Tag Archives: Alabama food

Breathe

On the day before I leave for my annual December pilgrimage to Point Clear, I notice an online horoscope for my sign that reads

A strong craving for solitude tempts you to ask people to leave you alone today. Many animals hibernate for the sake of rest and revitalization; you’re not purposely pushing anyone away to hurt their feelings … Let everyone know you are not vanishing from their lives; you just need more sleep. This is one of those occasions when cuddling with your individuality rejuvenates the beast within…

I do not put much stock in astrology, but occasionally a horoscope – like a fortune cookie – will hit the nail on the head (not sure how I feel about rejuvenating “the beast within,” however).

I have made this December trip so many times that there is no longer pressure. I’ve thoroughly explored the landscape down here and don’t feel a need to venture forth too much if I don’t want to.

On this drive down, I am weary.

There is a time in that drive when I exit I-65 South onto AL 225 toward Spanish Fort. Taking that exit, I breathe. I open the car window to breathe in that air “below the salt line.” The air is brisk and chill and I savor its tonic.


By the time I drive through the gates of the Grand Hotel (www.grand1847.com), I am calm and relaxed. After checking in at the gate, driving onto the grounds, I hear the gate attendant say “Mr. Journey is here. He’s driving a gray Ford.”

Although I have heard the prompt, it pleases me when the valet opens my door with a warm “Welcome back, Mr. Journey.” I used to be a professional director and stage manager and I appreciate that attention to detail.

The low pre-winter sunset is intense on my balcony as I unpack and settle in for the all too brief pre-Christmas respite. The afternoon cannon firing at bayside occurs just as I open the balcony doors of my room in the spa building.

On a late afternoon stroll around the lagoon, with holiday lights beginning to flicker on, the squawking ducks, clamoring for food, distract me from the great blue heron standing like a statue just a few feet away. I have just enough time to snap a photo of the stately bird before he glides across the water, landing on the other side with a fish in tow which he quickly ingests.

This year, the lighting in the lagoon area has taken on a theme of arches, with Christmas trees sprinkled liberally along the walkways. In addition to archways scattered throughout the area, the natural arches created by the dipping branches of the ancient live oaks are dramatically accented along the way. The three fountains that dot the lagoon spray up like magnificent sparklers. The effect at dusk, with the golden lights illuminating the dripping Spanish moss and the silver lights on the fountains, is as magical as any magic I’m willing to believe in at this stage of life.


My annual Christmas present to myself – a warm stone massage with Claudia – is scheduled for my first morning at the Grand. I arrive at the spa early to relax in the calm of the quiet room and to catch up on news of my favorite attendants; Al Agee retired a couple of months ago after many decades at the Grand, and J.C., who was off that day, is still around. Michael, the attendant on duty, is a charming character and – like Al and J.C. – he has good stories to share.

I have described my massage with Claudia as “the shortest eighty minutes of my year.” On several occasions during the session, I hear myself expel a deep breath, often as bundles of nerves and tension begin to fade away.

Is it any wonder that I spend my year anticipating this annual respite?


With the Grand resort’s recent upgrades and renovation, the new Southern Roots restaurant is a most welcome addition, providing an inventive, locally-oriented menu featuring locally-sourced produce, seafood, meats, and desserts. The mixologists provide an inventive daily inspiration in the adjoining 1847 Bar. Everything is exceptional. I normally go out for dinner when I stay at the Grand but will be taking more meals on-site now.

Down the road in Fairhope, Dragonfly Foodbar continues to offer an inventive menu of tastes fueled by Asian and Mexican influences. I seat myself in a dining room at Dragonfly that is between two more crowded rooms and amuse myself with the interesting juxtaposition of music coming from each side. As one room plays classic rock, the other plays upbeat holiday tunes. This results in vivid aural contrasts: “It’s Raining Men” competes with “Carol of the Bells” followed by Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer” on my left with “Sleigh Ride” bouncing along to my right.

I tell the server that the random musical contrasts are pretty trippy. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I kinda love it.”

The trippy music trend continues later in the trip as I am sitting at 1847. Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” is playing in Southern Roots while, across the Grand Hall at the Bayside Grill, a live musician performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And I would swear that I simultaneously hear The Supremes’ “The Happening” ghosting in from somewhere in the distance.

The Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), a long-time favorite just down the road from the Grand, is bustling with holiday and birthday celebrations on the night I am there. I decide at the last minute to dine at the more quiet bar tucked away to the side of the main dining room. Seafood is always fresh and local at the Wash House.

The next night, at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), I start my meal with a half dozen Isle Dauphine oysters from west Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island. These tasty oysters are harvested not far from where my current favorite Murder Point bivalves originate near Bayou La Batre.


