Saturday, November 14, 2009

Caffé Rel – the best bistro in Franklin, North Carolina


You’ve heard the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover”. Well you can’t judge a restaurant by the building it’s in either. Caffé Rel is a perfect example. Located in downtown Franklin in the Hot Spot, a busy gas station on East Main Street, you’ll find Caffé Rel, one of the finest bistros in the mountains of western North Carolina. Don’t let the gas station location fool you because Chef and owner Richard E. Long (hence the name Rel) apprenticed at the highly selective Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and went on to enjoy a prestigious career running elite restaurants in Pennsylvania. He serves a variety of upscale dishes with complex sauces that you would normally expect to find only in a fancy, pretentious restaurant. Chef Long says at heart he’s a saucier and can make a sauce out of anything. Just have one taste of the Louisiana crawfish tails in a leek cream sauce fired with a fine French cognac and you’ll realize he knows his sauces.



Not only does Chef Long turn out upscale food, he is also an expert at running what’s called in the restaurant business “the front of the house.” He personally handpicks and trains his peppy waitstaff who are dressed in typical French bistro outfits – a white shirt with tie and black trousers. More often than not when you arrive, you’ll be personally greeted by Chef Long himself wearing his dark beret and clogs. He modeled his restaurant’s ambience and décor after one of his favorite cafes in Paris. As you enter a black chalk board announces the daily specials and beyond, under glass, you can see the array of European style desserts, including beautiful tortes and cakes.



After we were seated at a cozy high top and ordered a glass of wine, our attention turned to the menu. My husband asked me, “What are you going to have today?”

“Oh, I haven’t decided,” I said. “Last time I had the Brandied Chicken Livers as an appetizer and they were great. I love their Charleston Shrimp and Grits, but the Bourbon Breast of Chicken Old Tennessee looks interesting with a mushroom bourbon sauce. Or the Lavender Shrimp sautéed with shallots, leeks and deglazed with white wine and served with a country cream sauce sounds good too. But it’s raining today; maybe I’ll have the French Pot Roast. Have you decided?”

“You know I love lamb, so I’m thinking of the Lamb Lollies with the shallot Madera sauce for an appetizer, but their homemade bisque sounds good too,” Meakin said.

About this time the waitress came to take our order. “I can’t decide,” I told her.

“I just tell people to close their eyes and point,” she said. “You can’t go wrong.”



For an appetizer my husband chose the homemade Blue Crab Bisque, a house favorite with shallots, garlic, leeks, thyme, butter and cream, and finished with freshly shredded Parmesan. It was served with slices of a warm baguette and a stewed tomato and olive oil bruschetta for dipping that we shared.



For his entry he ordered one of the daily specials, or as the French would say, the plat de jour, - Pan Seared Scallops with baby bok choy served on a bed of coconut rice with a curry sauce.



I finally settled on French Pot Roast covered with a rich brown wine sauce with piped parsley potatoes served with lightly stir-fried, crisp seasonal vegetables on the side.



Notice the detail with the garnish of match stick carrots and the beautiful orchid that comes with every entrée.



If you want something lighter, they offer a long list of salads, including an Asian Chicken Salad, a house specialty with a homemade sesame dressing. At lunch they also serve a variety of classic sandwiches, all accompanied with homemade potato chips (their version of flat fries).

As we sat and enjoyed our lunch with light jazz playing in the background, we reminisced about our favorite bistros in Provence and lingered over an espresso. When it was time to go we inquired about the location of the restrooms. I was feeling very French and in my head I was saying, “Ou sont les toilettes?” when I heard the reply. “Oh, they’re in the Hot Spot next door.” D’accord, no problem.


As we walked through the curtain covered glass door from the restaurant into the gas station, we felt as if we had entered a whole other world. We looked head-on at the ice machine and the stark black walls in the convenience store complete with bright red stripe trim and neon lights. Dolly Parton was warbling “Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man” on the loud speakers. Couples seated in plastic booths overlooking the gas pumps were eating hotdogs purchased from the vending machine while other people were standing in line at the check out counter to pay for chips and soft drinks. Just when we thought we were in France, voila, in a split second we were back in small town American in a typical loud and busy convenience store.

It’s time to go home, but we’ll be back. Luckily for us, we only live an hour away. We always schedule our semi-annual visits to the Periodontist in Franklin around lunch at Caffé Rel. Located at 457 East Main Street, Franklin, North Carolina, 28734. (828) 369-9446, they’re open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and take no credit cards or reservations. But don’t worry, the 16 tables turn quickly and if you do have to wait for a minute or two, it’s well worth it. Where else can you eat a fine meal and fill your car with the best priced gas in town all in one stop?


A bientot Chef Long and Caffé Rel; see you again soon.

42 comments:

  1. It just goes to show you to expect the unexpected in the least likely places. I am a sauce gal myself!!

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  2. It is amazing to me how we can find gems in the most unlikely places!!!

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  3. That is fabulous! I love the location and the ambience. And was drooling just reading the choices~

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  4. I am so glad that you posted this. My parents have a cabin in Franklin on Wayah Bald (Slagle Road) so we visit there often. Better yet, Alexis wants to "bed and breakfast" in Sylva or Dillsbrough, so maybe this will be our treat while we're there. The place sounds fantastic.

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  5. I enjoyed reading this review and this place sounds wonderful. What great food in such an unsuspecting location! We will have to look for this one next time we visit the area and thanks for the tip that they don't take credit cards!

