Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl

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Nancypalooza
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2008/04/17 15:36:31 (permalink)

Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl

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.
#1

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    ann peeples
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/17 16:48:41 (permalink)
    Fantastic!!!!Great pictures and wonderful descriptions.Your food choices were excellent.Thanks for the report...
    #2
    soozycue520
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/17 16:48:50 (permalink)
    All I can say is "YUM!!!"

    Everything looks and sounds great!!
    #3
    Nancypalooza
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/17 16:57:52 (permalink)
    Oh, I almost forgot. No pictures, but we were cutting into our sweet tooths considerably with a small bag of Sugar Momma's cookies back in our hotel room. It's a tiny little place across the street from the Asheville Community Theater, with a sandwich board out front advertising bubble tea. Try the peanut butter chocolate chip. Mmmmm.
    #4
    MetroplexJim
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/17 17:39:51 (permalink)
    Thanks for the great pix! Asheville is beautiful and the restaurants clearly know that Cobb Salad requires bacon!
    #5
    the ancient mariner
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/17 18:45:18 (permalink)
    Lived just outside Asheville for a year----and loved it also.
    Driving on the Blue Ridge Highway is wonderful, I wanted to give the
    Biltmore a bid on a new kitchen, but they were satisfied with the old
    one which doesn't have a Sub-Zero or a Miele Dishwasher, or a microwave
    or nothing good. With all that money I would think ----oh never mind !!!

    #6
    irisarbor
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/24 11:59:30 (permalink)
    All that wonderful food and no Q
    who'd a thunk?
    Thanks for the great pix and a great report
    #7
    leethebard
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2008/04/24 12:12:46 (permalink)
    Thanks for the memories...spend summers in beautiful Burnsville NC...and made many a run to ashville, since Yancey county NC was a dry county. Love ashville...The Biltmore Mansion is such a site..looks like you had a great visit!
    #8
    Nancypalooza
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/11 21:33:05 (permalink)
    The saga, it continues.

    We went back through this weekend and had one meal at TH and two at EG.  The thing is, both these places are in my lifetime top echelon of places to eat--a good reason why if I'm in the Asheville area I'm probably trying to be at one of these places, even though Asheville is home to a lot of great eats.  But there are some important distinctions.

    Early lunch at Tupelo Honey started with this:




    At bottom is one of their excellent biscuits with the homemade jam.  Both restaurants have this.  I would give a significant nudge to Tupelo Honey's biscuits, but the jam is a total jam-lovers-benefit draw.  The jam at TH tastes a little more like blueberries maybe?  Otherwise they're very on par with each other.  The salad above it is a delectable spinach salad with pecans, bacon, goat cheese, and a lovely beet salad.  The vinaigrette accompanying was also delicious.  This salad is available in a couple of sizes and with a couple of protein toppers.  As usual, I was having trouble making up my mind.  I ended up with




    a grilled cheese sandwich made with two choices from a list (I picked pimento and Havarti) and a generous cup of the most delicious tomato soup I've ever eaten.  My first pick was the tomato sandwich and our waitress echoed my question about the quality of the tomatoes to the cook and came back with the suggestion to wait a bit and get something else, and I'm so glad I got steered to this choice with the soup.  We were tearing bits off the bread on both our sandwiches to dip in it, and eventually started up with the biscuits as well.  Julie was less enthused overall with her choice




    which is a very plain grilled chicken sandwich with the addition of a cranberry mayo.  Nothing wrong with it, but I think she would have ordered differently given another chance.  We were really enthused about the pickled beet and onions side but they were apparently pickled fresh instead of roasted or blanched, and were chewier than we expected.  Terrific flavor though.

    Then dinner at the Early Girl.  Specials included a grilled mahi mahi and some interesting pork something or other but I went with something I'd had before and loved, the sweet potato/black bean cakes topped with avocado relish and sour cream




    here with their very good white cheddar-based macaroni and cheese and the individual winner of hte night, cucumber and onion salad.  We were fighting over it.  (Oh and please notice what a dork I am taking a picture on the windowsill next to our table--and on this visit I noticed for the first time that Early Girl sits squarely on the floor above Tupelo Honey.)  Julie went for a new entree for her, duck breast here prepared with a red wine sauce 




    here with a pretty good mashed potato and right decent black eyed peas.  Neither of those sides beat the cucumber onion salad however.

    The one place that Early Girl to me has a clear advantage is dessert.  I don't have good enough pictures but on this evening we took a piece of pecan pie back to the hotel for a later treat.  Their desserts are very uncomplicated--sort of the thing your grandmother would make or you'd find at a church lunch--but extremely well executed.  On the pecan pie evening they also had a million dollar pound cake and a yellow cake with chocolate frosting available.  On Sunday night, the other night we were there, we took a slice of a two-layer chocolate banana cake--pretty much exactly as it sounds, a chocolate cake with banana mixed in, with a simple buttercream frosting.  On the same night they had a simple two-layer red velvet cake, and three-layer Italian cream cakes and a hummingbird cake.  I love their hummingbird cake so much I asked a friend to make a version for my birthday this year.  It was delicious.

