Which Ones of Your Favorites Are In on BRW '18

Á la Carte Alabama

Dozens of the Magic City's top area restaurants are participating in this year's Birmingham Restaurant Week. They'll be offering great specials for lunch, dinner or both. It runs through August 19 and you're certain to find one of your favorites on the list or someplace you've always wanted to try. Check out who's in here and get more information at www.birminghamrestaurantweek.com.

PARTICIPATING RESTAURANTS

5 Point Public House

A Social Affair

Avondale Common House

Bartaco

Bayles

Bistro 218

Blueprint on Third

Bogue's

Bottega Cafe

Bottega Dining Room

Brennan's Irish Pub

Cantina Tortilla Grill

Carlile's BBQ

Chez Lulu

Customs Cafe

Dreamland BBQ

Fero

Firebirds

Flemings

Flip Burger

Freddy's Wine Bar

Grille 29

Habitat Feed & Social

Harvest

John's City Diner

JoJo's on Broadway

Little Italy's Pies & Pintes

Little Savannah

Lucky Cat Rolled Creams

Michael's Restaurant

Mason Dixon Bakery & Bistro

MoMo

Ocean

Oscar's at the Museum

Ovenbird

Pazzo Big Slice Pizza

Perry's Steakhouse & Grille

Pho Pho

Rojo

Root to Tail

Roots & Revelry

Rusty's BBQ

Satterfield's

Seasons 52

Sky Castle

Slice

Taco Morro Loco

Taj India

The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar

The Craft Burger

The Filling Station Pizza

The Gardens Cafe

The Grill at Iron City

The Preservery

The Wine Loft

The Yard (Elyton)

Vino

Whistling Table

Wintzell's Oyster House

Here's a Way to Make Your Monday Merrier

Á la Carte Alabama

Merry Monday 1.jpg

Everybody needs to make their Monday merrier from time to time. Mountain Brook’s Vino is offering a way for you to do it.

It’s called Merry Monday and it offers mouth-watering and thirst-quenching ways for you to end the day that starts your week.

“Mondays are not usually everyone’s favorite day of the week, so at Vino we thought we would like to offer something unique and delicious to look forward to,” says Vino owner Al Rabiee.

“The special prices on some of our favorite appetizers and drinks provide guests with a great way to relax and enjoy a Monday evening.”

Those special prices range from $1 for a freshly-shucked fresh Alabama gulf oyster to $7 for a glass of premium wine from the onsite Gallery bar.

In between are $5 Merry Monday appetizers and $5 Merry Monday martinis. Appetizers include grilled artichoke salmon bites, Bang Bang Cauliflower and an Italian take on fish and chips called Frito di Pesce. The martinis take on a decidedly fruity flavor profile with a choice of Chilton County Strawberry, Mango Madras and Orange Beach.

An added benefit of Merry Monday, according to Rabiee, “It also makes for a great opportunity for them to try new items off of our menu as well as share the experience with a friend or loved one.”

And it might just make Mondays a little more bearable.

Vino & Gallery Bar are located at 1930 Cahaba Road in Mountain Brook, (205) 870-8404.

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How About a Glass of Wine with that Girl Scout Cookie

Teresa Zuniga Odom/Southern Señora

It’s Girl Scout cookie time!  This is the time of year when all your New Year’s resolutions about losing weight take a slight break when that cute little Girl Scout in your neighborhood asks you to buy cookies!  Seriously, how can you say no to a young girl learning about marketing, money management, people skills and entrepreneurship by selling these cookies?  They are SO good and everyone has their one favorite…or two…or THREE!!!

Two years ago, a friend posted a Girl Scout cookie and wine pairing photo on my Facebook wall.  I was getting more and more into wine and food pairings and I had a good laugh at the photo.  Girl Scout cookies and wine?  I wasn’t so sure. But the thought was tucked away in my mind and this year I decided it would be fun to try it out. 

First, I did a little online research.  Sure enough, most of the information I found was based on the photo my friend had shared with suggestions to pair Samoas (chocolate and coconut cookies) with Rioja and Trefoils (butter cookies) with champagne.  Sounded simple enough.  Then one afternoon I was at a food and wine event at Perry’s Steakhouse and asked their corporate sommelier, Susi Zivanovich what she would suggest.  She said to go with dessert wines like port, madeira and something I had never tried before — sauternes.  Next, I  found an article in Food & Wine magazine pretty much debunking all the pairings I had originally come across.  They also agreed with Suzi about the dessert wines.  And I figured since it was Food & Wine magazine, they should know!

