Eating off the beaten path in North Georgia

Unique dining in a mountain setting

The mountains of North Georgia are a fairly easy destination for those seeking respite from the heat, traffic and general hullabaloo of Atlanta. What’s more, a weekend in these parts is pretty darn affordable. (This gal fished out all of $81 and change for a night at a decent hotel in Clayton, Ga.) For the food-focused, that means more moola to spend on meals.

Initially, this story was narrowly conceived as “fine dining in the North Georgia mountains.” Now having navigated winding roads in Habersham, Lumpkin, Rabun and White counties, I changed course. Why? Because most people don’t climb every mountain in search of fine dining. More likely, they climb mountains because climbing is fun and the payoff is a breathtaking view. My sights were still on food during my trek north, but some rave-worthy grub wasn’t served on white linens.

Overlook BBQ

Georgia is replete with waterfalls. Up north are Amicalola, Anna Ruby, Minnehaha, Raven Cliff and Tallulah, among others. Tallulah Falls will give you a workout as you go down, down, down the steps to be one with the gorge. So before or after that hike, make a pit stop at Overlook BBQ, situated on the nearby scenic loop, with a vista that will make those scared of heights gulp and suck in their guts.

Overlook BBQ is a roadside shack through and through. But it is also where you can let loose that gut. Call Overlook a ramshackle (just peer into the kitchen), but when you open the car door and get a whiff of smoked meat, you’ll be happy you pulled over. Head upstairs to this second-story, treehouse-like, open-air restaurant and grab a seat. Proper dress attire: shorts and flip-flops.

Order ribs, for sure. They hold the hickory smoke well, the meat has just the tug you desire, and the three ribs per order get drizzled with a sauce from Marietta-based Williamson Bros. that gets doctored up with a house call from apple cider vinegar, brown sugar and dry mustard.

Pulled pork sandwiches will also serve you right. So, too, the BBQ Sundae, which layers pulled pork, seasoned cabbage and black-eyed peas in a Styrofoam to-go cup. Squirt on some barbecue sauce, stir it up, and you’ve got the best, down-home, portable, savory sundae you ever will eat. Oh, and would you please try the collards they make in that rinky-dink kitchen? Those greens go so fast, that not even a dining critic can get ahold of them — after two separate tries.

Complete your visit to this scenic loop by browsing for souvenirs in the gift shop downstairs. Get some ice cream there, then patronize the retired plumber turned boiled peanut man at his colorful stand next door.

11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (or until it runs out). 940 Tallulah Gorge Scenic Loop, Tallulah Falls. 678-316-3849, .

Red Barn Cafe at Tiger Mountain Vineyards

If you have not supped farm-to-table style in an old dairy barn, perhaps it is time. Atlanta chef David Sweeney brings a smart slate of clean, produce-driven dishes to this seasonally operated, intimate restaurant at Tiger Mountain Vineyards, a short drive from Clayton, Ga.

An evening at Red Barn means celebrating the bounty of the moment, where each week brings a new menu. A recent visit included starters like lemon-touched fava beans over smoked quinoa, gorgeous petal-like slivers of purple daikon radish topped with cashew cream, shiitakes and chives, or, for carnivores, liverwurst toast decorated with crunchy radish halves, rough chopped Vidalia onion, pickle coins and whole-grain mustard.

Among entrees, there was trout marinated in grapefruit and white wine, a New York strip with roasted potatoes gussied up with clabber cream and the greenery of fines herbes, and a vegetable plate overloaded with rectangles of roasted red bell pepper swiped with pesto, braised fennel and triangles of a squash-corn frittata.

Save room for dessert. A gluten-free, vegan chocolate “pie” was a modernist work of edible art, topped as it was with bright yellow, halved goldenberries and twisted sticks of toasted coconut.

The beauty of a night at Red Barn means putting yourself in the hands of a chef who exercises technical precision while caring deeply about your nutrition, and a setting — indoors and out — that will leave you breathless. So take it all in — figuratively and literally.

The night I dined there, it rained. Eyeing beyond the double barn doors to lush hillside, the night falling and white steam rising — it was perfect.

Open seasonally May 1 through mid-November. 5:30-9 p.m. Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-9 p.m. Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays. 2592 Old Highway 441 S., Tiger. 404-563-3706, .

Montaluce Winery & Restaurant

Just driving into the estate that is Montaluce will have you feeling noble. Once you enter the manor and take a seat in the high-ceilinged dining room on the second floor or in the adjoining terrace, both with a sweeping view of the orderly vineyard on the hillside below, you’ll be certain that you are of lineage. Where are you, again? Enough wine and you’ll mistake the scape for Tuscany and your position in life as an underappreciated viceroy.

Montaluce has 12 acres of grapes under cultivation, but it also boasts a garden, the harvest spotlighted on an approachable new American menu by classically trained executive chef Christopher Matson. That carte just switched to a summer selection.

Recommended among current offerings: an entree of pan-seared wild black bass sleeked with a Dijon beurre blanc accompanied with sauteed baby heirloom carrots and white turnips — both from the garden — drizzled with a beet-caper puree and roasted potatoes to round things out.

But let’s rewind as we unwind with some vino. About a dozen of the winery’s own juices are on the menu. Stay cool in hot weather with crisp vidal blanc or seyval blanc. Pair it with lighter bites, like a hummus trio with house-made pita. An appetizer of meatballs with a light marinara and shaved Parmesan is also satisfying, a nice match with its rose or pinot noir.

When Montaluce hosts weddings and other private events, some spaces — like that breezy terrace — may be off-limits, and the hours of the restaurant (technically, it’s called Le Vigne) are subject to change. To avoid disappointment, call ahead or make a reservation.

11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily (brunch menu available 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays). 501 Hightower Church Road, Dahlonega. 706-867-4060, .

Coming soon: Valhalla Resort Hotel

When visiting Helen, Ga., if you want to look at something besides bare bodies tubing down the Chattahoochee River, put on airs and head to Valhalla.  This new hotel resort aspires to dish up all things luxe in the mountains of North Georgia.

Accessible from the same entrance as Innsbruck Golf Club, the newly constructed resort offers a fine dining experience in its candlelit main dining room as well as an adjoining terrace overlooking a pool complete with a bar and cabanas. Sky Bar on the fourth-floor terrace offers another setting for al fresco drinking and noshing in mountain style, with a retractable roof in the works.

Food operations are overseen by executive chef Dean Hill. A veteran of kitchens that pamper, most recently Potomac Point Winery in Stafford County, Va., Hill brings with him a penchant for farm-to-table fare. Expect local and regionally sourced ingredients to make their way into contemporary Southern bites for lunch, dinner and brunch. Wine offerings include those from the private collection of Valhalla husband-and-wife owners Jerry and Gayle Murdock.

Valhalla Resort Hotel is still in its soft opening stage. A grand opening, with a dinner concert, is set for July 22.

688 Bahn Innsbruck, Helen. 706-878-2200, .

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