When the Asheville-based Tupelo Honey Cafe announced it was coming to Knoxville, the news generated a lot of buzz. I counted myself and The Grub Spouse among those looking forward to its arrival on Market Square, in the old Market Square Kitchen space.
We arrived on a dark and dreary Tuesday night, but the place was still overflowing. Fortunately, we were able to snag one of just a couple of ready tables, and we were soon parked at a street-view two-top.
The restaurant's slogan is "New South flavors, scratch-made fun," and the menu indeed reflects this philosophy, taking familiar down-home favorites and adding a few outside-the-box twists along the way.
For example, we could have started with fried green tomatoes, cheesy grit cakes or a mug of hot or chilled tomato soup. Instead, we tried the Appalachian egg rolls — pulled pork in smoked jalapeno barbecue sauce, rolled up with braised kale and chard, pickled onions and shredded carrots and deep-fried. Served with a horseradish sauce and more barbecue sauce, these rolls were a bonanza of flavors and textures. Anticipating a long haul, we went easy and saved room.
Our server also brought out a couple of Tupelo Honey's signature scratch-made biscuits. They were fresh and thick — some might even say on the heavy side — but I called them outstanding — a real treat.
The Spouse ordered from the sandwich section, choosing the roast beef po' boy over the likes of a shrimp taco, the Charleston Chicken Sandwich and the Grateful Dead Black Bean Burger. The po' boy features thin, seasoned and slow-roasted prime rib slices on fresh bakery bread, accompanied between the roll by fried green tomatoes, shredded lettuce and cherry pepper aioli. It's served cold.
I was tempted by several of the main courses, including Brian's Shrimp and Grits, chorizo-crusted sea scallops with basil cream sauce and the Not Your Mama's Meatloaf. I went with the Southern fried chicken saltimbocca — a hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken breast topped with country ham and Havarti cheese, served with mushroom marsala sauce, and accompanied by cheesy smashed cauliflower and asparagus spears. (FYI, Tupelo Honey has a gluten-free menu, and many of its regular-menu side items are either gluten-free, soy-free or vegan-friendly.)
Both of our selections were out of this world. The medium-rare roast beef was well seasoned and made an interesting match-up with the fried green tomato slices. The bread itself was fresh and delish. Meanwhile, my fried chicken tasted country-wonderful on its own, but teamed up with the ham, cheese and marsala sauce, it was a tour de force.
We boxed up a figurative ton of food so we could save room for dessert. The pecan-pie-lovin' Spouse tried a slice of Tupelo Honey's much-heralded version, while I was instantly hooked by the description of the blueberry cream cheese pie with vanilla ice cream.
The Spouse went so far as to claim that pecan pie was "one of the best ever," while I sadly had to give in to a stuffed belly halfway through the pie, despite its vaulting to the upper tier of my dessert hall of fame.
In addition to the food, the service was great and the atmosphere was inviting thanks to an upscale country farmhouse feel. Simply put: Our experience at Tupelo Honey was sweet indeed.
Address: 1 Market Square
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays; 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Full bar service
Bottom Line: This new Asheville restaurant import is a must-stop on anyone's downtown dining wish list.