Sitting alone at a window-side bar table at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I feared I would have to wait until kingdom come for my Sunday brunch.
Friends had warned me that Raleigh’s Tupelo Honey Cafetucked into the ground floor of a literally brick, metaphorically beige apartment building near Cameron Village for the last yearwas always slammed on weekends. To avoid waiting an hour to be seated, let alone eat, I should arrive early, they said.
In my particular social circles, food before noon on a Sunday is sacrilegenot because of Jesus, mind you, but because our antiquated blue laws won’t let you have a mimosa or Bloody Mary. And isn’t brunch just an excuse for the dawn of day drinking?
On this particular Sabbath, though, I bypassed the booze and focused on the Southern breakfast, touted as a specialty of this Asheville-based chain of a dozen restaurants. Stomach growling, head still foggy, I passed the time by marveling at a homey patiovintage string lights, comfy pillowy chairs, wooden tables, lush greenerythat ran the length of the restaurant along Oberlin Road. “Have cocktails on this patio at the first sign of spring,” I told myself, “even if you don’t like the food.”
But did I like the food?
Brunch, yes. Dinner the night before with several companions? Well, it’s complicated.
I am a native Southerner, born and raised in eastern North Carolina. My grandmotherNancy Emma, or “Granny Maw”was a master of the lard-based arts, and I often ate her garden-fresh veggies hot off a skillet bathed in fatback. Many of today’s most famous Southern chefs assert their mastery of Southern cooking not by way of culinary school or an apprenticeship with a famous professional but, like me, through their personal experiences with a granny, mama, uncle or pawpaw and a cast-iron skillet. I considered myself prepared.
True to family-style form, once you place your order at Tupelo Honey, either for brunch or dinner, a server promptly presents one biscuit and homemade blueberry jam. Don’t ask for the biscuits before you order, as there seems to be a rule that you must order, in case you’re planning to scam free biscuits and bolt.
Little chance for me: Dense and doughy with only the slightest bit of crispness on top, Tupelo Honey’s sad little lumps offered no joy, no return to childhood in the backcountry of the Carolinas. The only flavor came from a cracked pepper glaze. At least the thick blueberry jamto flavorless biscuits what ketchup is to bland frieshelped me get it down.
Finally, my entrée arrivedthe “famous” sweet potato pancake, Shoo Mercy style. Many of Tupelo Honey’s dishes offer Shoo Mercy upgrades, which entail a slathering of over-the-top extras. For the pancakes, Shoo Mercy meant the addition of buttermilk-marinated chicken breast and maple bacon. Fluffy and fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg, the pancake didn’t need the poultry frippery. Drenched in homemade peach butter and smothered in spiced pecans, the pancake only required the help of the bacon, an ample savory foil.
What’s more, the goat cheese grits are among the best in the area. Hot and creamy, a perfect pop of goat cheese adds a hint of tanginess without overwhelming the grits’ own body and taste. Too many restaurants overburden the grits, a tantalizingly textured vessel meant to carry flavors with both aplomb and subtlety. They require a deft, caring, gentle touch. I felt it, Tupelo Honey.
Not so much with dinner, though. An entrée of fried chicken and biscuits in milk gravy with Tennessee country ham arrived and left as a flatlining bore. No amount of buttermilk “brining” could make that chicken breast moist. At least the chicken had seasoning; the milk gravy certainly didn’t. Heaped atop the dense, doughy biscuits (again!), the dull sauce made for a heavy slog for my forkand I didn’t even ask them to Shoo Mercy. After three or four passes, I pushed it away.
The heavily breaded fried green tomatoes, doled out over a thick paste of goat-cheese grits and red-pepper coulis, were no better. The intense brightness of unripe tomatoes doesn’t play well with equally intense flavors, of which there were two. Granny Maw would have frowned. The beef-and-bacon meatloaf was overly rich, too, with a rosemary tomato shallot gravy on top simply suggesting fortified ketchup. And mac and cheesethat classic Southern staple, intended to be creamy, even if served casserole-style with a crispy topwas bone-dry.
The Southern Taco Trio seemed interestingflour tortillas with an odd combination of curried fried chicken, apple salsa and cherry pepper aiolibut tasted like something you throw together at home if you’re desperate to clean the refrigerator. The same held for the “Shoo Mercy” shrimp and grits, loaded with caramelized onions, spinach, mushrooms and bacon. Full of ingredients doesn’t mean complex, and all these intense flavors never intertwined.
