RALEIGH — Honey is a million-dollar crop in southern Georgia and Florida’s Panhandle. There, along the banks of the Apalachicola, Chipola, Ochlocknee, and Choctahatchee rivers, bees gather nectar from the White Ogeechee Tupelo trees in April and May. They return to hives placed along the river’s edge to produce their rare liquid treasure: pure Tupelo honey, “a light amber golden color with a slight greenish cast…delicious flavor with a delicate distinctive taste” according to the Tupelo Beekeepers Association.
This expensive honey is extremely unusual: it’s the only kind that won’t granulate, thanks to its high ratio of fructose to glucose, and is deemed “safe” for diabetics according to a few sources. In Garden and Gun‘s “Liquid Gold” story, biologists estimate it takes two million Tupelo tree flowers to produce one pound of honey. Even more amazing? One honeybee produces about 1/12 of a teaspoon in its lifetime.
Harvesting the honey in such a short season is a 24/7 operation, a labor of love from committed individuals who are more invested in the process and its spectacular results than in banking profits.
Okay, that’s sweet, but what’s all this have to do with Raleigh?
You got the biology lesson because it’s the perfect backdrop to understand Tupelo Honey Cafe, opening in Raleigh’s Cameron Village Dec. 1. It certainly seems to live up to its distinctive, sought-after namesake.
Ready to dive into a local version of its Nuveau Southern cuisine, Raleigh patrons familiar with the Asheville locations are welcoming the restaurant with open arms. @NewRaleigh succinctly summed up the buzz on November 15, tweeting “Think Raleigh is more excited about Tupelo Honey Cafe arriving than anything in recent history.”
The excitement seems to be for a good reason; Tupelo Honey’s website explains Executive Chef Brian Sonoskus’s unusual approach, and it sounds like a welcome addition to Raleigh’s booming food scene, with a nod to our Southern roots. “Our transformation of just about everything Southern — from fried chicken to sweet potatoes — is decidedly spirited, independent, and frequently unscripted.”
Sounds like Raleigh to me.
Each restaurant captures the local community’s flavor, and I couldn’t wait to see how they translated Raleigh’s not-easily-categorized vibe. I had my chance at the media event Nov. 24 as they unveiled artwork throughout the restaurant, much of it by NC creatives, and signature cocktails.
Sonoskus was self-deprecating and humble, welcoming us all and genuinely offering that the “joy of my life is getting to play with food everyday.” He explained the cafe’s plan to offer small plate options starting in January. “Food is meant to be shared, it’s about being social, being together.”
In that spirit, Raleigh-based artists Jonathan Davis and Matt McConnell collaborated on the ceiling-mounted artwork gracing the entryway with its honey “drips” of amber glass, illuminated by a glowing honeycomb above. A mural of overlapping outlined shapes and textures carries the honeycomb theme toward the bar at the back of the restaurant, where nearly life-sized NC State-themed 3D uniforms pop off the wall near the cocktail tables.
The atmosphere is warm and inviting, just like the complimentary biscuits that come with each meal. It’s a creative blend of rustic and modern textures that seem to mimic the restaurant’s approach to food and drink — unexpected, but unpretentious, not trying too hard to be something it’s not just to be different.
The first Asheville restaurant opened in December 2000 in what used to be a bowling alley, and the second Asheville location opened its doors 10 years later. Although technically a chain, with Raleigh its eighth location and four more planned in 2015 (Atlanta, Myrtle Beach, Virginia Beach and Arlington), Tupelo Honey acts much more like an independent organization, dedicated to becoming a part of the community and living by the mantra that each experience should “inspire a celebration of food, fun and creative flavor.”
Mixologist Tyler Alford is bursting with that inspiration, with an obvious passion for his craft. I watched as he whipped up to-die-for spicy chili-salt margaritas, with the perfect kick and backside burst of fresh sour flavor, while he explained the unique seasonal cocktails available in The Pickled Okra, the separate bar section.
One of those is the Big Red Wolf, which Alford jokingly said comes “complete with the three little piggies” — otherwise known as a garnish of maple-pepper bacon. Served in a 20 oz. beer stein and topped with a float of Raleigh Brewing Co.’s “Hidden Pipe” porter, it’s a nearly a meal in a glass with bacon salt, pickled okra, lime and pimento cheese-stuffed olives. Besides the bacon. I’m not sure what it says about Raleigh that they think we’ll drink enough of these to actually have them on tap, but maybe it’s just because it’s in NC State territory and fans love anything in crimson. Or maybe they’re just that good.
The bar’s Raleigh signature cocktail is a fascinating mix of “Lewis Redmond Carolina” bourbon, Campari, Vya “Sweet” Vermouth and bitters, barrel-aged to add depth and a mellow twist. If spirits aren’t your thing, you’ll have 24 beers on tap to choose from, with locally brewed choices liberally sprinkled through the four main categories: Crisp, Fruit, Malt and Hops.
Alford’s passion extends to sustainability, near and dear to my heart. All of the wines on his list have to meet at least one of three criteria: organic, farmer-owned, or certified sustainable. Indaba, with a South African chenin blanc on the menu, offers scholarships to its workers so they can afford higher education.
“Our distributor knows not to pull anything out that doesn’t meet these standards,” Alford said. “There’s a reason that Asheville has an amazing beer scene — it’s the water.” In his view, making sure sustainability is high on the priority list, whether the product is local or from around the world, helps protect those resources and is simply the right choice: “It’s just who we are.”
If you’re ready to explore just who Tupelo Honey is, more than 150 employees are ready to roll out the welcome mat, albeit for limited hours during the first two weeks: 4-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday (12/1-12/6 and 12/8-12/13) and 4-9 p.m. Sunday 12/7 and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday 12/14.
Ready for biscuits and prized Tupelo honey, or even better yet sweet potato pancakes? Let’s eat!