Monday, August 06, 2007

From Sausage Gravy to Snails

In Georgia, on the border of North Carolina, sits a restaurant and inn that has been serving great home-cooked meals since 1917.

I discovered The Dillard House several years ago on the recommendation of a former classmate. I have returned every year since, when my friends and I gather for our annual whitewater rafting trip.

The Dillard House is located in Dillard, Georgia, a town settled in 1794, when an officer who served in the American Revolution, Captain John Dillard, was awarded a land grant of 1,000 acres. The Dillard House offers cottages, chalets, and very nice hotel rooms. It has horseback riding, swimming, tennis, trout fishing, and even a small petting zoo for children. But where the Dillard House shines is in the kitchen. The Dillard House is all about food.

Throw me in the briar patch.

People travel great distances to eat at The Dillard House. In a town of 198 people, the Dillard House serves over 1,200 hungry diners for Sunday lunch, alone.

The dining room at The Dillard House is expansive, with huge windows overlooking a beautiful valley nestled among the Blue Ridge Mountains. The restaurant is large and comfortable and as casual as the food that is served.

Posted at the entrance is a large menu which changes with each meal period. A dinner menu might read: Fried chicken, baked chicken, country-fried steak, country ham, bbq chicken, fried corn, tomatoes, potatoes au gratin, peas, cole slaw, butter beans, fried okra, fruit, rolls, cornbread, and peach cobbler with ice cream.

Once your party is seated, a server approaches the table and says, “Welcome to the Dillard House. Have you dined with us before?” I have, several times, but I always say no just so I can hear the next line in the servers pitch.

“Did you see the menu out front?” he says.“Yes,” I say.

“We’re about to bring it to you.”

I love that. My guests are always stunned. They bring the entire menu to your table within minutes of being seated.

The restaurant is a family style restaurant. Trust me. If you’re going to pick a family with whom to eat family-style food, the Dillards should be at the top of the list.

On a recent breakfast visit, the menu consisted of eggs, grits, pancakes, cottage fries, sausage (link and patty), sausage gravy, bacon, country ham, red eye gravy, pork tenderloin, baked apples, blueberry muffins, buttermilk biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and sliced fruit, all for $14.95.

The meals arrive in large serving bowls, and when they are emptied, they are refilled until you throw in the towel (or the napkin, in this case).

The food is good. The menu claims that many of the vegetables are locally grown. They must be doing something right; Southern Living magazine has listed The Dillard House as the South’s “Favorite Family Restaurant for Country Style Cooking” in its Reader’s Choice Awards for the last 10 years.

While in the area, I traveled 14 miles north to Highlands, NC, where I ate one of the finer Italian meals I have eaten in a long time. Ristorate Paoletti has been in business for 54 years on Main Street in Highlands. The wine list is extensive, the room is dark and crowded, and the food is excellent.

It’s been at least a decade since I have eaten escargot— the fine-dining staple of the 1950s— but as I was dipping my bread in to the last remaining pool of the herb-scented butter remaining in the bottom of the Escargot alla Bourguignonne dish, I wondered why.

The wine-laden, garlic-spiked herbed butter that remained in the snail dish was so good that I abandoned the marinara served with the calamari and resorted to dipping my fried squid into the escargot butter.

Fresh figs wrapped in prosciutto and finished with a balsamic reduction is another staple that has been done and overdone throughout the years. Though left in the hands of the kitchen crew at Ristorate Paoletti, it was taken to another level.

Our group ordered several pasta dishes, all of which were well above average. But the hit of the evening was a risotto feature with grilled lobster, scallops, and shrimp. It was rich and creamy, and the grilled lobster added the perfect texture contrast to the rice.

Highlands is a quaint resort town with mid-century charm, no crowds, and great restaurants and shops. It sits in stark contrast to Dillard, just 14 miles south at the base of the mountain.

Two distinct towns, two distinct restaurants, two distinct attitudes, all in one geographic area, Dillard and Highlands are a great escape— all this and rafting, too.

Lasagna with Spinach

1 Tbl Olive oil
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 10-oz package Spinach, frozen, then thawed and excess moisture squeezed out
1 10-oz package Spinach, fresh, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 /2 tsp Salt

2 Eggs
15 oz Ricotta cheese
1 cup Romano cheese, shredded
1 1 /2 tsp Black pepper
1 1 /2 tsp Salt

12 Lasagna sheets, cooked until al dente in boiling salted water
2 cups Mozzarella, shredded
1 recipe Tomato Sauce (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic for 30 seconds, add fresh spinach and cook until wilted. Season with salt. Add drained spinach and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, Romano cheese, eggs, salt and pepper. Stir well.

Ladle two cups of tomato sauce into a three-quart baking dish. Place a layer of three pasta sheets on the sauce and top with half of the ricotta mixture. Spread half of the sautéed spinach on the ricotta mixture. Lay down another layer of pasta sheets and top with two cups of sauce. Spread out evenly. Sprinkle the sauce with half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat these two steps again. Cover the baking dish tightly first with plastic wrap and then foil. (The plastic will not melt. It will prevent the cheese from sticking to the bottom of the foil). Bake covered for 1 hour. Remove foil and plastic and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Allow lasagna to set 20 minutes before serving. Spoon the remaining sauce on top of lasagna just before serving. Yield: 8-12 servings

Tomato Sauce

1 /4 cup Olive oil
2 cups Onion, small dice
2 cups Carrots, shredded
1 /3 cup Garlic, minced
2 tsp Basil, dry
1 tsp Oregano, dry
2 Bay leaves
2 tsp Salt
2 tsp Black pepper, fresh ground
6 oz can Tomato paste
2-28 oz cans Tomatoes, diced
28 oz can Tomatoes, crushed
1 1 /2 cups Water
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar

In a large heavy duty saucepot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and garlic. Cook vegetables 10 minutes stirring often. Add herbs and tomato paste and cook for five to six minutes (This helps to caramelize the tomato paste resulting in a sweeter tomato sauce). Add remaining tomato products and the water. Turn heat to low (very low). Allow sauce to cook for 3 1 /2 hours, stirring often. Add vinegar. Yield: approximately three quarts.

Sauce is best after two or three days in the refrigerator. Sauce freezes well.

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