Saturday, August 24, 2013

Deliciousness Is in the Details

Hotandhot1-webIn food, as in art, architecture, and a ton of other fields, details matter. Details add character and flavor and separate the unique from the ordinary. By paying close attention to every minute aspect of the dining experience, Hot and Hot Fish Club has become a leader in Birmingham's culinary scene, and its chef, Chris Hastings, has become an ambassador for Birmingham and Alabama food nationally.

Hot and Hot's $30 Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu is a seamless procession of flavor, beginning with one I was tasting for the first time: an appetizer of roasted bone marrow--served in the bone--with grilled croutons and an herb salad (pictured at top). The bone marrow was tangy and earthy--a perfect complement to the more bitter herbs that were so fresh and green that they had to have been picked just hours earlier. The entree was a pirlou--a dish reminiscent of risotto from the Low Country of South Carolina--served with mussels and Alabama's own Gulf shrimp and Conecuh County sausage. It was rich and velvety smooth. The dessert course brought Hot and Hot's version of peaches and cream--a creamy, milky panna cotta with peaches prepared two ways and a bit of almond shortbread. It provided a light, elegant finale for an amazing end-of-summer dinner.

Hotandhot2-webHot and Hot also pays attention to details in other ways. Food is artfully displayed on plates made by a potter in Leeds. Lighting and furniture were created specifically for the space. And then there is the restaurant's bustling main dining room and open kitchen. When you visit, take a look at the colorful, patterned tile floor--an eye-grabbing piece of the past. Originally, the restaurant's building, tucked away beneath the 1930s Highland Plaza shopping center, housed the Plaza Grill. For most of the 1950s, it was Caddell's Creamery (or Caddell's Highland Plaza Restaurant), a popular soda shop and burger joint. When Chef Hastings took over the space in the 1990s, after the space had served as the legendary Upside Down Plaza nightclub, he preserved the vintage floor and other features of the building during renovations. (Incidentally, the legacy of Caddell's Creamery survives today in Birmingham in the form of the Jack's restaurant chain and Hamburger Heaven, both founded by Jack Caddell, who grew up working in his family's restaurants.)

Between its setting and its creative, delicious food, Hot and Hot Fish Club offers a rewarding dining experience. Don't miss an opportunity to feast on the details.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Happiness Is a Pork Belly Biscuit

PorkBellyBiscuit-webThe end of Birmingham Restaurant Week 2013 this Sunday brings a tinge of sadness. Will I ever see this pork belly biscuit and marinated peach salad again?

This dish, which is Urban Standard's $10 lunch menu for Restaurant Week, is happiness on a plate. That's how my cousin Rob and I felt eating it, anyway. The salad combined greens with onion, a white cheese (possibly goat), and lush summer peaches lightly spiced with cinnamon (I think)--an unexpected and very appetizing flavor combination. That paired perfectly with the pork belly biscuit. The pork landed somewhere between bacon and country ham on the savory spectrum, and it was topped with a sweet peach-tomato chutney on one of Urban Standard's big, hearty biscuits.

If, in the future, I had a choice between this pork belly biscuit and one of Urban Standard's legendary cupcakes, I think I'd have to go with the biscuit. It was that satisfying.

A visit to Urban Standard is an opportunity to glimpse two stages of Birmingham's history. Its building was constructed in the early 1900s when 2nd Avenue North was a hotspot for development, with brick stores, restaurants, and boarding houses replacing wooden houses. Several of the merchants along this block catered to farmers coming into town, selling feed and seed and agricultural supplies. For several years, the area directly behind Urban Standard served as a yard for wagons and included a blacksmith. In 1915, the building housed Baltimore Tailors and Murray Brothers, which sold groceries, meats, and feed.

Fast forward a century, and 2nd Avenue North is vibrant once again. Urban Standard helped to kick off that revitalization when it opened in 2007, and today it is a--well, standard--stop for loft dwellers, downtown workers, the creative crowd, and anyone who wants a comfortable spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and something good to eat.

The blocks surrounding Urban Standard are a veritable gallery of fading ads, many of which are featured in my book. Starting next month, I'll be leading walking tours to see these signs and discuss the history of the area in collaboration with LIV Birmingham. Stay tuned to this blog for details on how you can take part!

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Historic Flavor


The entranceway at Bistro 218 retains a terrazzo floor from the building's turn as a Hanover shoe store from about 1967 to 1976.

A visit to Bistro 218, the French-inspired restaurant on 20th Street downtown, is like a step back in time. That feeling may owe something to the fact that the restaurant is housed in a building that is reported to date back to 1873--just two years after the city's founding. Over the decades, its roof has sheltered a boarding house, barber shop, candy store, jewelry store, and a shoe store. (Be sure to click the "History" link on the restaurant's site for a fun trip through the building's timeline.)

When Bistro 218 owner Tom Saab began renovating the building last year, he asked the architect to make the restaurant "look like it had been there for 80 years on opening day." The team rediscovered and sealed the old marble tile floors, reused heart pine planks and stained glass to build a bar, revealed the brick walls, and restored the ceiling molding. The space now captures the "comfortable, romantic, warm, and sexy" feel of a classic French bistro, Saab says. To me, the setting is reminiscent of turn-of-the-last-century white-tablecloth restaurants that I've seen in old Birmingham photographs--elegant and inviting at the same time.