All was not lost, at least. Another Southern staple, the simple and classic Southern Fried Okra, came out piping hot, perfectly crisp and golden. As we dipped it in a mayonnaise-based Alabama white sauce, everyone shushed. The warm pimento cheese dip, served with house-made tortilla chips, elicited the same silent ecstasy. Pimento cheese is a simple spread, easily ruined by too many ingredients. Tupelo Honey’s concoction of roasted red peppers and Dijon mustard nails it.
As I sat back down for brunch the next day, in the full light of day, I thought about how the bright, shiny décor reflected the previous night’s meal. At Tupelo Honey, muted colors surround rows of booths and tables in a nondescript modern dining room, peppered with out-of-place flourishes like antique refrigerator doors. It’s a Disneyland version of some Dixie dive that never existed.
For most of my meals, the execution felt like meticulous corporate cooking, working hard to make you think of your own Granny Maw, if you had one. And while Tupelo Honey’s kitchen sure has a lot of ingredients at its disposal, they were rarely combined with the adept Southern care that makes you feel at homeunless you live in the apartments overhead, I presume.
But does “adept Southern care” ensure a truly divine culinary experience?
I sought the answer at another new Raleigh restaurant that professes to focus on traditional Southern flavors, P. G. Werth’s.
When I first heard the name after it opened last year, I assumed P.G. Werth’s was a chaina P.F. Chang’s for our soul food set. But friends who regularly trek over to the ground-level Morgan Street restaurant (also tucked beneath a fresh set of apartments) for bottomless mimosas assured me it was a local joint. The owner and chef, Gregg Hamm, owns Cafe 121 in Sanford. He currently leaves the day-to-day operations there to a long-time employee and devotes his time to his capital city spot. Hamm’s thick, lilting accent hints at the down-home aim of his extensive seasonal menu.
After surprising us with a basket of hot homemade potato chips, our waiter pointed out a new dinner-menu optionThe Big Munch, a subsection of sandwiches for patrons looking for something simpler and cheaper than traditional entrées. There’s the BBQ Belly Burger (with Cheshire pork belly, Havarti cheese and barbecue sauce) or the Bacon, Egg, & Cheese (with Applewood bacon, duck egg, Havarti and fried green tomato).
Those sandwich names seem straightforward enough, but that doesn’t hold for the rest of the menu. The Cauliflower Mac N’ Cheese initially made me think Hamm had transformed cauliflower into the basis for the Southern pasta. But what emerged (and, in all fairness, what the menu describes) was roasted, smoky cauliflower florets covered in a creamy cheese sauce, sprinkled with crispy bits of pork. But it wasn’t mac and cheese.
The same went for the Ginger Pork & Cauliflower Dumplings, which seems to imply a cauliflower transformed into a dumpling with revolutionary gusto. While the braised pork arrived in a perfectly balanced creamy ginger-beer gravy, I was a bit disappointed to find that the cauliflower dumpling was another menu feint.
The misdirection even applied to one of my favorites of my two visitsthe not-Southern-at-all Beef Wellington. Served at medium-rare perfection, the beautifully seasoned filet sits in a puff pastry. The menu only mentions “mushrooms,” giving no hint of the magnificent duxelles (a simple mushroom paste of olive oil, salt and black pepper) that accompanies it. I could purchase the stuff by the gallon in the attached market, where you can buy Hamm’s creations to take home. Think of it as a less-accomplished Standard Foods for the other side of town.
That’s not to say there aren’t accomplishments. The simplicity of the beet salad meant the beets tasted like they came straight out of a Mason jar tucked into a cabinet, their earthiness allowed to shine. The pimento home fries are, likewise, simple and great, with hunks of crispy potatoes still moist and steaming, covered in a pimento cheese flecked with jalapeno. The dish is hearty and rustic, more suited to a down-home diner or Southern picnic than P.G. Werth’s chic dining room of floor-to-ceiling glass, stone walls and abstract paintings.
But that’s the thing about Tupelo Honey, P.G. Werth’s and most every “new new South” bastion like them: The quaint or quirky places that allowed Southerners to indulge in the simple foods their grandmothers madefried chicken, greens cooked with pig tails, candied yams, fried corn sticks, pulled pork barbecue, banana pudding and Brunswick steware disappearing. These homespun holes-in-the wall never had to proclaim their Southerness, either on their menus or on their websites. They just existed.
My grandmother never had to tell anyone how much she cared about her cooking, either. It was evident in the way she hummed while she sifted her flour, in the way she smiled as she stirred the pot of collards, in the way she hugged me when I asked for second and third helpings.
I like to think that, on a Sunday morning, her Southern hospitality wouldn’t have made me make up my mind before bringing me one pepper-flecked biscuit, too doughy or not.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Shoo no mercy”