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Wednesday, 31 October 2007 00:00

Highlands sets the table for a fall feast: Inaugural gathering of gastronomes holds great promise for the plateau

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By Michael Beadle

Indulge in a seven-course meal that includes roasted pheasant, foie gras and braised wild boar. Sip award-winning wines from Tuscany. Savor sushi, soft-shell crab and sake. Tempt your tongue with rich chocolates.

Highlands becomes a playground for the palate Nov. 8-11 as the community hosts its first ever Highlands Culinary Festival, a series of meals, cooking classes and wine tastings aimed at raising the culinary tourism bar a few champagne glasses higher.

The inaugural event begins with an opening reception at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, at the Pine Street Park in downtown Highlands with jazz from the Hipshack trio, wine tastings, and hors d’oeuvres. Shuttle service will be provided to and from local inns, the Highlands Recreation Park and Highlands Plaza. A dozen local fine dining restaurants and inns and more than 30 wineries will be participating in the opening event.

Then throughout the weekend, Highlands merchants, inns, restaurants and guest chefs will tempt the taste buds with specialty dinners, wine tastings, cooking demonstrations and culinary classes. Dozens of area shops and stores are also involved in what is sure to become a popular fall getaway attraction.

Prices per meal range from $10 to $300. Tickets for the Culinary Festival are $195, which gives you access to the opening ceremony celebration on Nov. 8 as well as 10 vouchers for daytime events. Or, you can purchase vouchers at $10 apiece and attend the opening reception for $95. Tickets and vouchers can be reserved and purchased at the Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce by calling 866.526.5841.

Learn how to use flowers and garnishes to brighten up your next dinner party. Enjoy a relaxing massage. Take a Thai or Mediterranean style cooking class. From delectable breakfasts to sumptuous brunches to divine dinners, the tour of mouth-watering meals ranges from Japanese cuisine to old-fashioned country cooking — and all the desserts you can handle.

While the events center around food and drink, the themes range from history to fashion. Highlands historian, author and former Cyrano’s bookstore owner Ran Shaffner will present a history of Highlands with facts and anecdotes — as well as delightful desserts — at SweeTreats from 10 to 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9. SweeTreats, which has been a Highlands mainstay since 1989, is known for its ice cream and yogurt but also features light lunches and dinners, a variety of desserts, and a coffee and wine bar. The SweeTreats event costs two vouchers (or $20) and is limited to 40 guests. Part of the proceeds will go to the Highlands Historical Society.

Another benefit will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at Dutchman’s Design. A free class will offer demonstrations on table and culinary presentations to spruce up your next dinner party or cocktail reception. Participants will learn how to garnish dishes and add flowers and herbs to brighten a room’s decor. This event will be presented by ... on the Verandah owners Andrew Figel and Marlene Alvarez as well as Stephanie Niewwendyk of Dutchman’s Designs. Proceeds from the sale of the event displays will go to the Literacy Council of Highlands.

For a lovely brunch that includes an elegant mix of wine and painting check out Wolfgang’s Restaurant at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, make room for Wolfgang’s Restaurant and Wine Bistro, where artist Thomas Arvid will be painting his signature wine settings as guests enjoy a four-course brunch that features red and white wines from Cakebread Cellars. The cost of this event is seven vouchers plus tax and gratuity. There’s a limit of 60 guests.

While the inns and restaurants do a lot of charity work throughout the year, the culinary festival is mostly for profit. Funds from ticket sales will go to pay for the opening reception, while the dinners, wine-tastings, classes and on-site events at restaurants and inns will go directly to those businesses.

Some of Highlands’ inns and restaurants will be offering multiple events during the festival. Along with cozy comforts and daily breakfasts, guests at the Main Street Inn can partake in one of three dinner events Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, as well as a luncheon from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday. The “All Things Wonderful Fashion Show Luncheon” brings in three Highlands stores — Drake’s Diamond Gallery, Rosenthal’s, and McCulley’s Cashmere — for a lavish look at jewels, furs and soft sweaters. The meal also includes champagne. Voucher tickets are still available for the luncheon, and there are still some spots open for the dinners.

Main Street Inn owner Gary Garner said he’s never been a part of a festival like this. All the rooms at his inn are sold out for the culinary weekend — something that normally doesn’t happen in the weekends just after the peak leaf season ends. And he’s had guests from as far away as California booking rooms.

“Culinary is going to be an awesome event,” he said, and it’s something he’d like to be a part of in the years to come.

With all the added business in rental cars, meals and local shopping, the Culinary Festival looks to be quite an economic boon for the community, Garner added. Ever since moving to Highlands from Florida several years ago, he’s been impressed with the town’s character.

“Highlands is very good about bonding together,” he said. “The people here are truly amazing.”

Highlands Chamber of Commerce membership coordinator Laura Harison has been working behind the scenes to make this new festival a success. After the annual Taste of Highlands shifted over to nearby Cashiers, the chamber members sought to create another signature event, so Marlene Alvarez, co-owner of ... on the Verandah and a Highlands Chamber board member, helped spearhead a new plan to host a fall culinary festival.

While people already know about Highlands’ reputation as a fine dining and shopping haven, few mountain communities can boast having five restaurants that are Wine Spectator award winners, Harison said.

“Our restaurants have extraordinary inventories of wine,” she added. A culinary festival allows people to sample the kinds of wines that they wouldn’t normally find at local restaurants.

With a heavy marketing plan that began back in March, the Highlands Chamber is as busy as ever, fielding phone calls and registering tickets for the festival.

“Atlanta was a big target area,” Harison said. Other cities included Greenville, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Asheville.

All events are offered on a space-available basis, and some have already sold out due to the overwhelming response. To maintain the cozy atmosphere of these events, there will be a limited number of guests, but some businesses have offered to set up waitlists in case of cancellations. All events, prices, venues, dates and times are subject to change. The Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce has set up a Web site that includes all the details for each of the dozens of events. Many of the inns and hotels in Highlands are offering special discounts for guests who stay the whole weekend. For more information, call the Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce at 866.526.5841 or go to the Web site www.highlandschamber.org/culinary.

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