I have a hard time deciding which is my favorite season to go to Highlands Bar & Grill. More than just about any other restaurant in town, Highlands' menu is dictated by what's fresh and in season. I'm definitely looking forward to spring, when chef/owner Frank Stitt has a ball with his favorite vegetable, asparagus, along with tender sweet spring peas, spring onions, fragrant strawberries and the like. And of course the summer menu reflects the South's product bounty, from stewed okra and tomatoes to succotash and peach bellinis.
But in some ways my favorite season at Highlands is the fall and winter, because Stitt works miracles with humble root vegetables and greens. I mean, any good chef can work with the bounty of summer or the elegant simplicity of spring asparagus and peas. But elevating turnips, beets, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, carrots and the like into award-winning cuisine in my book is nothing short of magical.
And so it was Saturday night, when we enjoyed a week-early Valentine's dinner at Highlands. (Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve are two nights we do not go out to dinner -- it's so crazy that even the best restaurants sometimes have a hard time providing a stellar experience.)
Fall and winter are also prime time for game, and we enjoyed perfectly cooked quail, venison and duck. But oh, the vegetables. Perfectly roasted baby carrots. Kale bursting with succulent earthy flavor. Sweet potato hash starring cubes of sweet potato with a generous amount of lardons and onions for a sweet-smoky-salty combination. And the Pièce de résistance, a turnip gratin.
Now I am not that wild about turnips, but this dish could change the mind of many a turnip-hater. Baby turnips are grated to remove some of the moisture, and combined with eggs, comte cheese and cream and baked to create a rich, earthy, almost custard-like dish.
It makes the last dregs of winter so much more bearable.
(Part of the magic, too, is starting with the highest quality ingredients. Stitt uses vegetables from a Tuscaloosa farm, Snow's Bend Farm, which sits on a large bend of the Black Warrior River and is owned by David Snow. Check out their web site to find out where you can buy their produce and read interesting tidbits about the vegetables they grow. They always have one of the prettiest booths at Pepper Place Saturday Farmer's Market.)