Tag Archives: Bessemer AL

New Orleans to Bessemer, 2019

The Bright Star Restaurant’s “Night in New Orleans,” which had its thirtieth incarnation last week, has become a rite of passage for the month of August at the venerable 1907 restaurant in Bessemer, just down I-20/59 from Birmingham. Long billed as “Alabama’s Oldest Restaurant” and the winner of a 2010 James Beard Foundation Award as an “American Classic,” Bright Star has remained a popular dining destination even after the heavy industry that once defined Bessemer has slipped away (www.brightstar.com).

It was my father’s favorite restaurant; at his funeral, one of the ministers quipped in his eulogy that “Grover would sell his lawnmower to eat at the Bright Star.”

“Night in New Orleans” is a three-night event in which a New Orleans chef takes over the Bright Star kitchen and offers selections from a Crescent City restaurant. The late Jamie Shannon of Commander’s Palace and Tory McPhail, current executive chef of Commander’s, are among the notable past chefs who have presided over the event.

This year’s chef, Thomas Robey, recently took over executive chef duties at Tujague’s, the 163-year-old New Orleans staple on Decatur Street on the river side of the French Quarter. Tujague’s is probably most recognizable to New Orleans visitors for the iconic sign over America’s oldest stand-up bar on the corner of Decatur and Madison. The doors are always open and the bar is always crowded with locals and tourists alike (www.tujaguesrestaurant.com).

Chef Robey is no stranger to Birmingham or the Bright Star. He was on Jamie Shannon’s staff for previous “Night in New Orleans” events in the ‘90s and was executive chef of Birmingham’s Veranda on Highlands for several years. He left Veranda for another stint with McPhail at Commander’s before being named executive chef of Tujague’s in summer 2018.

Mother and I arrived on a Saturday evening about twenty minutes before the restaurant opened. A sizable crowd was already waiting in the Bright Star’s large lobby space – a crowd clearly made up mostly of the Bright Star’s dining room’s seasoned veterans. Some chose to sport Mardi Gras beads for the occasion and New Orleans jazz was just audible over the general din as Bright Star hosts began to quickly seat the crowd.

The menu for these events is split into two parts – one features dishes from Bright Star’s regular menu and the other is a sampling of the guest chef’s dishes from his home restaurant. Since my mother has dietary restrictions, the Bright Star part of the menu was her reliable go-to.

I was there, however, for the tastes of New Orleans and focused on the Tujague’s menu, choosing the cheesy char-broiled oysters as my first course. Other first course options were a shrimp and tasso bisque and a watermelon and tomato salad.

The main course offered a skin-on snapper over a corn maque choux, pan-roasted Maple Leaf duck breast, and a grilled pork loin with a mirliton dressing. I, of course, opted for the seafood and the snapper arrived atop a generous and complex maque choux, an elevated succotash-like preparation. Chef Robey’s iteration had a corn and tomato base with finely chopped peppers, green onions, peas, okra, and Creole spices. As I was trying to break down the maque choux ingredients for Mother, Chef Robey strolled past our tableside to explain that the name “maque choux” is probably a French derivation of a Native American name for the dish, which has become an amalgamation of indigenous and Creole techniques.

For the final taste of New Orleans, there was a creamy Grasshopper panna cotta – a nod to the minty signature cocktail invented at Tujague’s in 1918. Garnished with chocolate mints, it was a smooth capper to a rich New Orleans-inspired meal.

Leaving Bright Star’s “Night in New Orleans” in the sultry summer dusk, the urge is strong to take I-59 southbound and travel the quick five hours to experience another night in New Orleans for real.

Taste of New Orleans 2017

Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com), a 2010 James Beard “American Classics” award-winner, has always had a touch of New Orleans and Creole cuisine on its daily menu. Opened by Greek immigrant Tom Bonduris in 1907 when Bessemer – just thirteen miles from downtown Birmingham – was a bustling factory town in its own right, the restaurant is designated as the oldest restaurant in Alabama. The family-owned stalwart, which has been owned and operated by Jim and Nick Koikos since 1966, is a prime example of Birmingham’s culinary tradition of Greek-flavored restaurants with deep Southern roots.

