Tupelo Honey Cafe

Flavor: Upscale Southern comfort

Ambiance: Comfortably elegant

Service: Friendly and proficient

Tupelo honey, the rare nectar produced only by bees that live in the swamps where the tupelo gum tree grows, is a Southern delicacy prized for its distinctive flavor. Whether out of confidence, foresight or serendipity, Sharon Schott, owner of Asheville’s Tupelo Honey, could not have chosen a more appropriate name for her tribute to Southern cuisine.

Since its 2000 opening, Tupelo Honey has received kudos from Southern Living and the New York Times, not to mention Xpress readers who repeatedly vote for the restaurant in various categories in the annual Best of WNC poll. The restaurant is almost continuously packed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Though ample seating is provided, diners should keep in mind the very real possibility of a wait for a table; clearly, this particular Tupelo is as prized as its namesake.

The restaurant itself is decorated beautifully – neither slick and polished nor too casual, it seems to fill its own Asheville niche. Diners in hiking shorts coexist beside couples dolled up for the symphony, and no one seems out of place. In addition, the interior is immaculate. There’s not a smudge on the mirrors, the outsides of the kitchen hoods are polished to a gleam, and the ceiling fans evidence no visible accumulation of dust. That’s all the more impressive for a restaurant that seldom seems to close.

The wait staff carries the same qualities as the decor, tossing formality out the window for a more relaxed, though certainly not unprofessional, style – one heavily seasoned with Southern hospitality. (And they’re quite clean, to boot.)

Somewhat appropriately, “nouveau Southern” is the tag that has most often been assigned to the fare served in the restaurant’s bustling, high-ceilinged dining room. The word “nouveau” can suggest a bit of highbrow snobbery, or a toying with things that shouldn’t be toyed with, which seems a little off the mark in this case (though the pumpkin-ginger etoufée accompanying an ahi steak might veer perilously close).

Southern, however, it certainly is, and the restaurant is not afraid to show its humble roots. Who needs a creatively wrought aioli when there’s Duke’s? Tupelo eschews the fancy in favor of the familiar in dishes like tomato soup with grilled cheese, that patron saint of girth-building comfort food. Essentially, comfort is what Southern cuisine is all about: Bring on the rib-sticking warm fuzzies, throw in a ham hock, and never mind the calories. That’s what they make control-top panty hose for anyway.

Comfort is precisely what my dining partner and I were served on a recent visit to Tupelo. On a chilly Saturday evening, we endured a 30-minute wait to eat at the cozy, polished-wood bar, where comfort is clearly a subjective matter. The sounds of the kitchen, which is directly on the other side of the bar, permeated the air, as did the herbaceously pleasant scent of rosemary. The back of my chair was repeatedly knocked by passers-by, but the barfly in me loves to belly up to the bar for a cold pint and some warm grub on a high stool, and I much prefer the intimacy of the side-by-side eating arrangement.

Fried green tomatoes seemed in order; the tomatoes themselves are an edible homage to Southern tradition, while the goat-cheese grits bring the dish into the present – though the combination is certainly nothing new. There is a reason why certain dishes become instant classics, and this one is a good example. Given the amount of people crowding the dining room, it was incredible how quickly the steaming plate was placed before us – so quickly, in fact, that it beat the silverware to its destination. The dish did not disappoint, though one needs to keep in mind that seemingly everything at Tupelo is cautiously under-salted, and that the grinder of sea salt at each table should be put to work.

We sampled a beet and fennel salad, an à la carte item from Tupelo’s substantial selection of vegetable dishes, which can be combined in groups of three for an inexpensive vegetarian platter. The salad, unfortunately, proved to be a bit of a disappointment; it wallowed in a surplus of oil and little else.

An entrée of braised pork shanks was delicious. The little hocks were bathed in a tangy tupelo honey/jalapeño barbecue sauce and served with sweet potatoes and asparagus, and the result was as warm and comforting as a woolen blanket. The meat was tender and savory, dark and rich by the bone, and glistening with just the right amount of fat. I declared my love for the dish to three separate servers and my dining companion – several times.

We also ordered the blackened catfish, which arrived topped with a tart and tangy green-tomato salsa, and a generous helping of fried okra, which we had ordered in place of the goat-cheese grits for the sake of variety. The salsa had a lively acidic bite that complemented the tender, mild flesh of the fish quite well.

We finished off our meal with a scoop of tupelo honey ice cream made locally by the Sweet Heaven ice cream company. A bit of the tupelo honey that the restaurant offers, drizzled over the ice cream, made the dessert extra delicious.

So what makes Tupelo Honey, the restaurant, as distinctive and sought after as the sticky treat it’s named after? It is not excessively showy, flashy or avant-garde. Rather, Tupelo Honey has achieved distinction by honoring its roots and adhering to a formula that works. The restaurant offers a consistent and refreshing experience, summed up quite well by a quote from Ina Garten, owner of the acclaimed specialty food store Barefoot Contessa, which is posted on the restaurant’s Web site: “Food is not about impressing people. It’s about making them feel comfortable.”

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