So, I set about getting a Girl Scout Cookie and dessert wine pairing pulled together with a few friends.  I headed to Trader Joe’s, World Market, Publix and Vintage Wines to gather all the suggested wines in the Food and Wine article.  These are the wines I ended up with:

  • Emma Reichart Dry Riesling – $4.99 @ Trader Joe’s
  • Moscato d’Asti Villa Alena – $8.99 @ Trader Joe’s
  • Schloss Biebrich Rose Sekt (Sparkling Wine) – $6.99 Trader Joe’s (Okay, so I did add a sparkling wine because I was curious even though it wasn’t suggested. More on that in a bit.)
  • Chateau Pleytegeat Sauternes – $11.50 on sale (Regular price $15) @ World Market
  • Blandy’s Madeira – $20.99 @ Vintage Wine Shop
  • Taylor Tawny Port – $8.49 @ Publix

For several days, I mulled over how to set everything up.  I saw a few photos of pairings online where chalk boards were used and it looked nice enough but with six wines and seven cookies, I thought it might get a little crowded looking on the table.  Plus, I wanted to add the suggested cookie pairings next to each wine and needed a little more room to write.  I found a roll of butcher paper in my hall closet and it was just enough to cover my dining room table.  The wines were lined up from light to dark on the left and the cookies were lined up next to their main suggested pairing (as much as possible), on the right.  Then I grabbed a large Sharpie and got to work labeling everything!  The pairings looked like this:

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  • Riesling with Toffee-tastic (gluten-free buttery with sweet crunchy toffee bits) and Savannah Smiles (zesty lemon wedge dusted with powdered sugar)
  • Moscato with Trefoils (shortbread) and S’mores (graham sandwich with creamy chocolate and marshmallow filling)
  • Sparkling Rose with Savannah Smiles (powdered sugar lemon)
  • Sauternes with S’mores and Samoas (crisp cookie coated in caramel, sprinkled with toasted coconut and striped with dark chocolate)
  • Madeira with Do-Si-Dos (crunchy oatmeal sandwich cookie with peanut butter filling) and Tagalongs (crispy cookies layered with peanut butter and covered with chocolate coating)
  • Tawny Port with S’mores, Tagalongs, Samoas and Do-Si-Dos

Usually at wine pairings you get a tally sheet to keep up with what you liked best and any other notes you want to make, but I decided to go a different route with this.  Having a paper and pen to add to a wine glass and plate of cookies seemed too much to handle.  As my guests tried a cookie and wine, I asked them to put a check mark beside the ones they thought paired the best.  By the end of the tasting we had a good idea which ones paired best.  For our tastes, this is what everyone liked the best:

  • Riesling – Savannah Smiles were the overwhelming favorite of all cookies and wines.  The Dry Riesling and lemon cookies pairing was so good everyone went back for more!
  • Moscato – There was a tie between Trefoils and S’mores and personally I liked both of these cookies with the Moscato.  I’m not a big Moscato fan so this surprised me!
  • Sparkling Rose – only one person really liked pairing this wine with the Savannah Smiles which proved the Food & Wine article was right about champagne.  On the other hand, everyone enjoyed drinking the champagne when the tasting was over.
  • Sauternes – Hands down the Samoas won with this suggested pairing.  Was it the coconut or the chocolate?  For me I think it was the coconut and the fact that this was a really sweet wine, so I think the coconut balanced it out.
  • Madeira – I paired this with both types of peanut butter cookies and everyone preferred the chocolate covered Tagalongs with the Madeira.  So…this lead me to believe any of the chocolate cookies would work.  S’mores for me was a close second even though I didn’t officially pair this one with the Madeira.
  • Tawny Port – This is the wine that had the most suggested pairings, four total.  Again, the Tagalongs (with chocolate) were a hit and tied with the S’mores (also with chocolate).
  • EXTRA WINE PAIRING – I have to add that one of my guests brought a white blend wine, Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc & Viognier, to try with the peanut butter cookies. She had gone to Vintage Wine Shoppe and they suggested this pairing.  FYI – this was the place where I bought the Madeira wine.  We added it to the table and both cookies paired really well with this wine!

Last but not least…the Thin Mints. These are probably one of the most popular Girl Scout cookies but the thought of having wine with a Thin Mint didn’t seem like a good idea to me.  The mint flavor was sure to overtake anything that we tried.  In fact, I don’t think I saw anyone try the Thin Mints at my pairing.  I know, I didn’t try to pair them, and I believe the Food & Wine article suggestion was to put these cookies next to the coffee!  Now THAT’S the perfect pairing!

I’m thinking about making this an annual event at my house.  Several friends are already saying they’d love to be included and I love planning a good party!  Meanwhile, if you are interested in trying out any of these pairings, you need to go ahead and get your cookies soon!  In the Birmingham area, you can reach out to Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama and click on the cookie link for further information.  Or you can click on the “Find Cookies” button and enter your ZIP code to find out where booth sales are taking place.  And if you are sticking with your losing weight resolution, remember that you can freeze the cookies until you are ready to give these pairings a try.