Bright Star has a classic “meat and three” menu by day and transforms into more upscale dining for evening service. It is known for its seafood. People unfamiliar with Birmingham often don’t realize that the city is only a few hours from the Gulf and daily deliveries of fresh seafood are commonplace in area restaurants. Gulf shrimp, snapper, and crab are menu features and fried snapper throats are a house specialty at the Bright Star. The Greek-style beef tenderloin is another popular offering and the restaurant has one of the best seafood gumbos around.

About five or so hours down I-59 from Bessemer is New Orleans. A Bright Star tradition since 1990 has been the annual “Night in New Orleans” event in which a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant takes over the Bright Star kitchen to offer a special menu of that chef’s Louisiana-influenced dishes.

“Night in New Orleans” usually occurs in August and past guest chefs include Jamie Shannon and Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace, Richard Bickford and Marcus Woodham of Tujaque’s, and Jared Tess of John Besh’s Luke.

For the 2017 edition, the Bright Star staff pulled out the beads and featured a special menu from Thomas Finch, Executive Chef of Cellardoor (www.cellardoornola.com), a newish restaurant in a circa-1830s building on Lafayette Street in the Central Business District.

Finch and Cellardoor are new to me but he’s a native of the New Orleans area, from the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain around Slidell.  He has done his requisite term of service in the Commander’s Palace kitchen and has picked up knowledge in culinary school and around the world.

As is usual for the New Orleans event, the Bright Star offered a two-sided menu. One side featured Bright Star classics like Greek-style snapper, Greek-style tenderloin, Greek-style chicken, and Snapper Almondine along with gumbo, crab claws, and shrimp cocktail and a selection of the restaurant’s famous pies.

Chef Finch’s offerings included appetizers of Crispy Oyster and Pork Belly Rockefeller and Soft Shell Crab Bisque, and a Creole Tomatoes and Crab Boil Mozzarella Salad. The chef’s featured entrees were Cracklin’ Crusted Red Snapper, Gulf Shrimp Lafayette, and BBQ Braised Boneless Beef Short Ribs.

I opted for the oyster and pork belly appetizer which was a pleasing line-up of crisp fried oysters and braised belly. The “Rockefeller” sauce was a modern take on a traditional classic – a green puree spread generously on the plate.

The tastes of New Orleans were prevalent in the entrée. I ordered the red snapper which was generously topped with brown butter poached lobster and presented over a creamy smooth salsa verde. This dish is where the true complexity of New Orleans cuisine was capsulized with a nice level of spice and a multitude of tastes popping forth in each bite. The crispy snapper crust complemented the mild and tasty meat and all was enhanced by the rich sweetness of the lobster.

Chef Finch’s dessert offering was Oreo Beignets. The classic tradition of the New Orleans beignet was modified with an Oreo twist, full of chocolate flavor and dusted with powdered sugar. The plate of three beignets arrived on a brandy praline sauce with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The Bright Star has been a family tradition in my family for decades. It’s nice to grab the opportunity to share in the Koikos family’s “Night in New Orleans” tradition every few years. 

New Pioneers of Bessemer

DSCN0230 I have always been interested in the history of the postbellum industrial South. In fact, that history intrigues me far more than the antebellum South. Part of that interest probably stems from growing up in Birmingham – which did not exist during the Civil War and was founded in 1871, six years after the War ended.

The visionaries who brought Birmingham into existence as the first industrial giant of the post-war South were pioneers. As the city has evolved, the heavy industry which was its original raison d’etre has disappeared and been replaced by medicine and finance. Some factories still survive but there are large swaths of abandoned areas which once bustled with shift workers and 24-hour muscle.

I carry James R. Bennett and Karen R. Utz’s Iron and Steel: A Guide to Birmingham Area Industrial Heritage Sites (www.uapress.ua.edu) in my car. It is a handy reference to the industrial history of the region. My parents’ house sits on the side of Shades Mountain just above the site of the Oxmoor Furnace, Jefferson County’s first blast furnace. Oxmoor Furnace was tied to the Red Mountain mines, the site of which has been reclaimed by nature and is now the sprawling Red Mountain Park – one of the largest urban parks in the United States.

