Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Never Out of Season

Oak Street Cafe
332 Main Street
Highlands, North Carolina

Highlands, North Carolina, is a high-end weekend getaway spot for the rich folk of the Southeast. It's 4,000 feet up in the mountains, somewhat remote, and lousy with the kinds of shops that still sell fur along with their designer furnishings and art. Kind of like Aspen without a treeline, Palm Springs without the desert, White Sulphur Springs without the bureaucrats. 

Oak Street Cafe fits right in. Located in the second floor of a typical main street building over a typical main street boutique, it boasts an intimate, romantically-lit dark-panelled dining room with windows giving a view of more typical main street boutiques, and a floor-to-ceiling wine rack that screens the creaky oak stairs.

What does that mean?
The season in Highlands doesn't really get started until Memorial Day, we're told; that may be why the waitstaff at this upscale place on a weeknight consists of one man, a waiter with a slight eastern-European accent and excellent presence ... when he's around. We arrived to find one occupied table and no staff on hand. After several minutes' good-natured bantering with the other customers, we seated ourselves at a table by the window, where we were eventually discovered and served. 

We started, eventually, with house salads. When, in time, these came, they had all the ingredients arranged by colour on the plate; an interesting choice, but I hesitate to call it a good one. After all, we at the table lack the utensils to toss a salad, and I for one dislike the chore of selecting one item from column A and one from column B with each bite, when I know that I could as easily have had a salad that was pre-mixed for me. 

Our next course was escargots bourguignon. Well, that was the name on the menu, though it varied from my conception of that very traditional recipe, first by being served in a puff pastry shell, and second by being served with a surprisingly thick and sweet-tasting butter and garlic sauce. The sauce grew on me, so that by the end of the dish I thought I would prefer it to the usual butter and garlic sauce; unfortunately it had a deleterious effect on the puff pastry shell, which grew gelatinous as the seconds ticked by. The snails themselves were a little on the rubbery side, not so much that they squeaked against the tooth, but enough that they threatened to. 

For entrĂ©es, we chose the two dishes recommended by the waiter. The chicken Kiev was, well, excellent.  In all honesty, it is the first I've had that is better than I could make myself. (At least, back when I would make such fatty dishes, in the 1970s.) The herbed butter inside was exquisite: not a thick slab, but a deliberately measured quantity, not sprinkled with herbs but properly mixed before being encased in the tender chicken breast, so that when cut into, the butter does not gush out like sea water through a Louisiana levee, but drains gracefully onto the plate, forming a halo around the delicate crust of the dish. The plate was shared by a generous portion of green beans that, for once, could honestly claim the moniker haricots verts. A small bowl of roasted potatoes was, in contrast, disappointing. They had a sawdust texture and little flavour, and ended the evening in the trash.

The other choice was shrimp and grits. Being enough of a Southern boy to have a fair appreciation of grits as food, I was tickled to see them on the menu in a place like this. Think Billy Carter in the White House. It's not quite that, but in that line. But Oak Street Cafe pulls it off with flair. The grits are thick enough to hold their own with the cheesy sauce and bacon flavours, and would have been delicious even without the shrimp. Mushroom slices and scallions provided textural variance without interfering in the wonderful flavours of the main ingredients. 

The prices would have bordered on inflated back home, where everything seems cheap, but they are in keeping with the economy of a place where the local workers can't afford to live. 
Oak Street Cafe on Urbanspoon

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