Alabama Food Scene Shines with James Beard Award Semifinalists

Á la Carte Alabama

The semifinalists for this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards have been announced and, once again, Alabama is making a strong showing. From our state, two restaurants, four chefs and a bar made the cut.

For the 10th year in a row, Birmingham’s Highlands Bar & Grille is a semifinalist for outstanding restaurant. Mobile’s Southern National received a nod as one of the nation’s best new restaurants.

Highlands’ pastry chef Dolester Miles is once again a semifinalist as outstanding pastry chef. This year marks her fifth time in a row for the honor.

Three other chefs are semifinalists for best chef in the South—David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Bill Briand of Fisher's Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach and Timothy Hontzas of Johnny's Restaurant in Homewood. All three have reached this level before.

Birmingham’s Atomic Lounge is a semifinalist for outstanding bar program.

While being named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award is a big deal in the food world, the next step is bigger.  And making it to the finalist round are Highlands as outstanding restaurant—for the 10th year in a row — and Dolester Miles for outstanding pastry Chef. It's her third straight year of being a finalist.

Winners will be announced at the 2018 James Beard Awards Gala on May 7 in Chicago.

For the Birmingham Food Scene 2017 Was a Very Good Year, But What About 2018

Willie Chriesman/Á la Carte Alabama

When it comes to national media attention, Alabama got more than its fair share in 2017. Granted, most of it had to do with politics. But there was a topic where at least one Alabama city had a chance to bask in the warm glow of positive publicity.

For the Birmingham metro area’s booming food scene, 2017 was a very good year. Of course, It isn’t the first time The Magic City has been in the national spotlight. But, as opposed to the times when it made headlines for all the wrong reasons, this year has seen an infusion of good news stories unlike anything in recent memory.

The year began with no less than The New York Times listing Birmingham as one of 52 Places to Go in 2017.  Fueled by the ongoing work of nationally-renowned chefs and restaurants, the opening of the Pizitz Food Hall and the emergence of food enclaves in places like Avondale, Lakeview and Woodlawn, the positive stories continued in national publications like The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. Even that arbiter of style and fashion Vogue magazine sang the praises of this erstwhile Steel Town.

Eater and OpenTable both listed the Southside’s Highlands Bar and Grill as one of America’s best restaurants and it along with Highlands’ pastry chef Dolester Miles and chef Tim Hontzas of Homewood’s Johnny’s Restaurant were nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award, the Oscars of the food world. (As were Alabama chefs David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Rob McDaniel of SpringHouse in Alexander City and Bill Briand of Fisher's Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach.)

And the year wraps up with the renowned restaurant review site Zagat lauding Birmingham as one of 2017’s 30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America. Proclaiming “all eyes are on The Magic City,” Zagat says, “It's delivering with a wave of globally focused eateries.”

What’s ahead for 2018

With the momentum building for the culinary scene here, there’s little doubt 2018 will bring more attention and more accolades. That’s especially true in thriving areas like downtown, Uptown, Southside and Avondale. But what else can we expect?

Signs point to the excitement surrounding food expanding beyond Birmingham’s city limits. Homewood expects a number of new restaurant offerings to open in the months ahead following a busy 2017. And Mountain Brook has announced it’s launching a Restaurant Trail, similar to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, where diners are encouraged to sample the fare offered by that town’s dozens of eating options.

One thing that could elevate the Birmingham food scene even more is for it to expand to some of the area’s struggling communities, particularly predominantly African-American ones. With the city’s rich African-American traditions in culture and food, these communities are ripe to benefit from this city’s food explosion.

We’re building a whole new identity in Birmingham on food and it’s one that’s putting a good face on us to the world. Now, let’s see if we can spread those benefits all around town.

What's the Deal with Red Velvet Cake

Willie Chriesman/Á la Carte Alabama

Red velvet cake is always popular in this part of the country. But particularly so this time of year. Whether layer cakes, sheet cakes, cupcakes, pancakes, cookies, ice cream, milkshakes or even lattes, you usually don’t have to look too far in Alabama for something flavored red velvet. But where did it come from? Why is it called velvet? Why is it red?

When did it first appear?

According to the website Cheesecake.com, velvet cakes have been made since the 1800’s. To soften the sometimes coarse flour, bakers would add cocoa to make for a finer texture. So fine it was like velvet and hence the name. By the 1900s, recipes for red velvet cake and its variations began appearing in print. Its big debut came in 1943 in the classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking—even though author Irma S. Rombauer didn’t express a lot of love for the crimson treat.

Why is it red?

