The Highlands  -- July 2008 (dt)
7.16 - 7.5, 7.5, 7.5, 7.25, 7, 7, 6.75, 6.75

Summing up Highlands’ ambience is a challenge. An older country farmhouse renovated to be a restaurant. Not as neat as George Mann Tory but an authentic Helderberg country-ness. Not quite disheveled but clearly an individualistic business venture. Perhaps, on a keel with the former LaRive in Catskill. The building’s entry is a visual treat, nothing fancy, and yet so elegantly rural country plain, mostly unpretentious, that we talked architecture for a few moments.
               Whatever it was, DP8 left with good memories.
               Highlands lies on one of the flanks of the Helderbergs, between Altamont and Knox on Rt 156. A dirt parking lot awaits visitors, who then try to find the right door. The two closest doors are those of the tavern, and then the kitchen, before one figures the main door is the one facing the road.
               We knocked, opened into a foyer-room that opened into the restaurant area. Actually, it felt as if one walked into someone’s house, and that the host had just cleared the old parlor and old kitchen to set up with tables for some celebration. And, indeed, it is the parlor and kitchen of the old farmhouse, re-done for this modern-day self-styled enterprise.
               Two rooms comprise the restaurant – the front one with floral wallpaper, lined with a chair rail, a painting of a country scene over the mantel of a classic country fireplace. The second room is ringed with white wainscoting, topped with maroon wallpaper, and trimmed bottom and top with a wallpaper strip that matched and extended from the front room.
               Paintings of floral design graced the walls; in one corner, a floor-to-ceiling, shelf unit held glasses, knick-knacks, and the computer-register. Catching our attention were hooks and rings hanging from the ceiling, later revealed to be meat-hanging devices from the old kitchen days. Old style doors with the simple black iron hardware told the rooms had not been changed much. An arch connected the two rooms, and a newer window from our room looked out onto the valley below – not quite Albany, but the land below the Helderberg escarpment. The chandelier-type fixtures shone brightly, more brightly than in most restaurants.
               We sat at a long table with Chay and Ken on the ends. Business traffic was moderate, with another table of eight dining before us, another couple tables coming later but we were the main action from 7 pm on.
               An aside: A trip to the bathroom led through the back of the tavern, which revealed a darker room, more rustic, with the largest of the fireplaces, defined by several cozy tables and a bar, inviting us to come back some time soon for the lighter fare.
              
We were seated by the hostess (owner?), told that Kirsten (spelling?) would be waiting on us. About ten appetizers, several salads, a dozen entrees, and several specials kept us looking back and forth, even though Don had handed out copies of the menu before the ride up.
               A drink order was taken – two bottles of Beringer Founders’ Estate 2005 pinot noir – another adequate red for the five red drinkers. Other drinks included a pinot grigio, a split of champagne, and a diet soda.
               A salad and starch came with dinner, so no one ordered an appetizer (sort of). Salads arrived (35 minutes after seating), with the house salad consisting of greens, a dozen shreds of carrot, two or three cherry tomatoes, a few rounds of fresh cucumbers, and even spears of asparagus, with dressing – a worthwhile starter. The winner was the Caesar salad, filling a plate-bowl. Whoever ordered it, like it; those that did not, envied it. Two baskets of an herbed-bread arrived, with plates of softened butter, a few minutes after salad. ...
              
Dinners came with the aforementioned starch and vegetable. Starch was a choice of two potatoes or a rice. Most had the broiled potatoes, and especially enjoyed the crisp cheese layer. The vegetable for the table was a half-plate of corn and the half-plate of Brussel sprouts, ... About seventy minutes after seating, entrees arrived, and looks of pleased anticipation curtained our faces.   
              
