A few days ago, I found myself running around the town of Highlands, North Carolina. Sitting comfortably atop the southern portion of North Carolina, Highlands is roughly two-hours via auto from Atlanta. As such, it’s a popular sport for weekend getaways and summer excursions for those of us who call the ATL home. My day up there actually provided me with a good bit of content for the blog, so I’ll be dropping a few more notes over the next few days.
While the recorded population of this quiet mountain town sits just under 1,000 people, the massive amount of tourist traffic has given rise to a handful of shops, markets, antique stores, and restaurants. One such restaurant is Wild Thyme Gourmet. The café sized eatery doubles as a wine shop and gourmet market. Meanwhile, they offer up a handful of sandwiches and salads during lunch while focusing on traditional American entrées during dinner. During this visit, I had the opportunity to sample some of their lunchtime cuisine.
Before getting too far along in this post, let’s make sure we set the expectations appropriately. First and foremost, this is a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. It would be pretty unfair to ignore that reality when walking into a place like Wild Thyme. To hold WTG to the same standard as a similar establishment in a bigger city wouldn’t be fair. Further to the point, as with nearly all of my first impression reviews, it’s hard to know if a single meal at a restaurant is truly indicative of the experience one is likely to have if they dine at the establishment with any regularity. However, let’s not give them a complete pass. Being where they are, farm fresh ingredients are at their fingertips – and it is appropriate to take that into consideration when dining at such a restaurant.
So back on track – what we have here is a small restaurant with some tables inside, some on an enclosed porch, and some on a spacious, yet private, garden patio. The interior screams casual country. Soft greens, deep woods, and a touch of white make your entrance into the restaurant an easy and subtle transition from the airy calmness you find outside. The ambiance is rounded out by the handful of fruit focused art work hanging on the walls.
Inside and off to the left are a handful of wooden shelves and a wine rack. I didn’t peruse the selection of wines; however, I did take a peek at the myriad of items sitting attentively on the shelves. Amongst the selections, I found a number of housemade items. In addition to those in-house dressings and sauces, there were “imported” cookies, jams, olives, coffees, and a handful of other options. Ultimately, most of the items seem like accent ingredients; however, there was some pasta in one of the sections.
As my focus drifted away from the accessories and more toward the restaurant, I took note of how busy the place was. Even on a non-descript Monday afternoon, the place was fairly busy. Our wait lasted roughly 25 minutes. It has been brought to my attention that this is one of the more popular spots in town; in fact, it seems that if dinner is on your plate, a pre-emptive call for reservations might be in order.
Given that reality, I was not the least bit surprised to find the service proficient, competent, and very friendly. The staff and the space help make the experience rather relaxing, regardless of the number of people fighting for a table.
As I mentioned earlier, the lunch menu strongly emphasizes salads and sandwiches, with the latter being particularly abundant. The four of us quickly made our way through the menu and ordered up some food. Soon after, our table was littered with three cups of soup. At hand was an order of corn and crab cream soup and two cups of the roasted red pepper soup. The corn and crab soup was reminiscent of a chowder. Ultimately, the corn, a bit of celery, a hint of sherry, some pepper, and a sliver of crab flavor were the driving forces behind the dish. Unfortunately, I didn’t find an abundance of crab meat; however, the soup served its purpose and didn’t make me regret the order. Meanwhile, the chilled red pepper soup was a little less impressive. The boldness I expected was nowhere to be found. In fact, it almost reminded me of a tomato soup where the vegetables had been filtered through a sieve many times over. Still, you got the hint that it was a roasted red pepper soup, albeit a bland one.
For the entrées, there were two sandwiches, a wrap, and a salad on the table. The salad was definitely the star of the show. It was a hefty piece of tempura fried grouper served over a bed of basic greens, sliced tomatoes, some citrus fruit, onion slivers, and some wontons. The grouper was a bit of a surprise to me. While far from mindboggling, it was reasonably fresh and fried perfectly. While the batter was slightly heavier than you’d expect if you were to have this dish at a traditional Japanese restaurant, ultimately, it succeeded. The batter adhered to the meat and the flavor of the grouper meshed well with the “lightness” of the coating. Though it drifted toward the oily side, my biggest complaint with the dish was the salad. Given the availability of hip-hoping fresh farm goods, I expected a good bit from the veggies. Instead, we had fresh vegetables that were sourced from a food supplier and not from the fields just a few miles away. The sauce, which was ordered on the side, seemed to be an Asian inspired vinaigrette. It definitely reminded me of a Chinese sweet and sour sauce with undertones of the acidic tartness one finds in a vinaigrette.
The grilled chicken and artichoke wrap, which I failed to immortalize, was my least favorite dish. The Kalamata olives and feta cheese didn’t seem to play well with the artichoke spread. The chicken was cooked properly and did not have any particular marinade or seasoning. This was a good choice on the part of the chef as the other ingredients were the basis for the accent. Still, I felt it was a fist fight of acids that left my mouth confused and searching for something to plant my flag in. It didn’t happen; however, the gentleman who ordered the sandwich seemed happy with the selection.
The two other sandwiches on the table showed strong potential, but ultimately settled in as acceptable and far from transcendent. However, I must remind people that given the circumstances, I was certainly happy to eat what was at hand and would not have a problem eating here another time.
Specifically, the strip sandwich contained overcooked slices of strip loin, some roasted Portobello mushrooms, and a horseradish herb spread. The bread was outsourced but not from the best of places. It was a thick cut of your basic white. The mushrooms and lettuce were par for the course and the horseradish sauce didn’t have the kick I was searching for. While the beef was chewy (which is unfortunate and surprising given the cut), the flavor of the beef wasn’t dressed up with a marinade or anything significant. The touch of salt and pepper allowed the quality protein to show strong. While the execution and composition disappointed, the flavor was solid.
The crab cake sandwich was actually served open face. The bread, lettuce, and cucumber were nothing more than a distraction. As both were cut entirely too thick, the bread and the cucumber slices made this difficult to eat. Unable to properly assemble a bite, things got real messy real quick. Still, the herb-caper mayonnaise was a nice touch against the freshly roasted crab cakes. The “char” from the roasting process against the creaminess of the mayonnaise helped make this crab cake pretty decent. Though not on par with a high quality crab cake from a studly seafood market, and particularly pubescent in size, the impression I had of this was identical to my impression of the other sandwich. That is, it was poorly executed but with enough flavor to satiate my needs.
So there you have it: A restaurant with a very relaxing atmosphere, nice staff members, and decent tasting food. I was certainly surprised that the fish products were FAR closer to tasty than toward tasteless and fishy. Now is as good a time as any to mention the outdoor patio. Surrounded by high trees and mulch for the “floor,” I really enjoyed the quiet, cool, and yet surprisingly bright space. Despite the high trees, light was prevalent yet soft. While I have yet to sample any of the other options in the area, I can’t see a reason why you shouldn’t end up at Wild Thyme Gourmet – provided that you’re fair about the expectations.