Interspersed among my dining experiences are drives around the bay, the search for interesting landscapes and architecture, and the opportunity to photograph favorite spots, both new and old. The dock at one of the city parks along Scenic 98 has long been a favorite. Later, I pull up to Harrison Farms on the main highway for bags of satsumas, to B&B Pecan Co. for local pecans, and to Punta Clara Candy Kitchen for preserves to include in the traditional New Year’s Day meal.

The Sacred Heart Chapel, just down the road from the Grand, is a small church from 1880 facing the bay. It’s closed in the winter, but its grounds provide a pleasant stroll. It’s a quiet spot that has seen its share of hurricanes and battering weather over almost a century and a half, with a porch that is a good spot to rest and take a breath.


The final full day is a special one – although rain persists throughout the day. Early, I go down to Bucky’s, the hotel’s stalwart lounge in the main building, and enjoy West Indies salad, a Mobile original – a chilled salad of crabmeat, chopped onions, oil and vinegar, and seasoning. Later, I return to Bucky’s to join friends Deborah, Jeana, and Emily for a generous and delicious serving of fried crab claws that takes us all back to memories of Grand visits in the past. Emily, who manages a Mexican restaurant near Mobile, introduces me to the Paloma.

On that final evening, I join the Brunson family at Allison and Richard Brunson’s home on the bay. As soon as the front door opens, the aromas of homemade gumbo have filled the house. It’s lovely to sit at table with my friends and their family. As the only one around the table who is not a Mobile native, I enjoy hearing the reminiscences of long-ago days of a Mobile childhood. After an exceptionally delicious slice of Allison’s pecan pie for dessert, I go back to the hotel to rest for my rainy drive back to Birmingham in the morning.

All of these moments go into my storehouse of Christmas memories.


After checking out of the hotel, I have one more errand before I hit the road: I stop at Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) on the way through Daphne and pick up a shrimp po’boy to go. Back in the car, I put the open-faced sandwich on the passenger seat beside me and pop succulent fried shrimp as I drive. The sandwich is gone by the time I get to I-65, take a breath, and merge onto the crowded highway.

Breathe. And savor the holidays.

Florence Recolte du Printemps

It is a happy coincidence that on the week that Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Restaurant in America, the Spring Harvest Dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory Café in Florence (www.alabamachanin.com) featured local ingredients with a French twist, a combination on which Highlands’ reputation was built.

It was never my intention for this journal to become a food site but I realize that an abundance of the 150 essays so far has focused on food. And many of those food-focused essays are inspired by the series of transcendent meals served in Florence at the Friends of the Café series and related events.

The search for knowledge of foodways and the understanding of what it means to be “at table” have been a source of pleasure and release for me in recent years. It has filled a need both for roots and better understanding of culture through food. And the Factory dinners are a huge influence. Many of them have benefited Southern Foodways Alliance and almost all of them featured James Beard Award winners.

Here’s a particularly telling example: In 2016, I attended a Friends of the Café dinner which featured a whole hog prepared by Rodney Scott, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southeast. The other dishes for the event were prepared under the leadership of Chef Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant. The dessert was a chocolate bourbon torte with marinated strawberries by Dolester Miles, the 2018 James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef.

Dining doesn’t get much better than that.

This most recent Florence dinner was the annual Spring Harvest Dinner helmed by Chef Ray Nichols, the Factory’s impressive young house chef. Chef Ray, inspired by a recent trip to France, did a French-inspired menu using local ingredients from the Shoals and nearby environs. The menu was also in French so my tablemates and I were kept busy with translations in addition to the exceptional meal.

The dinner was amazing. Chef Ray pulled out all the stops in this latest French-inspired meal.

As diners were seated at intimate table settings in the expansive room, an hors d’oeuvres course was served. It included a pork pate with gherkins and Dijon as well as escargot with butter and finely minced herbs.

The salad course was a fresh mixed salad perfectly tossed in a mustard vinaigrette. It put me in mind of the elaborate mixed salads I used to make for every occasion and that I have tended to simplify in recent years (though mine were never so beautifully dressed). I may be inspired to go back to my more elaborate salad days, tempered by the food knowledge I’ve gained by savoring the delights of the many food artists and restaurants – both grand and humble — that I’ve experienced through the years.

photo by Anne Fletcher

After such a beautiful beginning, the main course that arrived was truly the belle of the ball. Generous portions of steak au poivre were served with potatoes and wilted chard. The steak was perfectly cooked and juicy. Each course was accompanied by an organic French wine not yet available in Alabama. These included choice selections from Alsace, Beaujolais, and the Loire and Rhone valleys.