The frutti de mare – clams, mussels, calamari and baby shrimp that were stewed with tomato, basil and white wine – sat in a tomato-chunky-creamy sauce, with linguini that Judy savored; a separate bowl for the shells accompanied. Tim and Ken ordered the Frenched pork chop, a thick chop with an apple-onion demi that both thought excellent, although a little more done than Tim prefers. Deb T tried the blackened sea scallops, with rice, enjoyed the plate but found it a bit spicy for her tastes, and the rice preparation was average. Kriss had an excellent NY strip steak, sautéed with mushrooms and garlic butter, accompanied with onion crisps; of course, Kriss’ was ordered well-done, and delivered to her pleasure (Those who sampled it liked the seasoning.). Don tried an unusual pairing - baked brie en croute with the Chicken Caprese salad.  The brie was baked in a puff pastry, laden with brown sugar and pecans, served with mango chutney and crusty bread. Delicious. The salad plate came with radiating strips of chicken, alternating with cherry tomato halves, with fresh basil, and a balsamic reduction over the fresh mozzarella. This entrée-sized salad was too large to be eaten this evening and was taken home. Chay tried a special – the bacon-wrapped shrimp – and deemed it very good. Deb K tried another special – Neapolitan chicken, with red pepper, artichokes, spinach in a cream sauce. Almost all of us judged their dinners to be excellent – a rather uncommon occurrence lately.
              The dessert list appeared, at first glance, slightly limited but we all found something we liked. Tim and Chay partook of their customary Frangelica and white Sambuca. Judy and Ken had the bowl of apple crisp, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream. Judging from the clanking of spoons against bowl bottoms, it was good, although more crisp would have been desired. Don enjoyed the chocolate-cherry flourless torte, a small-ish looking portion that proved just enough, warm and creamy, accompanied by a spreading of strawberries and sauce. Kriss and Deb T cleaned up the slices of lemon meringue pie, also accompanied by the spread of strawberries. Deb K moaned over her rice pudding, creamy and fresh.
               Kirsten’s, and the others’, service stood good tribute to Highlands. After a somewhat slow start, water glasses were kept filled, requests were taken and met promptly, and Kirsten was attentive and unobtrusive. (Good luck, Kirsten, in finding a teaching job!) And, Ken’s coffee cup was repeatedly filled.
             The bill came, and Deb checked the result three times. Eighty dollars satisfied food, liquor, tax, and tip, one of the best values we have seen in quite some time.
             So, we left, with consistently excellent food, good service, an ambience of rough and elegant that met a pleasurable balance, and excellent value. Nice job, Highlands.

This evening had not been the easiest one to secure. Because of an emergency move, ... the Teators started calling with three nights notice and were promptly blanked with the first five calls (party of eight, Saturday evening at 7 pm, holiday week, ok, understandable). Don and Deb had kept in mind a place reviewed in the Altamont Enterprise, traveled by it a few times, and wondered if the old colonial house that looked plain on the outside would strike our fancy. 
               The crew had met earlier at the Teator residence, with not the usual amount to catch up, since we had met just a week and a half before at Creek Side. A plate of pepper-jack and Cabot reserve cheddar, with crackers, accompanied by trail mix, cantaloupe balls and grapes, pecans, were lubricated with beer, Freixenet brut de noirs, Tanqueray and tonics, and a cabernet sauvignon. Chitchat about work, early summer, gardens, trips, Geneva and Don’s century filled the pre-session.
               Don produced an individualized list of each DP8er’s favorite restaurants, based on the rating given each dinner, and this generated comments of where we had been over the past five years.  
               The 45 minute trip started with a clue: the first mystery ride (started by the Karneses, on their second pick). Don gave each car a menu. We headed north on 32, veered through South Westerlo and Westerlo, Jocelyn School Road, East Berne, Warner’s Lake and Scholz’ Hofbrau (that first mystery stop), and continued several miles until arriving at the junction of 157 and 156.
              Dinner talk started with children and grandkids, and then to local wildlife – especially the turkeys and the purported sighted of a mountain lion. Judy’s pondering what would happen if she happened upon one led to Chay’s summation that we would be DP7, eliciting a good chuckle. I have since forgotten, deliberately or otherwise, the other good stories. Thank you, each one, for another pleasurable experience with good friends.