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Originally, the red tint came naturally. A story from Gizmodo describes how, back in the day, cocoa powder contained anthocyanins, a naturally occurring compound that can turn bright red when combined with acidic ingredients like vinegar and buttermilk, both of which go into red velvet cake. But most cocoa today is processed with an alkalizing agent that neutralizes its acidity. Some tried to replicate the red coloring by using beets in their recipe, but for most of us today, getting that red splendor requires dumping food coloring into the batter.

That was made easier by a guy from Texas named John A. Adams. According to The New York Times, he owned the Adams Extract Co. in Gonzales, Texas, and saw an opportunity after Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 to sell more extracts and food dyes. And what would be a better way than red cakes. In fact, the company even came up with a recipe it encouraged people to use (with their ingredients, of course).

Some say it began its current popularity with the 1989 movie Steel Magnolias, where it made an appearance as a groom’s cake shaped like an armadillo. No matter. It is still a Southern staple of Christmas, Valentine’s Day and pretty much any other time of the year.

Here is the recipe for what Adams calls “The Original Red Velvet Cake.”

Cake Batter

Prep Time/Cook Time:

15 minutes / 25 minutes

Ingredients:

•             1 tsp soda

•             1 cup buttermilk

•             1 Tbl. vinegar

•             1/2 cup shortening

•             1-1/2 cups sugar

•             2 eggs

•             1 tsp. "Adams Best" Vanilla

•             1 tsp. Adams Butter Flavor

•             1 ounce Adams Red Color

•             3 Tbl. cocoa

•             2-1/2 cups sifted flour

•             1 tsp. salt

Directions:

Cream shortening and sugar. Add eggs one at a time and beat vigorously. Add flavors to mixture. In a separate bowl make a paste of cocoa and food coloring and blend into shortening mixture. Sift together dry ingredients and add alternately with buttermilk to mixture. Add vinegar to mixture with last part of buttermilk. Blend well. Bake in 3-9" or 10" pans for 20-25 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool completely. Cover with classic white icing or cream cheese frosting.

Tip: substitute 1/2 cup unsalted butter for shortening and Adams Butter Flavor

Tip: Make your own buttermilk by mixing 1 Tablespoon vinegar to 1 cup milk and letting it sit for 5 minutes.

Recipe source: Adams Extract & Spice Company

How to Pick the Perfect Kitchen Knife

Reviews.com for Á la Carte Alabama

With the holiday cooking season here, kitchen pros and amateurs alike will be tackling carving, cutting and slicing a variety of dishes. And that means having the right knife for the job. But how do you find the perfect knife for you and your needs. Reviews.com has some helpful information if you're in the market for yourself or for that special chef in your life.

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Finding the best chef knife for you

From young and inexperienced hands to those of a master culinarian, familiarity with knives and knife skills is an essential in the kitchen. The knife works as an extension of the arm and often plays a role in virtually every step of the cooking process from prep to plating. Kitchen knives are often referred to as chef knifes because, like a master chef, they’re great at a wide variety of tasks from bulk prep to delicate slicing.

Overall, it’s important to understand that there is truly no one knife that is the “best” for everyone, though there are certain criteria that can be used to narrow one’s options. The team at Reviews.com recently released a guide to finding a great chef knife that serves as an overview of knife basics and a knife’s role in the kitchen.

Knife basics

The first step to finding a great knife is to get comfortable with the anatomy and terms for the different parts of the knife. This may be old hat to master chefs, but it’s still an important factor for those who use the kitchen recreationally.

These key terms may help familiarize you with the different parts of the knife and make shopping an easier process overall:

Chef Knife Anatomy.jpg
  • Butt: back end of your handle.
  • Heel: back end of the blade, closest to your fingers.
  • Tip: front half of the blade. Not to be confused with the point.
  • Point: the pointy bit at the end of the knife.
  • Edge: sharp side of the blade. Be careful.
  • Spine: top of the blade (not sharp)
  • Tang: steel that extends past your knife blade and into the handle
  • Bolster: the thick band of steel between the knife handle and the knife heel. 
  • Granton Edge: the dimples on the blade to keep food from sticking to it

Finding what’s best for you

When shopping for a knife, prepare yourself for many models that will perform very well. Knives, by definition, come out of the box sharp and ready to cut, so paying attention to the smaller details that set them apart will help you use process-of-elimination to find a great model for you.

Price: The amount you spend on a knife depends heavily on a variety of personal details: how often do you plan to use it? Are you a professional chef or a recreational cook? Are you still mastering skills and wanting to hold off on a large investment until you’ve got them under your belt? Fortunately, there are great options at a variety of price points, but note that lower-priced options may not hold onto an edge as long as a high-end knife.

Weight: As is the theme with kitchen tools, there’s simply no weight that’s best for everyone, so it’s best to hand-test your options as best you can. Knives should be maneuverable enough to chop smaller ingredients like herbs, peel fruits and vegetables, and offer a clean cut for each. This perfect weight depends on the size and strength of your hands and arms, so try a few out to get a good idea of a range that’s best for you.