Bistro218-webSo how does the food match up to the atmosphere? Every dish is beautiful as well. Just take a look at these entrees (pictured)--chargrilled Gulf redfish with orange fennel salad atop blue corn grits in the foreground and shrimp and vegetable risotto in the background. Both are part of the Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu, and both (my wife and I like to share) were rich and flavorful. Earlier, we tried two entree-sized appetizers from the Restaurant Week menu--a meaty, satisfying New Orleans-style file gumbo and a tangy, chilled salad with arugula, corn, and red potatoes. A dessert of perfect creme brulee is included--seriously, my wife and I said it's the best creme brulee we've ever tasted.

This was our first visit to Bistro 218, and we plan to return soon. If you are like us and have driven past the restaurant several times, wondering what's inside, take the opportunity to enjoy a meal there during Birmingham Restaurant Week--and get a glimpse of Birmingham history.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Fresh Approach

Freshfully-icecream-webAfter a celebration of all things meat during my dining experiences on Tuesday, I took a turn for the veggie on Wednesday by having lunch at Freshfully. The Avondale market known for its farm-fresh produce and meats and Alabama-made products recently opened a cafe that sells sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and more. This week provided the perfect opportunity to make my first lunchtime visit.

Freshfully's $10 Birmingham Restaurant Week menu offers plenty of options, but I couldn't resist the summer siren song of the peach, chevre, and basil sandwich. The flavors melded beautifully, and the crisp peach contrasted nicely with the soft multigrain bread baked at Crestline Bagel Company. The sandwich came with a side dish, and I chose a green salad.

And then there was the ice cream. Freshfully's Restaurant Week menu includes a scoop of Atlanta's own High Road Craft Ice Cream, which comes in tongue-tantalizing flavors such as limoncello and vanilla fleur de sel. I chose brown butter praline, and I don't think I can emphasize how good this is. My infamous sweet tooth was very, very happy!

I also enjoyed the experience of eating at Freshfully. When you're surrounded by fresh produce and sitting at a long communal table where people easily strike up conversations with one another, it simply feels good to be there.

It's also a great vantage point to survey the revival of Avondale, which was an independent town before it became part of Birmingham in 1910. The street running in front of Freshfully was that little town's main street. Here's a fun fact: Freshfully is not the first grocery store to occupy its building. Around 1930, this one city block contained three separate grocery markets, with a Piggly Wiggly on the corner, Hill Grocery next door, and Cory and Faulkner grocers just a few steps away. By 1940, Hill's had taken over the Piggly Wiggly space and continued to operate on the corner for 20 more years. Today, Freshfully is carrying on the tradition of the neighborhood market, serving as an anchor for Avondale just as those earlier grocers did.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meet Vittoria

Vittoria-webOne of the most satisfying aspects of Birmingham Restaurant Week is discovering just how sophisticated and varied our local dining scene has become--and Vittoria offers a prime example. It is a shrine to all things meat, putting an inventive twist on pork, beef, and poultry.

The Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu (which differs from the one posted on the BRW site) is a good introduction to this new restaurant, where everything arrives in the form of small-plate dishes that are perfect for sharing. I chose a charcuterie board (pictured) as my appetizer--and it was a hit. My dining companions and I tried to consume every last molecule of the board's country pork pate mixed with almonds that was paired with brillat savarin--a soft cheese--and honeycomb and bread. My entree was a delicious pork osso bucco atop white polenta, with pickled cherry tomatoes, and a chocolate souffle with creme anglaise capped the evening. (Other Restaurant Week menu options include an heirloom tomato/peach salad for an appetizer and steak frites for the entree.)

My wife and our friend Tyler ordered dishes off the regular Vittoria menu, and it was fun to try their pork noodles (made from pig skin) in pork consomme, corned duck, boudin balls, and praline bacon. Before we had finished our meal, all of us were planning what else we should try on our next visit to Vittoria. We'll definitely be on the lookout for that charcuterie board.

Vittoria's design matches the food in sophistication. Warm wood contrasts with cool white tile throughout the space. A butcher shop never looked so inviting. As in the case of the Fish Market, Vittoria offers an example of creative reuse for one of Birmingham's old industrial buildings. The restaurant is part of the Martin Biscuit Building complex, originally constructed for the Martin Biscuit Company, a manufacturer of cookies and crackers that moved here from downtown Birmingham in 1928. After the firm went out of business, Walker Drug Company took over the space and expanded the building in 1958. The entire structure was renovated in the late 1990s to complement Pepper Place, itself a renovation of a 1930s Dr. Pepper syrup factory that operated for 50 years.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Art of Meatloaf

JohnsMeatloafI have two confessions to make before I begin this post:

1. I have not visited John's City Diner in far too long.
2. I had intended to save half of this meatloaf for my wife, but it was too delicious, and I ate every bit.

