Grape, Cheerwine or Sprecher Root Beer served in a pint glass with vanilla ice cream.

A friend and I chose to share a slice of the Blueberry Hill Thrill Cream Cheese Pie while another chose the Old Fashioned Soda Parlor Float with Nehi Orange Soda.

My friend and I enjoyed the lush pie, which featured the restaurant’s scratch-made blueberry and cream cheese pie, infused with a delectable hint of lemon, and garnished with a dollop of whipped cream and a mint leaf.

Since we visited on Labor Day weekend, the restaurant appeared to have been hit hard by the holiday lunch rush, which may explain that at times we had to wait a while for certain parts of the meal to arrive. Otherwise, the experience pleased all the members of my dining party.

Precise attention is obviously given each dish to ensure a maximum flavor impact, and the use of the best in fresh and regionally produced ingredients definitely make Tupelo Honey Café a must-try dining destination.

The two people who were making their first visit to Tupelo Honey Café hailed from Nashville. They’re now quite jealous that Johnson City will be getting its own Tupelo Honey Café. So, if the eatery decides to expand westward to Nashville, they already have two confirmed fans in the state’s capitol.

I don’t mind the trip over the mountains to enjoy a delightful meal at this restaurant, but I do look forward to next year when dining at Tupelo Honey Café will become a lot more convenient. If you visit in the meantime, let them know they were highly recommended.

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AT A GLANCE: 1829 Hendersonville Road, Asheville, N.C. (828) 505-7676. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Entrees range from $6.95-$22.95. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available. Full service bar available.

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