Length: You’ll find a huge variety in knife lengths that are available for purchase. For a multitasking chef knife, aim for an 8” model, which will be large enough to tackle most kitchen jobs yet small enough to maneuver for delicate movements. Smaller and larger knives most certainly have their place in the kitchen and are essential in professional environments, but a chef knife length is a great place to start.

To take a look at the full article and to see which models Reviews.com recommends, you can take a look here: https://www.reviews.com/chef-knife/

Reviews.com researches products and services to provide consumers with unbiased advice and guidance. Its in-house research team spends hours scouring existing research and hand testing its topics to help consumers avoid the trial-and-error process and find what's best for them.

 

The Nation is Noticing Our Food Scene and It's Making Us Look Good

Willie Chriesman

Remember when the only news about Birmingham was bad?

We've weathered internationally seen images of fire hoses and police dogs, scenes of urban decay and the world watching Jefferson County suffer through one of the biggest municipal bankruptcies in history.

It's certainly been difficult for us to get across the message that it really is "nice to have you in Birmingham."

It's been my contention that if you've never been here you either have a negative impression of Birmingham or no impression at all. That was especially true of non-Southerners. (Sadly, it can even be true of some people who actually live here.)

But that's beginning to change.

Rather than building an image only on iron and steel or the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, our civic identity is increasingly being built on food.

And that is good.

It's almost becoming routine when local media outlets say nice things about the Birmingham food scene or when they sing the praises of our award-winning chefs or talk up the latest hot new eatery in Lakeview or Avondale.

But when the big boys in New York, Washington and San Francisco take notice and start talking about us, that's completely different. Especially when it means they have something nice to say about The Magic City.

Just this year, The New York Times listed us as one of its "52 Places to Go in 2017." The Washington Post sang our praises with "Alabama's largest city boldly returns to the stage and sings to a bigger audience." The San Francisco Chronicle gave us kudos in  "One Day, One Place: Tasty bite of Deep South in Birmingham."   And no less of an authority than the renowned restaurant guide Zagat lists us as one of America's "Hottest Food Cities."

That doesn't even include the love we've been feeling for  Alabama and Birmingham food from national TV outlets like Food Network and Travel Channel.

Our vibrant food scene is rolling out the welcome mat to people across the nation--and even from other countries. It's not only getting outsiders to throw a little positive attention our way, but it's fueling renewed energy in neighborhoods and areas like the 2nd Avenue Loft District downtown, the entertainment district Uptown, 5 Points South and the aforementioned Avondale and Lakeview.

But there's more to be done. While downtown, the eastern part of town and some of our suburban communities are reaping the benefits of an invigorated dining scene, not everyone is. Aside from The Bright Star in Bessemer, there aren't may recognized dining spots on the western side of town. That doesn't mean there's not good food that way. It means it just hasn't been discovered by the masses yet.

There are signs of hope. Developers are working to attract more dining options to the area around Birmingham CrossPlex and 5 Points West. And development in the Ensley area holds the potential of adding new eating options to those taking root there now.

As "man shall not live by bread alone," Birmingham cannot expect to reach greatness as a city on its food alone. But it's a good--and often very tasty--start.

So, eat up, Birmingham. It's making you look good.

Frank Stitt Talks Birmingham Food, Growing Up in Cullman and What Kitchen Items He Can't Live Without

Willie Chriesman

Frank Stitt comes across as a pretty unassuming guy. Maybe that’s because of his roots in Cullman, Alabama. Maybe it’s the connection he feels to food and the farms it comes from.

It’s hard to tell by speaking with him that he’s one of the most honored and renowned chefs in the country. He’s the winner of the prestigious James Beard Award—considered the Oscars of the food world—for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2001, was a finalist in 2008 for Outstanding Chef and was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in 2011.  His Highlands Bar and Grill has been nominated nine years straight as the nation’s Outstanding Restaurant.

In addition to Highlands, he also owns and operates celebrated eateries Bottega, Bottega Café and Chez Fonfon on Birmingham’s Southside. He sat down with Á la Carte Alabama and talked about his culinary roots, what makes his restaurants different from each other and what is his guilty pleasure.  Here is an edited excerpt.

How did you get from Cullman, Alabama to being at the top of the food world, especially here in Alabama?

That was a great beginning in Cullman, being close to my grandparents’ farm and picking strawberries and asparagus, beans and tomatoes made me, from an early age, see that connection the farmer has to the kitchen and to the restaurant. And so, after moving and cooking in San Francisco and France and Europe and the Caribbean and then coming back home, it was kind of a natural evolution for me to fall in love with food and incorporate some of the French techniques and skills, but embracing those Alabama country ingredients.

Why is Birmingham becoming such a special place for food?

