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OUT to LUNCH: How sweet it is! Lunchtime goodness at Tupelo Honey Café

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By Bethel Poston

Today’s “Out To Lunch” adventure was at Knoxville’s Tupelo Honey Café.

It’s at Market Square at Union and adjoins the Historic Oliver Hotel, built in 1876.

The fact this article is published the day after I spent a week in Tupelo, Miss., at the Furniture Market is coincidental.

The café’s name is a reference to the Tupelo honey used as a sweetener in many of its recipes. A bottle is on every table.

Tupelo honey comes from bees feeding on the flower of white Tupelo gum trees in the swampy bottomlands of northwest Florida.

My wife, Carol, and I again invited our South Knoxville furniture friends, Jerry and Mickey Pease, to join us on this adventure.

Tupelo Honey Café does not take reservations. It can seat 138 people, but I had heard about long waits to be seated.

We let out Carol and Mickey to get on the wait list while we parked at Market Square Garage. I had to park outside on the sixth level because the other inside floors were full.

Our wait was about 20 minutes. In the time we were in the café, I estimate at least a dozen customers were waiting for hostess Kristi Lentz to seat them. You are given a pager, so you can stroll around the Square until your table is ready.

Mickey was first to order, going for the Cheesy Grill & ToMayto Tomahto Soup. She chose havarti and pimento cheese for her sandwich served on Texas toast.

Jerry did a good job on the special of the day, a quiche with a side of asparagus. He also sampled from Mickey’s big steamy mug of tomato soup on this chilly day.

Because of Carol’s fondness of shrimp, I wasn’t surprised when she ordered “When Shrimp Met Taco.”

It’s described on the menu as “two soft flour tortillas, filled with the perfect marriage of flash-fried, juicy shrimp, julienned Swiss chard, our house-made smoked jalapeno aioli and made-on-site Sunshot Salsa.”

I always thought a po’boy was made with fish, so when I saw a roast beef po’boy on the menu, I had to give it a try.

Tupelo Honey Café’s menu says, “We slow-roast and season our thinly shaved prime rib to medium rare, then serve it with fried green tomatoes, shredded lettuce and cherry pepper aioli on world-famous Gambino’s bakery bread. This special sandwich is served cold so the cook of the prime rib is fully appreciated.”

We also shared a cup of the signature ToMayto Tomahto Soup. Carol and I both took home half of our entrées for a later meal.

The fried green tomatoes warmed my sandwich at the café, but I microwaved my half-sandwich at home. It was extremely good both times.

While waiting for our booth, Carol struck up a conversation with Karen Walkup, owner of By Design, a hospitality interior design firm. Carol said I should talk with her later, because it was her fifth time to eat at Tupelo Honey.

As it turned out, Karen was seated in a booth adjoining ours with her friends, Emma P. Chacon and Anne Borrelli Smith.

Emma works with By Design and is originally from Colombia. On her first visit to Tupelo Honey, she had Misse’s Asheville veggie melt.

It’s “served open faced on grilled sourdough bread topped with fried green tomatoes, lemon aioli, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, roasted red peppers, spinach and melted havarti cheese,” according to the menu.

Karen had Tupelo’s omelet, with home fries. She chose omelet ingredients of spinach, Gorgonzola cheddar cheese and tomatoes.

Ann is owner of DPOV Interiors, a firm that does residential, office, retail, restaurant and hospitality design.

She had a Changing Leaves spinach salad of seasonal greens topped with mushrooms, dried cranberries, almonds, grape tomatoes and crumbled Gorgonzola cheese with scratch-made basil vinaigrette dressing. She added fried chicken.

It has nothing to do with our lunch, but it was unusual to have two side-by-side booths filled with folks associated with the furniture industry.

Tupelo Honey Café, with headquarters in Asheville, N.C., opened the Knoxville location on Oct. 15, 2012.

The website, www.tupelohoneycafe.com, provides a complete menu.

“From sweet potato pancakes with peach butter to shrimp and grits, Tupelo Honey is known for its casual, colorful and whimsical atmosphere as well as its unique flavors,” the website said.

“Creativity rules in our kitchen where our larder is billed with scratch-made inventive goodness. We ratchet up our flavors so they’re on par with the farm-fresh produce we love.”

Knoxville floor manager Bryan McKee said the most-ordered items are grilled cheese and soup, medallions of beef, and Southern-fried chicken saltimbocca with country ham and mushroom Marsala sauce.

Nick Moore grew up in Oak Ridge and is now with the math department of New York University. Maybe he heard Bryan talk about the Southern fried chicken, because that’s what he ordered.

It’s described on the menu as “crispy fried hormone-free and antibiotic-free chicken breast topped with country ham, melted havarti cheese and basil. Served with a mushroom Marsala sauce, cheesy smashed cauliflower and garnished with asparagus spears.”

Nick’s mother, Kathy Moore, works with the U.S. Forest Service in Gatlinburg. She had the soup and Tupelo house salad.

Her husband, Bob Hintz, with Ski Mountain Chalet Rentals in Gatlinburg, had “Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf.”

“Your Mama never had Strong Stock Farm’s hormone-free mountain-raised beef to make her loaf,” the menu said. “But we do, and top it off rosemary tomato shallot gravy and serve it with a side of scratch-made mac-and-cheese and chef’s choice of seasonal garnish.”

Hours are from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, and from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Standard beverages are available, plus their signature house-made rosemary-peach lemonade, and a full service bar.

Our group passed on desserts that included honeybee apple pie, blueberry hill thrill cream cheese pie and banana pudding.

If I hadn’t been so full, I would have suggested we split the café’s famous brown butter pecan pie with vanilla bean and caramel sauce.

Seated at a booth near us were Starr Russell, a nurse at University of Tennessee Medical Center, and retired nurses Shirley Sole and Angie Smith.

Angie and Starr split a Charleston chicken sandwich; Angie had tomato soup, and Starr made-on-site chili.

Shirley took home half of her Brian’s shrimp and grits, described on the menu as, “When your chef puts his name on a dish, he has to be pretty proud it. Seven large delectable shrimp served over goat cheese grits and anointed with a spicy roasted red pepper sauce.”

I want to have another “Out To Lunch” at Tupelo Honey when the weather warms up.

We can sit on the outdoor patio, enjoy the scenes of Market Square and drool over the tempting menu before ordering — even though Carol wants to repeat her shrimp order.
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Bethel Poston is a Roane County businessman and entrepreneur who writes about places of interest in our area. E-mail suggestions and comments to postonplace@bellsouth.net.