Tag Archives: New Orleans food

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.

A Summer Solstice Celebration

photo by D. Brunson

I love the heat and activity of summer – the long days, the unpredictable showers, living out-of-doors. I always like to mark the Summer Solstice with a special activity, including my annual reading of The Great Gatsby, a novel set over the course of a summer told in the conversational voice of Gatsby’s erstwhile sidekick, Nick Carraway. It is Fitzgerald’s most perfect novel.

I have known since last October that I would be spending the evening of the 2018 Summer Solstice in Florence. I have written frequently about the “Friends of the Café” series of dinners at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com). These usually serve as fundraising events for Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) and are among the most anticipated events on my annual calendar. They are an escape.

The June 2018 dinner marked not only the Summer Solstice but a reunion with old friends, the opportunity to introduce friends who’ve never met each other, and the first “Friends of the Café” dinner for several of the people at my table.

I rode over to Florence from Decatur with my friends Anne and Deborah. Deborah, a Mobile native, was visiting from New Mexico. At the same time, my friends Scott and Michelle, with Scott’s parents, Jim and Judy – who were visiting from Ohio, were driving over from Owens Cross Roads, just over the mountain from Huntsville. Carol, a friend from Chicago, was already ensconced in Florence where she was attending week-long patterning workshops at Alabama Chanin.

When we arrived at the Factory, we were greeted with a beverage called the “Summer Solstice” – a refreshing mix of mint and peach-infused tea and Prosecco, ideal for celebrating the official start of my favorite season and for launching an impeccable meal.

Chef Rebecca Wilcomb

The chef for the evening was Rebecca Wilcomb, the 2017 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef – South. Wilcomb is Executive Chef at Herbsaint (www.herbsaint.com), a favorite New Orleans restaurant (I have a few) that is part of Chef Donald Link’s family of restaurants celebrating Louisiana roots and foodways.

Chef Wilcomb strayed a bit from her typical Herbsaint fare for this special Factory dinner, paying homage to her mother’s Italian roots – and especially to food prepared by her Italian grandmother in her kitchen in Italy. The meal was sumptuous and generous with Italian-inspired takes on fresh local food.

As the tribe gathered, hors d’oeuvres were passed by the always amazing Factory staff. I made sure I tracked down at least one of everything. The crab melt was a buttery mini-sandwich filled with perfectly rendered crab filling. Chickpea fritters with caponata, a well-spiced vegetable blend, provided a rich mouthful. Skewers of large spice-forward shrimp were incredible, and my favorites were skewers of beef chunks with anchovy and olive.

Dark clouds were gathering as we took our seats at the intimate Factory table settings. Thunder and lightning began to herald a passing storm as Natalie Chanin made her welcoming comments. The noisy storm prompted Deborah and me to exchange glances to acknowledge that a storm was the ideal accent for this special meal to cap the longest day of the year.  As the lightning began to subside, the rain intensified, pounding an energetic percussive beat on the Factory’s metal roof. Just as quickly, the storm moved away.

There was a lot of rain in the spring and recently; it promises to be a good year for fireflies.

  The first course for the seated meal was “Giannina’s  Tortellini.” It was revealed that Chef Wilcomb had never before served these tortellini at her restaurants or at a public gathering. Her Italian grandmother’s tortellini recipe was a special start to the meal with the stuffed tortellini served in a subtly flavorful broth. I tilted my bowl at the end to ensure that I could spoon out every last drop.

photo by D. Brunson

That first course was a finely rendered tease for the hearty second course to come. Served family style, it included six beautifully prepared and seasoned dishes highlighted by both a meat and fish offering. Pork belly from nearby Bluewater Creek Farm (www.bluewatercreekfarm.grazecart.com) was passed around along with an Open Blue cobia (www.openblue.com) from the Caribbean, paired with Calabrian chilies. The delicate white fish was a unanimous hit at our table, with a subtle creamy taste. Italian rice salad, marinated lunchbox peppers, a dish piled high with whole charred okra, and a beautiful bowl of seasoned porcini mushrooms completed the course.

photo by D. Brunson

The feast ended with platters piled with summer fruit hand fries; fig, blueberry, and peach pies were available and most of my dining partners managed to sample one of each. I was pretty full by that time and only ate two – fig and, of course, peach.

