“How do we do this?” asks a baffled looking blonde woman standing in the housewares department with a very full cart of her companion. “Do we just go through here or what?”

She was hoping to be able to pay for her items, and she was not sure how to go about it. The new Southern Season store in the former Belk’s at Chapel Hill’s University Mall is just as confusing, just as easy to get lost in. It’s twice as big as the old store (about 60,000 square feet) and 10 times more overwhelming. But it’s a pleasant kind of confusion, and being overwhelmed by wine and chocolates isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There’s something to be said, especially during the holidays, for the kind of old fashioned decadence A Southern Season provides. There is no sushi bar here, no yoga mats for sale, no herbal supplements department. There are caviar and champagne and chocolate truffles. The deli manager is pushing for a wall of bacon. The new store has given the various departments space to spread out and really revel in their brand of excess.

For instance, when you enter the store from the mall, you are greeted on the right by a wall of chocolate bars. A total of 563 chocolate bars stare out at you, giving the impression of a bookstore or video rental place. Beyond that, the candy department wraps a third of the way around the store, ending in a wall of Jelly Bellys.

“We are famous for the rare and the unusual, but I wouldn’t ever want to be snobby,” says Joyce Fowler, manager of the candy department. You will find the highbrow chocolate and the lowbrow candy here and everything in between. Apparently Australian licorice is all the rage this year. Who would have known?

Apart from hugely expanded wine, deli and coffee departments, the new store has added a floral department where the selection tends towards the unusual. On the day I was there, I could have had a bouquet made up of artichokes, cabbages and chili peppers.

The Weathervane, A Southern Season’s restaurant, has turned humungous, with 200 seats inside and another 200 outside. It’s also has added a wine and coffee bar in a swank little space between the restaurant and the coffee department.

Marc Formato, the longtime bartender at the late, lamented Pyewacket restaurant, has just taken over as manager of The Weathervane’s bar area. Marc is one of a dying breed, a true old-school bartender, and there are many Chapel Hill drinkers who have missed him since Pyewacket closed. There is hope here for a real grownup bar, although with the 9 p.m. closing time, it will be a grownup bar with a kiddie bedtime.

Perhaps the most impressive addition to the store is the cooking school, dubbed CLASS (Culinary Lessons at A Southern Season). It is, to be fair, beautiful. The light-filled classroom holds about 50 students, who sit at tables on tiered platforms that look down at a kitchen that would make any professional happy and any style-minded housewife pee in her pants. Large-screen overhead TVs show close-ups of what’s happening on the countertop or stove. The staff from the store’s wine department pitches in by teaching wine classes and having tastings, with less formal tastings every Friday afternoon. In December you can take classes with titles that range from “Holiday Wine & Cheese” to “Knife Skills and Maintenance.” Despite the serious-sounding names of some of the classes, the school is much more Food Network-inspired than it is inspired by serious culinary schools. But then again, serious culinary schools aren’t much fun.

As you walk through the store, it’s easy to forget the relatively meager beginnings of A Southern Season. Until you see the owner rush through the store covered in glitter from hanging up holiday decorations, it’s easy to think that this is not the type of place to even have an owner, a real person who lives in this town and knows his customers. It is certainly not an easy place to be if you have no money (as one employee told me, “You gotta watch out for the Jelly Bellys. They can get real expensive real fast.”) Be prepared for your rabid consumerism to rear its head. And if you decide to let it loose, make sure you grab a store map so you can find your way to the checkout when you’re ready to pay.

Restaurant news

Scott Howell’s Raleigh Q Shack is expected to be open during the first week of December at 2430 Hillsborough St. This will be a follow up to the first Q Shack, Howell’s Durham BBQ restaurant.

The Twisted Fork opened Nov. 13 at the Triangle Town Center in North Raleigh. The restaurant features a “market” where customers can pick out ingredients and talk to the chef about how they’d like their meal prepared. There is also a bar, bakery and to-go market. If this all sounds like too much for you to process, it is possible to simply sit and order from the chophouse-style menu.

Ever wish for a whole stuffed lamb to really top off that dinner party? Well, now your wishes can come true. La ShiSh Cafe in Cary has expanded its business to include catering and is offering many homemade Greek, Lebanese and Middle Eastern specialties for small or large parties. Makes you just want to forget about that turkey altogether. Call 388- 8330 for details.

Fowlers will be re-opening Dec. 5 under the new ownership of William Simpson and Fred Whaley of G3 Market Company. The new owners hope to restore Fowlers to its former glory, as well as to revamp the wine department with the help of Todd Wielar, owner of Chapel Hill Wine Company and Hillsborough Wine Company.

Four Square will be offering a Thanksgiving Day $48 prix fix menu from 4 to 8 p.m. The three-course menu will offer choices that range from the traditional turkey dinner to big eye tuna with curried coconut broth. Call 401-9877 for details.

The Washington Duke Inn has announced the appointment of Jason Cunningham as Executive Chef. Jason has been at the hotel for three years, most recently as the restaurant chef of Fairview Restaurant. He will now broaden his scope to focus on the Inn’s entire food operation.

Pops in Peabody Place near downtown is under new ownership. Scott Howell has sold the restaurant to three of his long-time employees, Matthew Beason, Chris Stinnett, and John Vandergrist, who are, respectively, the general manager, executive chef, and chef de cuisine. They plans no major changes to the restaurant. Howell will still be involved as a consultant.

On Nov. 17, Green Tango, an upscale salad restaurant, opened at the corner of Shannon and University drives on the ground floor of the Southcourt office building. The weekday-only restaurant offers chopped salads made to order, and boasts that there are over 1.7 quintillion possible salad combinations to chose from. Ingredients like hearts of palm and fresh grilled tuna make it a serious step up from your average salad bar.

Chapel Hill
Queen of Sheba restaurant is holding a special dinner the evening of Dec. 4 that will include a tasting menu of Ethiopian specialties, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and commentaries on the dishes and Ethiopian culture. Dinner is $25 per person, with two seatings at 6 and 8 p.m. Call 960-6799 for more information.

Squid’s Seafood Restaurant, at Elliot Road and U.S. 15-501, is featuring market price lobsters on Monday Nights and oysters for 50 cents each steamed or raw from 4 to 6 nightly.

Penang has now opened for lunch and dinner in Chapel Hill on Franklin Street, where the old Pyewacket was for 25 years. The space has been dramatically re-designed and now houses an open kitchen, bar area and sushi bar. As well as sushi, the restaurant serves Malaysian, Thai and Indian dishes.

Spice Street in University Mall has added a sushi bar and lounge to the mix, tucked into a corner of the restaurant. With sushi chef Sean Park at the helm, Spice Street is hoping to bring world-class sushi to the Triangle. As of yet, the sushi bar and restaurant will remain separate (meaning you can’t order from both menus at once).

Yet another Chapel Hill sushi joint, Tsunami Sushi & Noodles, has opened in the Falconbridge shopping center on N.C. 54. If you’re sick of sushi, Tsunami also serves bento boxes, noodles, and donbouri, which is a huge bowl of rice topped with Japanese pickles and your choice of eel, beef, squid, or vegetables.