Highlands Bar and Grill is rich in history and deserving of accolades.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Jason Wallis
In 2009 Highlands Bar and Grill was a nominee for James Beard’s top honor, our nation’s most outstanding restaurant. How can I follow such a rave review? I can’t. Yet I can share my own dining experience tonight—and my knowledge and experience of this restaurant and its cuisine developed over many years as well as tonight’s dining experience.
Memories of dining experiences here are etched in my mind: newlywed nights at the bar with a bottle of wine paired with crab claws, my son’s 16th birthday dinner, wine dinners with French winemakers, and so many more. Each experience of dinner here is like another layer of local flavor added to my own history with Highlands Bar and Grill. And tonight another experience waits as the valet opens my car door.
Highlands Bar and Grill and its partner restaurants—Bottega Restaurant, Bottega Café and Chez Fonfon—are owned and operated by renowned executive chef Frank Stitt and his lovely wife, Pardis. Highlands’ chef de Cuisine is Mauricio Papapietro. And tonight general manager David Parker welcomes us and seats us at a candle lit white tablecloth, window table.
The focal point of Highlands’ ambience is centrally located fireplace. On the opposite wall an antique hutch serves as both a bookcase and a china cabinet. Between the menus and copies of Frank Stitt’s A Southern Table are wine glasses, and stainless water pitchers covered in tiny, drops of condensation. Beside the hutch one of the French doors to the bar is kept open, offering a glimpse of the bartender muddling a cocktail at the historic marble bar.
This view lends itself to a drink before dinner. Highlands’ cocktails are made with premium spirits and handmade of freshly squeezed juices—and without buzzing electric mixers. Tonight a Watermelon Margarita and Pineapple Mojto sound enticing. Our server Patrick pours a red and refreshing concoction, into a chilled martini glass with a salted rim. One sip reveals freshly squeezed watermelon at the peak of season (mid-September). The mojto is a pleasantly balanced (not sweet) tropical delight of rum, mint and muddled with fresh pineapple. And for dinner pairing we order an Alsace Pinot Blanc Pierre Sparr 2007 from the wine list.
Dinner at Highlands is not complete without an order of the Shrimp Cocktail from the oyster bar. Six pink, shiny and firm Gulf shrimp rise from and wrap around the rim of a chilled, silver goblet. A squeeze of lemon and the house made, old-fashioned, tangy cocktail sauce both enhance the succulent shrimp and bring forth its freshness. We also select appetizers of Highlands Charcuterie and tonight’s special, Soft Shell Crab. The Charcuterie is a trio of pork pate and rillettes with foie gras. Both of the finely textured portions of savory pork and their companion—a delicacy of foie gras—are matched with a starch and acidic veggies making for an “interactive” and soul satisfying appetizer. We take a little of this and a little of that—spreading this gorgeous pate onto toasted sourdough with a touch of red onion marmalade and a tart slice of cornichon, creating our own perfect bites. The whole, soft shelled crab is deep-fried in tempura and arrives atop a bed of cornbread panzanella, with one claw delicately presented in the center of the plate and the other rising high above the body. The golden encrusted, sweet crabmeat is accompanied by fresh corn, onions and tomato. Every bite of this delectable dish is hearty in portion, light in texture, and layered in flavor.
Tonight’s main course specials are Ahi Tuna and a New York Strip. We opt for the tuna, as well as two dishes from tonight’s menu, Wild Striped Bass with Gulf Shrimp and North Carolina Chicken Breast. The melt in your mouth, tuna is seared on the edges and bright, red and shiny in the center, and is served with an incredible grilled eggplant, sweet red peppers and olive oil. The striped bass and pink shrimp, served on a bed of “hoppin’ John,” make an aromatic and appealing presentation. The bass’ rich, large white flake is complimented by firmly textured, sweetly flavored shrimp and lumps of delicate crabmeat. Added to this fish mix are plump grains of white rice, small, delicate lady peas, generous nuggets of okra, and a lively Beurre blanc—adding both creaminess and acidity. The large chicken breast is stuffed with aromatic thyme butter, which maintains moistness and adds a touch of fat to this divine bird. Sautéed cherry tomatoes—with skins skillfully blistered, and the tastiest caramelized, whole cipollini onions are served on a simple bed of fresh creamed corn. Yet Frank’s method of cutting the corn off the cob and cooking it are anything but simple. Tips of each kernel are sliced off, and afterwards the remainder is scraped with the backside of the knife to yield the corn’s milky juices. It is then cooked in bacon fat and butter in an iron skillet. The sweet flavor of each golden yellow kernel—with its dark crusty edges—shines through.
The entire dessert menu looks dreamy. We opt for an Ice Cream Sundae and the Sweet and Salty Cake, which combines two of my favorite things—chocolate and salt! The sundae is a cool, creamy and crunchy trio of vanilla, chocolate and caramel ice cream atop a brownie covered with chocolate sauce and pecans—topped with a fresh, whole liqueur covered cherry. And the large wedge of Italian style chocolate cake is soaked in caramel sauce and topped with whipped caramel ganache. Coarse grains of salt further embellish the chocolate icing in this divine and irresistible synthesis of dark, rich chocolate, caramel and salt. Desserts are paired with Moscato d’Asti Saracco 2008, with which we toast another incredible meal, impeccable service, and memorable night at Highlands Bar and Grill.