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  6. So interesting! And look the way they decorate the food, I saw a purple orchid :)

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  7. It's like a hidden gem! Everything sounded just amazing...the old addage is so true :D

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  8. Sam - It's a good reminder to do a little digging, and check out what's behind those signs that don't look like much. The thought of that French Pot Roast is driving me crazy right now ...

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  9. Sam-I've never heard of the place. Next time I'm in Franklin I'll have to check it out-nice post!

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  10. I also want the lavender shrimp with shallots. And the pot roast and basically the menu. So need to look up to see how far Franklin is from Concord, NC where I hope to be in March. It is so wonderful to have a restaurant where you can't go wrong when you order!

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  11. Sam, this is great to know. How far is Franklin from Murphy? I think that's where we'll be for Thanksgiving. We're going with friends up to (in and around) that area.

    This is just FABULOUS! I would have the chicken with mushrooms,etc. Now, I'm starving, and I haven't made a dent in Pink Saturday! LOL!

    xo,

    Sheila :-)

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  12. What an intriguing place! This is a very good reminder to be adventurous, and of course not to judge a book by its cover. The French Pot Roast looks amazing!

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  13. Sam,
    Thanks for telling us about the Caffe Rel in Franklin. I didn't know about it, but sure will check it out the next time I go. Sounds like the food is fabulous. Thanks for the posting. I'm always looking for a good place to eat.

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  14. Yes, now I am hungry. I can hardly wait to get to visit this wonderful restaurant.

    I told Jeanne about this post, so I know she will be over for a visit soon.

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  15. Hello Sam, Your post about Cafe Rel is awesome. We live in Franklin and I have thought about posting about it but I could not have done as good a job as you have. It is all you have written and more. We eat there often.
    Next time you come to Franklin we should meet at the Cafe and enjoy it together. Richard is so nice and his food is amazing.

    Have a great weekend.

    Hugs, Jeanne

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  16. oh what a neat place and you would never know it was there thanks for sharing and if you like it, it must be fab will tell Jamie Hi love Rebecca

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  17. Sam, this was a wonderful post! You have my mouth watering as each dish you described from Cafe rel sounds so unique and delicious!

    Your rosemary chicken in the post below looks equally delicious! Congratulations on your 40 year anniversary!

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  18. What a diamond in the rough! Wish I wasn't so far away, I'd visit Chef Long for sure!

    The warm baguette with the stewed tomato and olive oil sounds delicious!

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  19. Now I know where to eat when I'm in the area. This was a wonderful review. It was also terrific to see you and Meakin.

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  20. Dontcha love to find those diamond in the rough places, so to speak. Its like you discovered gold!! I love your choice of the french pot roast, looked delicious, and arranged so artfully.

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  21. You can't judge .. or can you?
    Because the facade is what the owner wants to express about his restaurant, I think we could judge ... of course, you say this one proves us wrong!
    Are the flowers edible?

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  22. Hi Sam,
    I wonder if it is a regional thing? I've seen several such combinations of gas station and good food around the Asheville area.

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  23. Blue Crab Bisque!!!!!!! You do know we travel for food! In fact our vacation spots for the past 20 years are decided purely based on the restaurants in the area!

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  24. The roast would have been my choice to sam, it looked heavenly!

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  25. The whole meal sounds delicious but the bisque is calling my name.

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  26. Oh my goodness, it all sounds amazing. And who would imagine it was lurking next to the Hot Spot!

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  27. Dear Sam,

    I so enjoyed reading this lovely review!! The food looks excellent to me,...

    MMMMMMM,....

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  28. "Crawfish tails in a leek cream sauce fired with a fine French cognac" - oh dear, don't read no further, I said to myself. And then I did, only to encounter Charleston Shrimp and Grits, oh dear, where's that magic wand? ;-)

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  29. A great find! This cafe sounds amazing! Wonderful meal!

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  30. Now that is an extraordinary cafe Sam...xv

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  31. OMG, Sam, in Franklin????? I can't believe it. We will definitely have to go indulge at this unlikely place. We used to do some italian restaurant in Franklin, whose name I can no longer remember, but that was never as good as we'd hoped. Maybe we'll drive over the mountain soon and verify your findings! K

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  32. Some of the best local restuarants are located in the gas station. This great local find is proof of that! Very nice!

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  33. Oh! What a great finding...sure the food look good :-)

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  34. Oh, man, crab bisque! One of my favorite dishes.

    I love your photos of this restaurant! Who'da thunk it?

    Thanks for posting this.

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  35. Hi, Sam! Just checking in with you to see what's new in your corner of the world. I don't know if we are going to be able to make it to NC. Mr. Magpie has had the flu. But some day, I do want to try out this restaurant and the other.

    XO,

    Sheila :-)

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  36. Fine dining in a gas station! Now that take the term "fill 'er up" to a whole new place!! I'd ask if they threw in a car wash with every fill up, but I can see it was raining... GREG

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  37. It all sounds lovely and delicious! I love discovering unexpected treasures.

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  38. Great food can be found in some unlikely places! Sounds like a place to definitely visit!

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  39. Thanks, Sam. If I ever get out that way, I know where to eat. Happy Thanksgiving.

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  40. I was just googling a recipe for the French pot roast from Cafe Rel and your blog came up! We have to go there every time we visit my folks (who live in Hayesville). Cafe Rel is my favorite restaraunt (and I used to be married to a chef!) I've been craving the pot roast ever since. At least now I have a visual to compare it to.
    Hungry in IN,
    Char

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  41. We had our 47th anniversary dinner here tonight. I had Charleston Grits and Shrimp. My husband had Chicken Cordon Beu. The meals
    were absolutely delicious. We took home caramel cake for dessert. It was homemade and delicious. Great place for a meal out.

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Sam