It’s been a few years since I ate at the original Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville, but I still remember the meal fondly. My wife and I were there for Sunday brunch and, as we’d been told to expect a full house, we arrived early. Even then, we considered ourselves lucky to score the last two seats at the counter in the compact, country-casual dining room.
The meal started off with a couple of complimentary biscuits, served hot with a small dish of homemade blueberry jam and a squeeze bottle of tupelo honey. Then we shared two signature dishes: shrimp and goat cheese grits with a spicy sauce riddled with roasted red peppers; and a sweet potato pancake so big you could barely see the rim of the sunny yellow Fiesta-ware plate it was served on. Both, we agreed, lived up to their reputations.
I was naturally curious, then, when I learned that a Tupelo Honey Cafe was slated to open in December in the new 401 Oberlin building in Cameron Village. How would the Raleigh location – the eighth in what has become a rapidly growing multi-state chain – compare to the Asheville original?
To say that a lot has changed would be putting it mildly. The Raleigh restaurant is much larger, and the look is decidedly more corporate. A dripping honeycomb sculpture hanging overhead near the entrance (one of several works by local artists commissioned for the restaurant), catches your eye as soon as you walk in the door. But an abundance of folksy touches – copper pans and vintage refrigerator doors decorating the walls on either side of the kitchen pass-through window, divider partitions fashioned from old wood-framed windows, belt-driven ceiling fans that look antique – leave no doubt about the designers’ aim of preserving the spirit of the original Tupelo Honey Cafe.
The menu has undergone similarly dramatic changes, as the kitchen has grafted a veritable garden of international flavors onto its Appalachian roots.
Under the heading of “Southern Small Plates,” sprinkled in among longstanding favorites such as fried green tomatoes and warm pimento cheese with house-made tortilla chips, you’ll find a globe-spanning assortment of new enticements, from herbed lamb meatballs to house-cured Atlantic salmon with crispy potato pancakes. A panko-crusted jumbo lump crab cake gets paired with a small jalapeño-dressed salad. Tennessee country ham wontons will spoil you permanently for ordinary Chinese crab rangoon.
More adventure awaits under the “Seasonal Specialties” heading, where newcomers to the list include pan-seared jumbo sea scallops with a green pea risotto; roasted duck breast with cherry port wine sauce; and expertly grilled lamb chops with mint chimichurri and a surprisingly light and refreshing salad of black-eyed peas and green beans.
According to the menu, which offers a wine or beer pairing suggestion for each entree, the lamb chops go nicely with the Vinaceous “Snake Charmer” shiraz from the restaurant’s selection of exclusively organic wines. All are available by the glass (6- or 9-ounce pour) or bottle.
If, on the other hand, you opt for the curried fried chicken thigh (an exotic interloper that managed to sneak in among the down-home dishes listed under “Supper Plates with Sides”), the menu will steer you to one of the 24 beers on tap in the bar’s rotating selection.
Then again, it’s hard to beat Tupelo Honey’s take on fried chicken, which – thanks to a 30-hour soak in a buttermilk brine – is juicier and more flavorful inside its crackly-crisp shell than you ever imagined a piece of boneless, skinless breast could be.
Pan-seared Carolina mountain trout, butterflied and generously peppered, is another winning supper plate option. Beef-and-bacon meatloaf, served with rosemary tomato shallot gravy, is yet another. As the heading suggests, entrees in this section come with your choice of two sides. The list of options here is as diverse as the rest of the menu, covering the spectrum from fried okra (not to be missed) to carrot and kale slaw with avocado lime vinaigrette.
A few things haven’t changed. They still serve those complimentary biscuits, and the shrimp and grits are as good as I remember. You can add chorizo if you like, or shoot the works with the Shoo Mercy version, which adds caramelized onions, mushrooms, spinach, bacon and extra shrimp. This one’s so popular, it’s available any time of day.
So is the sweet potato pancake. It’s big and fluffy as ever, too, and still topped with a generous scattering of toasted pecans and a knob of peach butter. The only difference, as far as I could tell, was that the rustic Fiesta-ware plate has been replaced by the more refined look of off-white porcelain. Just one more bit of evidence, you might say, that Tupelo Honey Cafe is equally adept at looking forward and looking back.
425 Oberlin Road, Raleigh
Cuisine: contemporary Southern
Atmosphere: casual, vibrant collage of Southern art and artifacts
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: fried okra, wontons, crab cake, fried chicken, trout, lamb chops, shrimp and grits, sweet potato pancake
Open: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Reservations: available (online or by phone) up to two hours in advance of seating
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in lots (see website for parking map); valet parking: 5-10 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.