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Out-of-town treats 

Two Highlands, N.C., restaurants offer a break from bad vacation grub

Summer-like temperatures descended last week and Wayne and I high-tailed it to our mountain place, Unabomber Acres, near Highlands, N.C., one of the highest elevations on the East Coast. There, the air remains comparatively cool year round and the only noise you hear is the breeze in the trees and, sometimes, a bird whose incessant chirping sounds like a dripping faucet.

Unabomber Acres is actually in the tiny community of Scaly Mountain, which is midway between Dillard and Highlands. Eating out always poses the same question: "Shall we go down the mountain and eat the homey inexpensive cooking at the Country Cupboard, or shall we drive into Highlands and pay astronomical prices for mainly mediocre food?" Highlands, once a sleepy town, is now a resort area largely populated by the nouveau riche. You know: If it costs a lot, it must be good.

Thank you, Jesus, for the Figel family, whose members operate the only two restaurants I can abide with regularity in Highlands. It all started 25 years ago when Alan and Marta Figel opened On the Verandah (1536 Franklin Road, 828-526-2338) on Lake Sequoyah, a mile or so outside Highlands. The restaurant is now operated by their son Andrew, who is the executive chef, and daughter Marlene, the general manager.

Another son, Nicholas, has opened a restaurant called Cyprus (470 Dillard Road, 828-526-4429), where he is also chef.

Alan Figel, the original Verandah chef, has a legendary fondness for chili peppers and there are shelves containing more than 100 bottles of the stuff he has collected during travels. Diners are invited to try any they like. He has also concocted his own award-winning sauces. Son Andrew has continued his father's passion for chilis but, having traveled in Asia, has also brought some flavors from that area of the world to the menu.

Meanwhile, son Nicholas has created one of the kookiest, lovable dining spots I've ever visited. Though lacking the restful ambiance of Verandah, Cyprus has a completely open kitchen -- and I do mean completely open. Grilling and sauteing are done up front, an arm's length from the bar and it's premium seating. The chef obviously has a fine sense of drama. Flames leap high in the air, pans fly about, zucchini is tossed on the grill. The man would make a great juggler and fire eater.

There's a day-to-day menu at Cyprus, but there's also a nightly special menu of international cuisine. When we visited, the specials were French. You'll pay $22.95 for any entree you order. I started with a square of Tour de Marze baked brie with ginger-seasoned roasted green apple slices. It was a good quality cheese but, like much of the food at both restaurants, a bit on the retro side for big-city palates.

Wayne ordered a mezze platter off the regular menu for his starter. It featured the usual hummus, baba ganouj, falafel, roasted garlic, feta and olives with the restaurant's very good homemade peasant bread. No complaints. The baba ganouj was definitely the best thing on the plate.

For my entree, I ordered a classic steak -- New York strip here -- with frites. The steak was served sliced over some greens, diced fennel and roasted red pepper, with a mound of crispy fries. Wayne ordered the more complex dish: chicken breast topped with tiger shrimp, flavored with lavender flowers, sage and Provencal herbs. A creamy mustard-grain sauce filled the plate. In truth, I found the sauce cloying. There was also a pistachio cous cous on the plate.

For dessert, we skipped the fabulous lavender ice cream we usually eat here and ordered warmed chocolate cake with ganache sauce and vanilla ice cream served in a goblet on the side.

On the Verandah, slightly more expensive than Cyprus, does have the advantage of an exquisite view of the lake if you manage to arrive before sunset and have reserved a table outside. But the interior of the restaurant is lovely, too -- almost Japanese in its simplicity and restful lines.

I started with what unsophisticated folks call "poppers," batter-fried stuffed jalapeño peppers. Here, they are stuffed with shrimp and crab, instead of the usual cheese, and served with a zingy remoulade. What's not to like? Well, maybe the $11 price, but in truth the plate was big enough for two. Servings of everything here and at Cyprus seem to be huge. The rule seems to be "let no surface of the plate reveal itself."

Wayne, inevitably, ordered smoked salmon. Here it is served vertically and curled into little cones. They share the plate with -- sit down -- cheddar cheese empanadas. Yes, I know it sounds bizarre, but it seems to work. Actually, the best thing on the plate was a juicy, fiery chili-citrus salsa.

For my entree, I chose coq au vin -- hey, I was in a French mood last week. Here, it features a succulent, boned breast in a red-wine sauce enriched with diced Applewood smoked bacon, cognac, green peppercorns and roasted garlic. Mashed potatoes and chanterelles were also on the plate. I'd order it again in a flash.

Wayne's dish was less satisfying. "Spicy Thai coconut ginger shrimp" features eight fat shrimp arranged in an arc around some rice with asparagus. Had one not eaten in countless authentic Thai restaurants, the dish would be a lot more impressive, but its sauce -- far too sweet -- missed the complexity of the real thing by a mile.

For dessert, we ordered a huge ice cream sundae in a waffle bowl -- gooey, sweet, creamy, crispy kiddy food. Yum yum yum.

A final mention: I suggest the staffs of both these restaurants immediately form a charm school for servers. I've seldom encountered such efficient and friendly servers. When we arrived at Cyprus, without a reservation, we had to settle for a tiny cafe table but the staff kept a lookout for better seating for us and moved us promptly.

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