A cheese course featuring cow and goat cheeses from Bonnie Blue Farms (www.bonniebluefarm.com) was presented. The finale was a pound cake with luscious local strawberries and tarragon on a bed of lemon crème.

Ray Nichols became the Factory chef almost a year ago and quickly made his impressive mark with his Fall Harvest dinner in October 2017. In the meantime, he has hosted guest chefs and provides the culinary leadership for the Factory Café’s daily dining activities. His presence is a welcome fixture and inspiration at Factory dining events.

photo by Anne Fletcher

“This makes me really happy …”

… said chef Rick Bayless on Monday, May 7, as he announced Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill of Birmingham as the James Beard Foundation Award winner for Outstanding Restaurant in America. This came after the restaurant was a consistent semi-finalist for the award for the past decade. To sweeten the deal, Dolester Miles — Highlands’ long-time pastry chef — won the James Beard Award as Outstanding Pastry Chef earlier the same night.

Highlands has been a point of pride for Birmingham and the Southern culinary scene since it opened in 1982 and this honor further cements its place in America’s fine dining profile. Here is a 2015 essay I wrote about Highlands Bar and Grill.

My first extended post-Katrina visit to New Orleans in 2007 coincided with the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. Held in May, that event showcases local restaurants and is a draw for food and wine aficionados from many places. I met a couple who were restaurateurs from Napa and the husband’s work required him to travel all over the world. When I mentioned that I was from Birmingham, he said, “You know, Birmingham is a great food city. Not many people know that.”

I already knew but it was nice to hear it from somebody from the west coast.

Growing up in Birmingham, there was good dining to be had with an abundance of Greek-owned eateries from hot dog stands to white tablecloth establishments. The place has long been a mecca for classic southern “meat and three” places and the quality and variety of barbecue and barbecue styles in the area is an embarrassment of riches.

But when Frank Stitt opened Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in Five Points South in 1982, the bar for Birmingham dining was significantly raised. A few years later Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café (www.bottegarestaurant.com) a few blocks away on Highland Avenue and then Chez Fonfon (www.fonfonbham.com), a more casual bistro, next door to Highlands.

Add to that a preponderance of good eats from other chefs, many of whom worked for Stitt before striking out on their own. A new attitude and a new swagger is always creating a great and unpretentious urban destination for dining at every level and taste. In the Five Points South area near Highlands, I am partial to Ocean (www.oceanbirmingham.com) and Hot and Hot Fish Club (www.hotandhotfishclub.com) but every time I go to Birmingham lately it seems that a “must visit” new dining option has opened somewhere in the city. I am falling way behind on keeping up and checking them out.

Highlands, however, is still the flagship, setting the standard. It is pricey and elegant and provides an unmistakable sense of occasion as one enters the door. However, it is never snooty nor pretentious, it features the best locally grown and fresh ingredients with the menu changing daily, and a meal at Highlands is always an opportunity to relax and breathe. Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, create gracious and memorable dining experiences for their guests.

The wait staff is knowledgeable, efficient, and playful. I like to eat seafood from the Gulf when I am at Highlands; for my taste, Highlands prepares fish better than anybody. But everything on the menu pleases. We celebrated my mother’s milestone birthday at Highlands in summer 2014 and she declared her steak that night to be “the best steak I’ve ever eaten.” The menu is seasonal and changes often but Highlands baked grits, a signature dish, is always on the menu.

Two of my most often thumbed through cookbooks are by Frank Stitt. The first, an instant classic, is Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. It was followed by Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita. In each, the reader and cook find a delicious assortment of unique takes on food preparation and presentation culled from Stitt’s extensive experience. Stitt is a native of Cullman, Alabama, who attended college at Tufts and Berkeley, apprenticed and cooked in France and the Caribbean, and ultimately opened his restaurants less than an hour from where he was born.

Highlands Bar and Grill and Frank Stitt are on my mind this week as the James Beard Awards (JBAs) for restaurants and chefs is held in Chicago on Monday night. Highlands Bar and Grill is again one of the five finalists for Outstanding Restaurant.

I have been paying attention to the JBAs (www.jamesbeard.org) for many years and have paid particularly close attention since Stitt and Highlands have been regular contenders. Stitt was inducted into the JBA Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in 2011 and was named Best Chef – Southeast in 2001. I find that very often the winner for Outstanding Restaurant is a top five finalist several times before it wins so every year I tune in to see if this year is Highlands’ “turn.”

I want to be a witness when Highlands gets its much deserved honor. It will be an honor for the whole city. On the down side, it may make it even harder to get a reservation at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Mother and Truman at Highlands in June 2014

My mother, Jean Journey, and my nephew, Truman, at Highlands Bar and Grill (June 2014)