Well, Birmingham, I think, is fortunate because it’s not so overwhelmed with people and traffic and congestion like I’d say Atlanta is. It’s really easy to get around so, I think a lot of people are moving back to Birmingham right now and opening businesses downtown and Avondale and Woodlawn. There is an energy. But I think the people of Birmingham appreciate quality. They appreciate genuine hospitality. And they’re not just racing to go to the newest, trendiest place. They want to go to a place that feels good. And so, I attribute a lot to the people of Birmingham. They know what they like, they know what’s good and they support the places that they enjoy. I think the community as a whole is kind of pulling for Birmingham. I just think about the regulars who come here every Tuesday to the bar and they’ll have a beer and maybe have some oysters. There’s a sense of community that happens at these restaurants. And restaurants can provide that. It’s that third place. It’s not home, it’s not work, but it’s a place where you come together as a community.

And there’s a pursuit of quality that I think is inspiring people to open up their own businesses, so millennials and the next generation will be able to say, “Wow, you know, I live in Birmingham. I just opened up this little café downtown and we have really good food and really good ingredients and we care about it.” I think that’s going to continue to grow.

You own Highlands, Bottega and Chez Fonfon. What are the differences among them?

Highlands.png

Let me just tell you a little bit about these restaurants. So, Highlands we opened in 1982 and what I had in mind was a restaurant that would be about Southern foods but with French techniques and with a menu that would change and evolve with the seasons. And a place that is a little bit dressy but it’s not required. A bar that’s bustling and a place that you would come often, not just for special occasions. Our service, I think, really sets us apart because there’s a real genuine care and knowledge. Bottega, that beautiful building, we wanted to do our love for Italian food. Bottega Café, a more casual Italian with big brick wood-burning pizza oven where we roast everything. And so, you’ve got Italian, a casual Italian, you’ve got this funky southern French and then right next door you’ve got Chez Fonfon which is a French bistro through and through. There’s this fun attitude. You’ve got rails behind the banquettes. You throw you r jackets or your hat, you sit down, you have some good wine, you have steak frites or mussels or an omelet. It’s food, it’s not the most creative in the world, but it’s just heartwarming food. I love Chez Fonfon.

What is your best advice for the home cook?

You need to have a game plan. And you need to have, what we call as a French term, is “mise en place.” You have to have everything in its place and organized. (Cooking something complex) makes the kitchen a little bit of a mess, but if you’re organized it’s not too much. So often people only resort to what is the simplest and the easiest and if you would go ahead and get a few dishes that are things that you’ll have infinite combinations on but there is a procedure, you can do that and not feel like you’re running around crazy. Be calm in the kitchen.

What is the one kitchen item that you can’t live without?

Well, for me, knives, a sharp knife, a good knife that is not too thick, not too thin, that you keep a really great edge on it, using a (sharpening) steel. One of the key things is that, after you use a knife, wash it, you wipe it off, you never leave it in a sink, you never let it get banged around to protect that edge. I love a good cutting board, a wooden cutting board, that you maintain and that’s easier on your knife than hard plastic. We always have a bowl of kosher salt that I can grab a pinch to season. I always have a good pepper mill to grind at the last second. I always have good oils, olive oil, close by, a variety of different vinegars. Those to me are essentials and you can just do all kinds of things once you have those essentials.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I’ve been known to over-consume ice cream in the freezer. And so, that may be one of my weaknesses. Right now, there’s this salted caramel ice cream that we finish with some chopped peanuts. It’s really delicious.

Mentone Restaurant Owner Jimmy Rogers helps his Community by Feeding It

Karim Shamsi-Basha for Alabama News Center

Jimmy Rogers knows how to get people to remember him.

He feeds them!

When I was in Mentone recently asking about people who help the community, everyone mentioned Rogers at the Green Leaf Grill. Then I met the man, and it became clear why all recognized him. It wasn’t only his food, it was his enthusiasm about life and about doing what he could.

“What we do here is take care of our fireman and policemen, wherever you’re from. We give them a 20% discount. Veterans eat free on Veterans Day and so do the widows of the veterans. They also get a 20% discount every day. We also provide a free lunch to the seniors at the MERF (Mentone Educational Resources Foundation) Home once a month,” Rogers said.

No wonder everyone knew Rogers. He also opens his restaurant for a potluck dinner every Christmas. Green Leaf Grill is nestled in the middle of the artist colony in the picturesque mountain town.

“A lot of people like me don’t have much family left on the holidays, you know the way it used to be when you were younger. I decided to open the restaurant for a potluck where everyone could bring one dish. Not only was it easier on everyone but I also got to taste some amazing food,” Rogers said, “But you know what the real reason was? Everyone sat together and felt like family. And you don’t even have to bring a dish, just come and be a part of the family.”