About thirteen miles southwest of downtown down I-20/59 is the postbellum industrial town of Bessemer which was incorporated in 1887, when Birmingham was sixteen.

Today, areas of Bessemer are blighted and most of the bustling heavy industry is gone. The Pullman Standard plant stopped manufacturing railroad cars decades ago and the iron and steel factories are long gone. Throughout Bessemer are reminders of its more thriving past — rusted relics of train trestles, factory sites, abandoned mines. During its heyday, when Bessemer was a town populated by shift workers, it was a 24-hour town – as were Fairfield and Ensley, industrial towns and communities between Bessemer and downtown Birmingham that are also reeling from economic challenges.

Bessemer has made an admirable effort to diversify and bring in business. Its location along the interstate is full of the types of businesses that one finds at any interstate intersection. The 109-year-old Bright Star (www.thebrightstar.com) is still a popular restaurant in the middle of downtown and Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q (www.bobsykes.com) on the Bessemer Superhighway has continued to pack people in since 1957. The downtown area is full of interesting old masonry buildings – some still well-maintained and others in dire need of repair. It’s a fascinating small city with a rich history and an abundance of reminders of a more flourishing past.

Last week my mother mentioned that the Bessemer Historical Homeowner’s Association (www.bessemerhistoricsociety.com) was presenting a tour of historic Bessemer homes and gardens over the weekend and that she would like to go. We planned to go on Sunday afternoon and it turned out to be a miserably rainy and windy day but we decided we’d go anyway and see what we could see.

The first stop on the tour was in Bessemer’s Lakewood neighborhood. The Wilson House, nicknamed “The Abbey,” is a sprawling house from 1926 on top of a hill overlooking the lake and its assorted white swans and other fowl. I was interested in checking out a Lakewood home since that community was an annual part of my family’s tour of Christmas lights when I was a boy in Birmingham. I haven’t been to Lakewood to see Christmas lights in five decades, probably, but a Christmas tree frame still floated on a platform in the middle of the lake so I guess it’s still a holiday destination.

“The Abbey” was the only Lakewood house on the tour. The rest of the tour went deeper into the heart of Bessemer’s residential area near downtown and that is where the true meaning of the event began to coalesce. Many of the proud homes on the tour were in the middle of streets that were partially abandoned and dilapidated. Freshly renovated treasures were sitting next to vacant lots and houses that were falling in on themselves.

Some of the houses were true mansions in their time; others remain mansions now. There were grand houses with monikers like “The Castle” and “The Abbey.” It was interesting how many times I entered a house and the first words out of the tour guide’s mouth were how many fireplaces the house contains; the Shaw House on Dartmouth Avenue may have been the winner, I think, with thirteen.

DSCN0239Most of the houses on the tour were recently renovated or in the process. I enjoyed the elaborate grand houses but I was most struck by the smaller and more modest homes that I could imagine myself actually living in. Many of the houses are owned by young couples or singles that have made a commitment of time, trust, and money to come into Bessemer neighborhoods that others might overlook as being past their relevance. These new pioneers – and I find them in many communities these days – are gambling that they can help restore a vitality that has faded in communities that are still worth our notice.

Bessemer’s Clarendon Avenue is a street I have never traveled before last week. Two of the houses on the tour were along that boulevard with its wide grassy median. Sections of Clarendon are in extreme disrepair but a drive down it – even in a raging Sunday afternoon thunderstorm – leaves little doubt of its former grandeur. The imposing house referred to as the “Moody Mansion” is truly impressive but the “Clay-Green House,” the more modest cottage directly across the street, was where I wanted to linger. The young couple who owns and is renovating the place have updated it beautifully while retaining its historic integrity.

The next to last house on the tour, the Matthews House on Owens Avenue, was also across the street from a big grand house, but its charm and warmth attained in a still progressing renovation were what caught my eye and attention. Again, a young owner has taken on the challenge of helping to revive the house and its neighborhood.

The storm got progressively worse and we ended up skipping two of the eight houses on the tour. Even so, the afternoon was well spent and inspiring; there are new pioneers of Bessemer to admire. I wish them well. DSCN0241