    On Sunday night when we visited we weren't terribly hungry, so we split a couple noshes.




    At bottom is what they call the Early Girl Platter, with that same avocado relish again--this is like guacamole with all the 'scary stuff' taken out.  It's very lightly seasoned and mostly tastes like the avocado, but is very good.  At bottom you see another white cheddar based pimento cheese, probably not as good as the one at Tupelo Honey just because it's fairly mild.  At the top next to the apples is their delicious black bean hummus.  It comes with the fresh fruit and the crostini in the bowl at top.  The crostini proved a little flimsy for some of this, the cheese especially, and the cheese was particularly wonderful on the apple slices.  The fries are amazing, nuff said.  

    Another wonderful thing about a food-nerd hippie town like Asheville with a strong commitment to local, organic and locally sourced food is that the best thing on this plate was the cantaloupe chunks--and I don't even typically like cantaloupe.  You can't beat food-nerd hippie produce.

    So in summary, best dishes/experiences of this set of visits:

    tomato soup at Tupelo Honey
    cucumber onion salad at Early Girl
    spinach salad at Tupelo Honey
    chocolate banana cake at Early Girl

    Just please, don't make me choose between them.  
    #9
    MiamiDon
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 06:48:24 (permalink)
    Thank you for the very nice report and photos, Nancy.  I've never had ramps before, and now I'm wondering what they taste like.  I thought they were just some sort of wild onion.

    I Googled the restaurants to look at the menus.  Wow, I see that Tupelo has a one-pound burger!  Did you get an urge to try the Tupelo Tofu Wings?

    That Early Girl Benny with country ham sounds great.


    http://www.tupelohoneycafe.com/

    http://www.earlygirleatery.com/
    #10
    Nancypalooza
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 07:34:34 (permalink)
    Ramps are little guys that look like pink onion sets--the itty bitty bulbs that you plant--or like elongated cloves of garlic.  They do have a very strong wild onion kind of taste but it's clear that they're related to garlic.  People go absolutely out of their minds over ramps that time of year--about a month ago, approximately, and I don't know whether it's the mountain area that's so amenable to them or that part of the country or what.  They taste good, but it's a strong taste.
    #11
    Nancypalooza
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 07:42:28 (permalink)
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    zataar
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 09:05:43 (permalink)
    Wonderful report. I would love both places. Any where that features local fruit preserves is OK by me!

    Ramps also grow in eastern Minnesota, right on the edge of the Ramp Belt.  Several restaurants feature them every season, along with fiddleheads.
    #13
    the ancient mariner
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 09:11:13 (permalink)
    Nancy they will have to put you on commission---any Roadie who doesnt go to
    Tupelo or Early Girl will be drummed out of the fraternity. 

    I lived there a year and never went to either----but I was learning to cook and didn't eat out unless someone else was buyin'.----------I didn't eat out often.
    #14
    Lisajo
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 10:11:41 (permalink)
    Thanks for the report Nancy, we tried to eat at Tupelo last year after getting some of their honey, but they were closed that day.  Now I want/need to get back up there!!
    #15
    quijote
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/12 19:18:52 (permalink)
    Nancy, thanks for reviving this thread (I didn't see it the first time around) and for reporting back on both places. They sound excellent. The food at both places looks delicious and very creative (without going over the top).
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    DirtDude
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    Re:Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/16 18:19:11 (permalink)
    Those photos are excellent. I will have to make a stop at either one next time I am headed to Kentucky.
    #17
    dweller
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/23 10:38:05 (permalink)
    leethebard

    Thanks for the memories...spend summers in beautiful Burnsville NC...and made many a run to ashville, since Yancey county NC was a dry county. Love ashville...The Biltmore Mansion is such a site..looks like you had a great visit!


    I know Burnsville fairly well from sporadic visits in the last decade and yearly visits in the 50s and 60s, as we have a place up Cattail Creek, 10 miles south of Burnsville.
    We've eaten at Sunny Point, but neither TH or EG. But we're coming over from the UK in June and I really hope I get a chance to at least get takeaway from TH.

    We also want BBQ, there seems to be some disagreement about 12 Bones versus Luella's.

    Doug

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    carlton pierre
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/25 19:02:53 (permalink)
    I can't wait to go back to Asheville and try both of those retsaurants.  They looked awesome.  Asheville one of my favorite cities.
    #19
    porkbeaks
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    RE: Asheville NC nosh-off: Tupelo Honey vs. Early Girl 2010/05/25 19:41:48 (permalink)
    Our family preferred Early Girl mainly because it was open at 7:30 and was just across the street from our hotel. Don't forget to try The Admiral!!!   pb
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