That feeling of family and community is what Rogers seeks with his service and discounts and potluck diners. He never forgot his youth when food was an integral part of his life.

“I grew up in a family where all we did was cook. We eat and we cook, that was the entire essence of the family. I loved eating out at the local spots when I traveled and I really fell in love with food. Now I get to help my community with food,” Rogers said, “I wanted to bring back to Mentone what I had learned about food; fresh, simple.”

Most restaurant owners have no time, or budget, to give their food away like Rogers. I asked him why he helps the police and firefighters, why he assists the veterans and their widows, and why he gives away so much food.

“I like to see the smile on people’s faces. It makes me happy to see people come in and have that experience, to enjoy a meal, made fresh and as local as I can get it. Just the satisfaction I get from seeing their smile. That’s why I do it.”

Jimmy Rogers feeds Mentone - good, down-home, Southern food, plus a dose of a helping hand.

For more information visit the Green Leaf Grill website.

Five Points South: The Intersection That Fuels Birmingham's Food Scene

 The panelists address a sold out crowd. (L to R) Harinam Khalsa, George Reis, Jerry Hartley, Frank Stitt

The panelists address a sold out crowd. (L to R) Harinam Khalsa, George Reis, Jerry Hartley, Frank Stitt

It’s the place where three streets intersect to become five points. And not only do the streets intersect at Birmingham’s Five Points South, but so does a world of food and drink that is fueling the city’s eclectic dining scene.

Vulcan Park and Museum hosted the owners of some of Five Points South’s most popular establishments in their Birmingham Revealed: A Talk With Frank Stitt & Friends. Chef Stitt, (Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez Fon Fon, and Bottega), George Reis (Ocean and 5 Point Public House & Oyster Bar), Jerry Hartley (the J. Clyde), and Harinam Khalsa (Golden Temple Natural Grocery and Café) spoke to an eager audience about the past, present and future of the Five Points South Neighborhood.

These Five Points innovators talked about the spark that initially drew them to this area of Birmingham.

Frank Stitt who grew up in Cullman, trained in France, and has been named one of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America said, "It was a little bit of a Bohemian urban environment, that was not suburbia. [It] had maybe some problems, some challenges but that it had a diverse group of people of different colors, of different religions, of different backgrounds. And I believe that that still is one of attractive things about this [area]."

Harinam Khalsa, who moved from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham in the early 1970’s to teach yoga was inspired by an issue his wife discovered. "She told me that she went shopping and was looking for brown rice. And she couldn't find any brown rice in the whole city. This was in 1973. And so I thought about it a little bit and I said let's open a health food store. So we opened up in Homewood on Reese Street in 1973 and were there for 2 years. We lived over on 16th Avenue and would drive by and drive through Five Points South everyday on my way to work and would drive by Vulcan on my way to work in Homewood and at that time Five Points South was the closest thing to Greenwich Village in Birmingham. It had, exactly like Frank said, it had an eclectic mix.”

George Reis, who was raised in Upstate New York and lived in Atlanta before coming to Birmingham recalled, "The area you went to when you came to Birmingham was Five Points South back then. In, you know, late 90s early 2000s you went to Five Points South if you wanted to go out, if you wanted to go to a restaurant or anything like that. That is where you went. Everybody kind of knew that about Birmingham. So then when the opportunity presented itself to come here and open my own place. It was fantastic. I fell in love with the space, fell in love with the neighborhood."

Jerry Hartley, whose beer bar, The J. Clyde, recently celebrated it’s 10 year anniversary told the sold out crowd, "I grew up in Irondale so I grew up in this town. Left to go to college in Virginia and sort of saw the world, I lived in Germany for five years. That's where I saw a lot of beer in a community and breweries in towns. When we came back in 2005 our mindset was we want to move, buy a house where we can walk to Bottega, walk to Ocean. Before I started The J. Clyde I moved to Five Points and I live there now and I love it. I don't think there's any place in the city like it. The diversity is incredible and we get to talk to people who think differently than we do.”

When an audience member commented on the national recognition the Five Points area was receiving, the panelists offered their thoughts about the area’s culinary renaissance. Hartley responded, “When I look at the reputation we have around the country I think many times people see what we've done and go 'Really? This place in Birmingham has all these different beers?'  I never envisioned ten years ago that we would have the kind of selection on the wall that we have now. We have 60 taps that are from around the world and beers that I was fawning over ten years ago 'Wow I wish I could get that' and now it's just one of so many options. And I feel like shaking off that reputation of being backwards and I think the culinary environment that we have in town has started that. It took a long time. I think Highlands [Bar and Grill] opened up in the early 80's but that was kind of the thing in my opinion what sort of kicked off moving into a good direction. Even with the beer movement that we've had recently, it's all been a part of that. I think that the reputation, especially with Frank and the accolades that he's accomplished is exceptional and I think people see that around the area, around the country.

