Tag Archives: Birmingham AL restaurants

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.

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“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)