C lose your eyes, and imagine sweet, plump scallops, perfectly seared and paired with a succotash of garden-fresh corn, cherry tomatoes, and lima beans. Or creamy grits against a bite of pork tenderloin sweetened with a touch of fresh peach relish.
When dining with chef Frank Stitt, you don't have to imagine. You just enjoy.
Using commonplace, seasonal ingredients flavored with traditions from France, Italy, and the Mediterranean, this chef makes palates sing. He and his wife, Pardis, operate four restaurants with distinctive personalities and cuisines. Luscious foods, complemented by gracious service and extraordinary attention to detail, make each place a fabulous experience.
"Pardis is obsessive about details and about the dining rooms being as warm and inviting as possible," Frank says. "There's also that tingle of excitement. The pop of the Champagne bottle and the action of the bar add to the dining experience."
Author John Egerton pegged the first restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, quite nicely. As Frank recalls, "John said that when he first started coming here he used to think, ‘This is like my favorite restaurants in New Orleans. This is like Galatoire's and Commander's. Now I've come to realize that's not it at all. It's Rick's Café in Casablanca.' "
Each day brings a new menu to Highlands, which combines Southern favorites with the traditions of French country cooking. The offerings change weekly at Chez Fonfon (a French bistro) and Bottega and Bottega Café, microcosms of Italy, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.
Customers would likely storm the kitchen if certain favorites went missing. "The beef carpaccio has been on the menu at Highlands since day one," Frank points out. "It's just always so much fun to eat, and it leaves plenty of room for a main course."
The signature appetizer at Highlands is the stone-ground baked grits. "It epitomizes the humble Southern ingredients, jazzed up with wild mushrooms, sherry vinegar, thyme, and Parmesan in a buttery sauce," Frank says. "In a similar way, the Parmesan soufflé at Bottega is the signature appetizer there. It has a lighter, but rich, luscious Parmesan custard, done in an almost identical way as the grits."
Locals know to arrive early on Thursday for lunch at Chez Fonfon for the crab cake. "One of the key things besides lemon zest, herbs, and plump crabmeat is breadcrumbs that are kind of coarse, kind of dry, but kind of fresh," Frank reveals.
Only the freshest ingredients go into Frank's cuisine. Last year, he started his own farm. "Local farmers markets are great, but we still don't have enough organic producers," he says. "I also inherited 50 laying hens and a few roosters, so we're using some of our own eggs."
"I think people emphasize me a little too much and not Pardis and the staff. There are five people who have been with us for 25 years and a couple dozen who have been at the restaurants for more than 10 years. We have a big crew who love being part of this team. Of course, I see myself now as more of a coach to them."
Four restaurants keep Frank and Pardis busy. But that doesn't stop the soft-spoken chef from dreaming. "Pardis wants to open a great taco stand," he muses. "And I still think there's something in me that would like for us to open a wonderful steak house."