We visited the beautiful city of Asheville, NC two weekends ago, which is indisputably a great place to eat, but our very first foray into dining there sparked the idea for a competition of sorts. What if there were two very similar, most excellent restaurants located very close together, and you just couldn’t decide which you preferred? And you needed lots and lots and lots of exposure to both, at all times of day and under all conditions, to further examine your preference? Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
So our very first meal in town, we had dinner Friday night at Early Girl Eatery. Now, for this meal we don’t have pictures, because we hadn’t cooked up our idea yet. So I’m going to have to be particularly evocative with my words. I ordered the roasted fresh beet salad with local goat cheese feta and an appetizer plate that contained warm homemade pimento cheese with spinach—the spinach seems to be an important addition, because I’d have bathed in it given the chance—a delicious spicy eggplant dip, assorted bread rounds, and quite a lot of beautiful local fruit. Julie had an Angus ribeye with homemade mashed potatoes—yes, they were moanworthy—and she subbed sautéed green beans for the greens that were supposed to accompany them. This was the meal that threw down the gauntlet; we may have uttered the words “better than Jestine’s” which for us is nigh to blasphemy. We took a slice of caramel cake back to the hotel to have later with coffee; it managed to be very caramely while not being overpoweringly sweet, which was very impressive.
So let me drop back a little and talk about both places and the birth of the idea. We decided we would hit Tupelo Honey Café in the morning for breakfast, and maybe return to Early Girl the next morning for a comparison breakfast.
Both places are very committed to using local produce and meats, organic when possible. Both places serve kind of a new Southern cuisine—old country favorites and standbys with a twist. Both places have impeccable waitstaffs and lovely dining rooms. You can get out of both places for about 10-15 bucks but at night you might want to blow 30. Both places have good, cheap alternatives on their menus; grilled pimento cheese and biscuits and gravy for $3-4.
So let’s get started.
We hit Tupelo Honey for Saturday breakfast. I had a special, an omelet with ramp pesto, prosciutto, and havarti. Julie opted for simple bacon and eggs, but added a fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice (this so impressed her she walked back Monday morning for more, only to find they were closed). Coffees, and we settled in at the counter.
Look at the green in the pesto:
and the biscuits, accompanied with homemade blackberry jam, again suitable for bathing:
The omelet was good and I couldn’t finish it; it was just too much. The ramp pesto had a very specific taste and I’m not sure whether it’s due to it being pesto, or the presence of the ramps; I’ve had pesto enough times before that I’m putting it on the ramps. It’s delicious, but it’s really not like anything else. The biscuits—gawd. At a dinner a few nights later a coworker of mine would distinguish himself by downing three along with the rest of his food.
That night we returned to Tupelo Honey. I knew I wanted to hit a vegetable plate, but we had some discussion about another entrée to share, and we finally decided on the burger, accompanied with delicious sweet potato fries:
And my vegetable plate. At upper right you see organic snap peas and carrots. Clockwise from those, you have two corn muffins studded with candied ginger, pickled beets, a bit of flavored butter for the corn muffins, and the stuff that looks like mac and cheese is actually cheesy mashed cauliflower, which we devoured—it’s very interesting because the cauliflower still has some tooth to it. Almost like it was blanched and then put through a ricer? It’s scrumptious. I also had a lemonade flavored with tupelo honey.
That night, no room for dessert. We carried one of the corn muffins home.
So the next morning, back to Early Girl. Julie has the unenviable problem of not really liking eggs or egg dishes, so we tried to get something she would like. I had biscuits and gravy, and get this kids—this gravy is vegetarian. No sausage. Just cream and herbs—sage for sure. I wouldn’t have believed it possible, and frankly it looks like hell, but it’s quite good:
Julie had a Cobb salad and a side of most excellent fries:
I thought that would be the end of our little head-to-head adventure but I ended up back at Tupelo Honey later in the week with some coworkers. We split two appetizers, a cheese plate that consisted of pecan-crusted brie with fig preserves,
and a few stick-shaped goat cheese grits cakes, again with the ramp pesto in an aoli. Here the ramp pesto worked better. I think there was too much going on in the omelet.
And the last dish in our little odyssey, my entrée of pan-fried tilapia over the goat cheese grits, with an apple-kiwi salsa topper, which was perfect.
So to sum up, I could eat at both these places for the rest of my life trying to figure out which I liked better. Tupelo Honey probably gets a slight nudge on service, just because we couldn’t think of absolutely anything they could have done better. They even have a little container of reading glasses at the hostess station to borrow for those of us, erm, who now need them. Early Girl had individual sides, like the pimento cheese, beet salad, fries, and mashed potatoes, that simply could not have been improved upon. So kids, for my money it’s a draw, but I’d love to have more folks weigh in.