The gals of Charleston Wine + Food Fest are experts when it comes to eating and drinking stamina. Their latest stop took them to Birmingham, where they got to eat at the restaurants of two of the best chefs in the South: Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. Read on for Angel Postell's account. Beware of drool.
The drive to Birmingham, Ala., was a pretty one, winding through the mountains from Nashville. On this stop, we stayed at a friend's house, which inserted a needed dose of normalcy into our traveling week. And we basically starved ourselves all day for the dinners we had planned.
The evening started early with our first tasting at Chef Frank Stitt's famed Highlands Bar and Grill. The manager, David, was incredibly gracious and showed us around the entire restaurant, which connects to Chez Fon Fon, their more casual dining location. We then sat down to sample some food. The place is classic with lots of French influences, and the service is impeccable. Our server Goren had been working with Frank for over 20 years. By the time we left, the restaurant was bustling; you can tell it's a local favorite.
After leaving with a few sweets, we walked up the hill to Chef Chris Hastings restaurant Hot and Hot Fish Club. Hastings recently received the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South and was basking in the glory when he welcomed us. His place, which he calls Birmingham's version of FIG, is awesome. You can tell so much love went into the concept, everything from the homemade pottery dishware, custom-designed chairs and fixtures, and the open kitchen with a wood-burning stove. Everywhere you looked, there was something more special than the next. We were fortunate to have Hastings roll out the red carpet and do a special tasting from the menu. Seated front and center on the counter overlooking the kitchen, we were in culinary heaven.
Here are some of our favorites from the night:
Angel's Picks: I could not stop eating Stitt's marinated crab claws with homemade ginger sauce. They were the perfect size, and it was great to have the fresh seafood. Staying on that wave, I loved the Friture de la Mer which featured triggerfish, shrimp, oysters and roasted red peppers. Really everything at Hot and Hot was remarkable. The poached snapper jowl with grilled garlic scape, Heron Hollow Farm petite carrots and preserved lemon was what Hastings himself called a "mind blowing dish" — yes it was. I loved the simplicity of the tomato and corn broth soup, which featured baby squash, carrots, radishes, and basil. It was like drinking up a garden in a bowl. Lastly, I have to mention that any place that serves boiled peanuts at the bar as you wait is tops on my list. Needless to say, I was blown away with both places and so glad I made the trip.
Randi's picks: At The Highlands Bar and Grill, my favorite was the tuna tartare, the jumbo asparagus with the ricotta salata, and the stone-ground grits, yum! The main halibut entrée was cooked perfectly and melted in your mouth. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the service staff and the longevity Frank seems to inspire. A true testament in today's day and age. At Hot and Hot Fish Club, we had nine courses with wine pairings. The tomato and corn broth with assorted veggies was fresh and clean and showcased each vegetable's unique taste. The snapper jowl was another highlight for me. Outstanding. The staff was attentive and shared Chef Hastings' passion.
Sara's pick: Highlands was absolutely great. The dishes were all so classically clean and representative of the ingredients. For me, this dining experience was what food should be about. The grilled jumbo asparagus with ricotta salata, charred bulb onion and radish with lemon vinaigrette was a highlight. The marinated crab claws were absolutely addictive — we need to get these on some menus in Charleston! I always judge my ultimate opinion of a restaurant on their entrées. So many times I'm wowed by the starters and left disappointed by lackluster main courses that always seem to be missing something. The pan-seared Alaskan halibut with crabmeat, bulb onions, beets, fava beans and artichoke sealed the deal for me at Highlands. The halibut was perfectly cooked, and every vegetable was the best representation of what it should be. On to dinner two: what an incredible experience Hot and Hot was. The food, simply put, was absolutely beautiful. Every plate was a piece of art from the presentation to the vibrant colors of the ingredients. The poached snapper jowl was my top pick along with the spring vegetable salad. And last but not least the biscuits with a honeysuckle butter — my mouth could not be happier that it got to taste those. My only complaint from the night would be that I did not get to try every item on each restaurant's menus.
As we packed our bags for our next stop, I took time for a little foraging expedition. Forager Chris Bennett made the invite to visit and I am glad I made the trip. It was great to explore the farm, fields and forest around his family's Hollow Spring Farms. I learned a ton about different tasty plants (or what most call weeds) and was inspired to learn more about my own surroundings and what is or isn't edible. Great way to end the leg.