Once the dreamed-about destination of Triangle vacationers in Asheville, Tupelo Honey Café has opened a handsome new outpost in Raleigh's expanding Cameron Village.
The eighth and—at 180 seats, including an outdoor patio with fire pit—second-largest operation in the Tupelo chain served dozens of invited guests from an abbreviated menu during a soft opening Saturday night that continued on Sunday. It officially opened Monday afternoon.
Executive Chef Brian Sonoskus was spotted helping recently promoted Chef Tim Bess manage the new open kitchen, where at least 10 cooks could be seen busily prepping meals. Many of Tupelo's crowd-pleasing standards were available during the event—notably, grits creamed with goat cheese and the brunch- or dessert-friendly (and plate-filling) sweet potato pancake.
Our cheerful waitress implied that some tables had different menus, suggesting they were trying to pace orders and not overwhelm the kitchen. Among the new dishes featured on our version was the New York Strip with Red Wine Bordelaise; the online menu also boasts Mountain Trout with Marinated Baby Heirloom Tomatoes, a Grilled Pork Chop with Braised Figs, and Atlantic Salmon with Orange-Cranberry and Spiced-Pecan Quinoa.
"We never thought we'd have quinoa on the menu, but there it is," says Elizabeth Sims, marketing manager and co-author of two Tupelo Honey cookbooks, who was in from Asheville. "We're a Southern-flavored restaurant, but like the rest of the South, we've become a global South. There are many influences creeping in and making it interesting."
The bar features many of the new elements, including a selection of California's Stone Brewing Co. beers. None were poured during the event, but the house Tupelo Honey Rye Ale was appealing. The bar will feature 22 taps, with several dispensing local brews, as well as locally distilled spirits. A new cocktail is the Big Red Wolf, a Bloody Mary that nods to neighboring N.C. State. Finished with Raleigh Brewing Company's Hidden Pipe Porter, bacon salt, pickled okra, pimento-stuffed olives and maple pepper bacon, it's practically a meal in a glass.
Those craving an alcohol-free beverage should try the refreshing Sparkling Blueberry Punch. It's a complement to the luscious blueberry compote offered with warm biscuits, along with a jar of namesake honey.
While Tupelo Honey Café uses some locally sourced ingredients, it isn't a strict adherent of the the farm-to-fork scene—which is fine with fans who appreciate access to hearty, homestyle favorites regardless of season.
We started with Appalachian Egg Rolls, a recommended appetizer that cleverly tucks savory pulled pork, braised greens, pickled onion and carrots into a crispy shell. The Southern Fried Chicken Saltimbocca covers a chicken breast with melted Havarti cheese topped with a generous sprinkle of country ham. It's served with tender-crisp fresh asparagus and mushroom Marsala gravy. Exercise afterward is not advised.
The Smoked Jalapeño Fried Egg BLT missed the mark. While the slab bacon was substantial, there was no discernible whiff of smoked jalapeño and the fried egg was overdone. The discs of home fries were slick and a side of Cheesy Mashed Cauliflower, which usually elicits sighs of satisfaction, was underdone.
All of this must be taken with a grain of salt, as it were, given that the purpose of soft openings is to work out any kinks that might trouble paying customers. With the exception of optional bar tabs, all guests dined free.
While parking may remain a challenge, Tupelo Honey's premiere location will make it a particular favorite of the college crowd and residents of new condos above it and across the street. Patrons will appreciate the special touches that make the Raleigh space unique, including Raleigh artist Matt McConnell's playful honeycomb chandelier with drippy globs of glass honey that hangs above the hostess station. A painting by Amy C. Evans, former oral historian at the Southern Foodways Alliance, celebrates our passion for pork.
Managers stopped by to make sure diners were content—a hostess saw me sneeze and discreetly offered a stack of soft cocktail napkins—and the wait staff was hustling. Our server embodied the country charm that typifies the Tupelo Honey experience. When she asked if I enjoyed the blueberry punch, I replied that it was perfect. "Innit?" she replied happily.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bringing the mountains home"