This will be one of the most memorable of the Factory meals because of the friends – old and new – who congregated for a very special event. I realized that all of the people who were seated at my table were there – either directly or indirectly – because of me. I worried that everybody might not have a good time but that concern melted away as we all talked and laughed, enjoyed the food together, and toasted the promise of summer.

An added treat of these dinners is the opportunity to see a chef I admire in a new context. Chef Wilcomb always brings to mind a favorite table by the window at Herbsaint; now, Herbsaint will always remind me of Giannina, her Italian grandmother, and of a Summer Solstice that was celebrated with friends in a most memorable way.

As we left the factory, the rains had moved on and a steamy glaze danced across the pavement of the road on a hot summer night. 

Sidewalk 2017

“The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”

That quote, by the writer and critic James Agee (1909-1955), is one I often share and discuss with my directing classes. It provided fuel for the makers of Behn Zeitlin’s magnificent 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild (www.beastsofthesouthernwild.com) and it resonates with me whenever I am trying to think of my favorite kinds of movies.

I have always liked – maybe preferred – to attend movies by myself, which is probably a good thing. I have a long habit of trying to catch movies on weekday afternoons when the theatre is almost empty. One of the reasons for that is the ability to focus more intensely but the other is that it is sometimes hard to find people who share my tastes in movies. I am drawn to what I call “chamber movies” – intimate character-driven dramas that have a meditative quality and pace. Not everybody is into that.

The 19th annual Sidewalk Film Festival happened in downtown Birmingham last week and, while I didn’t have time to commit myself to the festival as fully as I have in the past, I did manage to catch a screening or two each day.

Two screenings stood out for me.

Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table (www.ellabrennanmovie.com) is the 2016 documentary about the doyenne of New Orleans restaurateurs. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the film reveals things about Ms. Brennan and the famous New Orleans restaurant family that even the most avid New Orleans foodie might not have known.

Ella Brennan is credited with jump-starting the careers of chefs Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and Tory McPhail, Commander’s current executive chef. Commander’s Palace is known as much for its joie de vivre as for its innovative and ever-evolving cuisine and Ella Brennan is credited with starting that New Orleans institution the Sunday “Jazz Brunch.” “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through,” she says.

Archival footage and recent interviews keep the documentary moving like a fabulous feast and the screening I attended was packed to overflowing.

“I wasn’t expecting this particular screening to be this popular,” said the woman perching on a bar stool next to me at the Red Mountain Theatre Company’s cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Kress Building.

“Well, it’s New Orleans and it’s about good food and it’s playing in Birmingham,” I responded. I wasn’t surprised at all. On leaving the theatre on 19th Street I immediately booked a table at Commander’s for an upcoming business trip.


A few years ago, I attended a mid-morning Sidewalk screening of a documentary that I have never forgotten and that may be my favorite movie ever seen at the festival. 45365 (2010) was directed by brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross (www.rossbros.net) in their home town and is a beautifully shot and moving chronicle of life in Sidney, Ohio; 45365 is Sidney’s postal code.

45365 has a hypnotic pace and is definitely not for everyone. It provides neither climaxes nor resolutions but follows the pace of life in a small midwestern town in an incisive and beautifully edited piece of meditative work that is documentary but hard to pin down.

I found myself thinking about 45365 at another Sidewalk mid-morning screening last week. The movie was The Other Kids (2016), a “narrative-documentary” hybrid directed by Chris Brown (www.theotherkidsmovie.com).

The Other Kids follows a group of high school students in a Sonora, California, high school. The cast are non-professional actors and the dialogue is improvised, based on the experiences of the engaging and attractive young cast. Many questions are raised but few are conclusively answered as the audience feels like it is eavesdropping and peeking in on personal and intimate experiences.

One of the teenagers resorts to cutting as he struggles with college and major decisions while another considers enlisting in the military. One deals with the pressure of being moved into a new school and community while another finds herself functioning solo, unable to make a connection. One lives off the grid, protective and secretive about his immigration status, while another feels pressured to hold everything together while her parents’ marriage dissolves.

Levity and pain are interspersed throughout the movie along with moments of pure joy and horseplay. The adult characters are as authentic as their young counterparts and the film quickly absorbs the audience into a world that is familiar but presented in a cinematically fresh manner.

The Other Kids ends with a high school graduation. “Pomp and Circumstance” has never sounded so portentous.