John's has been a favorite restaurant for several generations of Birminghamians, originally opening its doors in 1944 under John Proferis and moving into its current location (with its landmark neon sign) on Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard by the end of the 1970s. Nearly a decade ago, new owners freshened up the menu with a mix of classic comfort food and creative flavors--and the options for Birmingham Restaurant Week provide a good overview.

JohnsSign-webI had three choices for my lunch entree, and that delectable sculpted tower of meatloaf won out over the herb-crusted chicken and trout almondine. The hearty slice of meatloaf was balanced atop peaks of smashed potatoes and topped with crisp onions and pickled okra, with a just-right amount of mushroom gravy. The Restaurant Week menu also included a colorful garden salad. A Caesar salad also is available. It really was a great deal of food for just $10. The specials and other regular menu items my waiter described sounded delicious as well, and I'm eager to come back and explore more of John's classic-meets-modern menu.

John's City Diner actually sits next to an important site in restaurant history, though few people realize it. Just across the alley is the site where French immigrant Jean Galatoire opened his first restaurant and a hotel around 1889. Six years later, he left the city and eventually ended up in New Orleans, where he founded the legendary Galatoire's restaurant. John's City Diner ensures that this downtown block continues to be a destination for good food.


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Monday, August 19, 2013

Big Fish

snapperthroats-webWhenever I visit the tried-and-true Fish Market, I tend to gravitate toward my tried-and-true favorites. But today I enjoyed something different--the fried snapper throats featured on the Birmingham Restaurant Week menu.

The meal was nothing short of a feast--the snapper throats covered the plate, protecting a small nest of hush puppies. I had the choice of a Greek salad or two sides, and I went with green beans and Greek-style potatoes. All of that and a drink for just $10. It's tough to beat that deal. (Though the Fish Market's Birmingham Restaurant Week dinner menu does feature an entire lobster for $30.)

The snapper throats, which I had never tasted before, were delicious, with a flaky, crispy crust. And it's really hard to stop eating the potatoes. If you saw my last post, you'll understand how the Greek seasoning got into that dish and many of the restaurant's other recipes. The Fish Market's owner, George Sarris, is a Greek native who proudly carries on Birmingham's tradition of blending Greek and Southern flavors.

Likewise, the Fish Market's atmosphere is a blend of Greek and Southern. A leafy covered patio is just steps from a fishing boat containing tins of Greek olive oil; you can visit both a bar and, naturally, a fresh fish market under one roof. The place feels genuine and inviting, in part because it is a clever reuse of a historic Birmingham structure--the Harris Transfer and Warehouse Company building.


One of several fading ads on the Fish Market/Harris Transfer building. See the best of these ads--and learn its history--in Fading Ads of Birmingham.

Founded in 1880, the Harris firm was a moving company, and it also provided space to store household goods and business merchandise. The Fish Market's building was constructed in phases--in 1916 and 1923--in what was then a residential district. If you take a peek around the corner after your meal, you can see the giant doors that originally allowed entry for Harris's horse-drawn wagons as well as trucks. You'll also see a well-preserved fading ad promoting the company's services, which appeared on this wall by the 1930s, when the Harris company operated three warehouses in Birmingham. Though the Harris firm went out of business in the 1990s, the Fish Market is helping to keep its building alive with its vibrant setting and crowds of hungry diners.


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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Ghosts of Restaurants Past


A neon relic remains from a once-iconic Birmingham restaurant.

We're just hours away from the beginning of Birmingham Restaurant Week 2013, the perfect way to celebrate how good we have it in this city when it comes to eating out. But before you go out and appreciate our current, nationally renowned culinary scene, let's take a quick trip back into the city's dining history.

Birmingham began to boom in the 1880s, starting the decade with 3,086 people and ending it with 26,178. And it seems that all the newcomers brought their appetites. The 1883-84 city directory, printed just 12 years after the city sprouted in a cornfield, lists 13 restaurants. Several were bakeries and coffeehouses that doubled as restaurants, including Rowlett's Vienna Bakery and J.V. Gasser's Bakery, Confectionery, and Restaurant, whose ad implored potential diners to "Eat, Laugh, and Grow Fat" and promoted the availability of ice cream. Meanwhile, the Delmonico restaurant offered "Tables supplied with every delicacy of the season, and prepared in the highest style of culinary art"--a claim familiar to Birmingham's current crop of farm-to-table restaurants. The headline of Delmonico's directory ad declared, "We Never Sleep!"--perhaps an early attempt at 24-hour service.

As Birmingham grew, lunch counters and cook shops filled the city to serve hungry workers with fast and cheap food. Greek immigrants began to open and operate many of these types of restaurants, from hot dog and barbecue stands to meat-and-threes, in the early part of the 20th century. As the city's fortunes rose, Greek owners responded with more upscale restaurants. Over time, many of their establishments became civic icons. In each case, the Greeks combined Old Country flavors with traditional Southern cooking, creating a cuisine for a New South city. (We have the Greeks to thank for Birmingham's unique take on the hot dog, for example.)

The chefs and diners of the past would be astounded at the variety and creativity we now enjoy in Birmingham's restaurants, but they helped to pave the way for it. Each of them added something special to the flavor of our city--something we can still taste today.

Now, let's eat!

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