Stitt added, “You know I think about places like Charleston, SC where tourists come from all over the country, all over the world to visit there. I certainly do see Birmingham as a big potential of growth of people coming here for that and I do think we've been somewhat challenged with hotels, accommodations, that's getting a little bit better. I think that more and more people will be traveling for food, for unique food, just like people have done in New Orleans for a long time.”

 

Decatur Chef Helps the Hungry Because He's Been There

Karim Shamsi-Basha for Alabama NewsCenter

He grew up poor, and he went to bed hungry at night.

But when you look into his eyes today, you see resolve to help prevent local children from experiencing the same. Chef Jake Reed is fighting hunger through bike rides with Chefs Against Hunger, and through his gourmet restaurant - Albany Bistro in Decatur.

“Last year we did a Chefs Against Hunger bike ride locally to raise awareness for hungry children in this area. Nationally, one in five children go to bed hungry every night. In this area, it’s actually one in four. So we started a campaign with the help of local volunteers and that turned into the bike ride,” Chef Reed said, “We had over 150 riders here in town and raised over $7,000. This year, I am going to the No Kids Hungry bike ride in California.”

Albany Bistro looks like a house and sits in the middle of a quaint neighborhood. It was built in the early nineteen hundreds and used to be a grocery store. Chef Reed turned it into a restaurant in 2009. Now it shines as an elegant dining room with fancy chandeliers and modern art, combined with Southern food and a gourmet twist.

“Albany Bistro is a small family owned restaurant that we started in 2009. We focus on Southern cuisine in an elegant atmosphere. I try to bring recipes that my grandmother and mother passed down through our family,” Chef Reed said.

Feeding the hungry is not just a ‘feel good thing’, for chef Reed. He experienced hunger when young and made a pact that he would do everything in his power to help others.

“I grew up in poverty. I remember when I was younger my family received government commodities, I remember that very well. With a lot of help from the community and an education, I was able to come out of that poverty. Now I’m using my career to help others,” Chef Reed said.

For lunch, I had the acorn squash stuffed with rice and beans, sitting atop of a bed of sautéed arugula lettuce. It was divine. The food at Albany Bistro is a well-designed combination of modern essence with traditional and Southern influences, perhaps one of the toughest cuisines to perfect. A couple of decades ago, a chef by the name of Frank Stitt in Birmingham began the movement of converting Southern food into elegant gourmet fare.

“We follow the concepts Frank Stitt pioneered in our offerings, and try to elevate Southern food to become unique and elegant,” Co-owner Rick Brown said.

After lunch, I asked chef Reed if he wanted to add anything.

“I gotta tell you, this is so rewarding, even without the thanks. I know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of poverty, and just to know that I’m making a difference in the lives of others, it gives me a great feeling,” Chef Reed said.

Chef Reed continues to raise thousands of dollars to fight the hunger he grew up feeling in his stomach when young. My next North Alabama dinner outing? Albany Bistro in Decatur for sure.

For more information, visit http://www.albanybistro.net

Why I Hate Beets

Beets.jpg

I think it was second grade. They had recently installed a new kitchen/cafeteria at my elementary school so the excitement of hot lunches was still new.

They actually did a pretty good job—those hard-working lunchroom ladies. Some of them were mothers of classmates who were clearly well-fed, so they must have known what they were doing in the kitchen. And they seemed to bring that same degree of care and attention to institutional food that was brought to school by the truckload. (They were particularly good at making yeast rolls.)

So, I pretty much thought they could do no wrong. If my seven-year-old brain recognized a food and knew I didn’t hate it, it was probably going to be OK.

But then, it happened. It was a typical school lunch, but I detected a special treat on the steam table—cranberry sauce. And it wasn’t even Thanksgiving time.

(Here, I must pause, because you may ask why would I think cranberry sauce—which is usually served chilled—was being served from the steam table. I will remind you I was seven.)

I took a big bite with taste buds anticipating the tangy sweetness of one of my holiday favorites. So imagine my confusion, my disorientation as I bit into this bitter, overboiled root VEGETABLE. Something must have snapped. With each thought about this deception I became more disgusted.

And so, my life-long aversion began. To this day, I don’t eat beets—whether they’re in a salad, pickled, in borsht, raw (I hear people actually eat them that way) or dessert (yuk, really?). When it comes to any dish containing them, I say ‘beet it.’

As I get older, I consider that it may be time to rethink this whole thing. Give beets another chance. It may happen…someday. Until then, I’m sticking with cranberry sauce. It’s never let me down.

Now, let’s talk about brussels sprouts.

Do you have a food you just do not want to eat? Do you know why? Share your story on our Facebook page, at our website (alacarteAL.com) or email us at info@alacarteAL.com.