Restaurants


Ava Maria Grotto - Cullman, AL

Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, AL - stop here before you eat your way through Birmingham

If anyone had asked me ten years ago where I would go to celebrate my one year wedding anniversary, I can assure you I would never had said Birmingham, AL. Granted 10 years ago I probably didn’t think I’d end up married to a southerner and living in Nashville, TN, so there’s that too. When you grow up in the north, whatever you hear about Alabama is never very good. Alabama is images of grainy news reels of church bombings and Bull Connor. But C had visited Birmingham a year ago to watch a friend in a cooking contest, and came home raving about a different city. He waxed poetic about the Civil Rights Institute and the 5 Points neighborhood, and most of all he came home talking up the food. And after a year of raving about the city he wore me down and we set of for a long weekend in Birmingham to celebrate one year of marriage.

While this post will be mainly about the food, I will say that Alabama has several non-gastronomic sites that should not be missed. If you enjoy folk art, the intricately-designed miniature sculptures at the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, AL is a sight to behold. The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham is one of the more powerful museums I’ve ever attended – and if the museum is offering walking tours of the adjacent Kelly Ingram Park and the surrounding neighborhood – take it. The walking tour follows the steps of the Civil Rights movement in the city and offers no sugar coating of the events that happened there. Also, the Birmingham Art Museum is a good municipal art museum that had several engaging exhibits.

But If I’m honest, one of the main reasons C was able to convince me to make this trip was Frank Stitt. Arguably one of the most famous chefs in the south, Mr. Stitt has several restaurants in Birmingham. We had Saturday night reservations at the Highlands Bar and Grill – the restaurant that focuses on combing fresh, local southern cuisine with classical techniques. We had heard amazing things and Highlands truly lived up to the hype. The fried oysters were succulent, the fish tender and flaky and the beef rich and flavorful. C had fried squash blossoms filled with goat cheese that he hasn’t stopped talking about since – it has lead to his current fruitless quest for fresh squash blossoms – all so I can try to recreate the dish at home. We also ate another amazing meal at the Hot and Hot Fish Club – we basically returned home stuffed and happy (see the pictures above, which are plates we ate at both restaurants).

Given that the traditional first anniversary gift is supposed to be paper, C had surreptitiously bought me a copy of Mr. Stitt’s cookbook Southern Table which he presented to me back in Nashville. Given how much C had loved Mr. Stitt’s food this may seem a bit self serving, but I must say we both enjoy the dishes from it. The recipes themselves are not hard – they just demand good fresh ingredients. And when I saw fresh Red Snapper at the grocery store I knew that I needed to try a en Papillote recipe from the cookbook. The recipe actually calls for Pompano – but Mr. Stitt identifies Red Snapper as a fine substitute. By cooking the fish with aromatics in parchment, the fish gets steamed perfectly and it saves me (or C) from having to clean up fishy-smelling pans. The fish tasted delicate and delicious and was the perfect reminder of our wonderful weekend away.

Red Snapper en Papilote

Red Snapper en Papillote

Pompano (or Red Snapper) en Papillote

Taken from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table

Ingredients:

5 T. butter – plus more butter for the parchment at room temperature

2 Spring onion or 1 large sweet onion, finally sliced

Fresh ground white pepper

8 thin lemon slices

2 shallots, thinly sliced

Kosher salt

1/4 cup chopped chives and parsley, and chevil, basil or dill

4 6 ounce pompano fillets (Red Snapper and Flounder are also acceptable)

Preheat oven to 475 degrees

Melt 1 T. of butter in a saute pan over medium heat and add the onion and pepper and saute until softened. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Cut four 16 by 20 inch sheets of parchment. Rub a bit of butter on each parchment where the fish will lie and place 2 slices of lemon on each one. Top will sliced shallot and sauteed onion. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of the herbs then top with the fish. Seaon each fillet with salt and pepper, and sprinkle the remaining herbs over the fish. Dot each fillet with 1 T. of butter. Fold up the parchment packet so that the edged are sealed.

Place packages on a baking sheet on the top shelf of the oven for 10 minutes. Transfer to serving plates and open the packages with a knife or scissors. Inhale and enjoy.

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Oysters…in most people they ellicit one of two responses, love them or ick!  I fell madly in love with my first Oyster in Charleston, SC at a restaurant called Bowen’s Island, where all-you-can-eat steamed oysters are served by the shovelful.  If you’re in Charleston, the directions are easy: drive towards Folly Beach and turn right on the road right after the Boat. (Now if you have ever driven from downtown Charleston to Folly Beach, you know about the boat perched on the side of the road.)  After turning right, you follow the road to the end where you will find a low wooden building surrounded by huge piles of oyster shells.

Of course, now that we live in Nashville our opportunities for fresh oysters to throw on a grill are a little more slim.  So imagine our delight when we found a fire pit in the backyard of a rental house in Florida.  A few weeks ago, H and I joined nine other friends for a week of beach bumming and general relaxation in Florida.  We rented a house about a block from the beach with a pool in the backyard…and of course, the previously mentioned fire pit.  Within seconds of stepping into the backyard, H and I both noticed the fire pit and with that we both started strategizing how we were going to replicate the Bowen’s Island oysters on our assigned dinner night.  The fire pit demanded oysters and we happily planned to oblige.

Of course, roasting the oysters would not be the hard part, but seeing as it was July, we were both a little worried about finding fresh, local oysters in the shell.   At Bowen’s Island, the degree to which the oysters were cooked varied greatly.  Some were smokey and well done, while others were practically raw.  I love them either way, but since it was not oyster time of year, I was a little worried about someone getting sick.  (Many believe that oysters should only be consumed raw in months with an R, so basically anytime except between May and August.)  The last thing I wanted on the third night of our trip was to give people food poisoning.

As Tuesday night rolled around, H and I went to pick up the fish for our fish tacos (I promise to post on these soon because they were off the charts!).  At Goatfeathers Seafood Market in Blue Mountain Beach, we asked about the oysters, were they local?…yes. how fresh are they?…caught this morning. if given the option, would you eat them raw right now?…yes. With that said, H and I picked up a 22 pound box of Apalachicola oysters, 2 bags of Charcoal, and an oyster knife.

Apalachicola oysters come from Apalachicola Bay in Florida.  According to a June 2002 article in the New York Times, Chefs tend to prefer them because of their larger size and more “mellow” flavor. I have to agree, they are not terribly salty and they are almost always quite large in size.  Once home, H built a large fire and poured the box out onto the grate.  He then spend the next 20 minutes stirring the oysters in the hopes of evenly cooking them.  After a careful removal process, we sat down to an oyster feast.  All 22 pounds were gone within 20 minutes.  While some slathered their treasures in cocktail sauce,  I just popped mine in my mouth and savored one of the glories of coastal living.

Roasted Oysters

2 bags Charcoal or enough to cover the areas with hot coals
22 pounds of Oysters
dish cloths and oyster knives for each person

Get a nice hot set of coals and pour oysters onto a grate right above them.  Try to evenly distribute the oysters so they cook fairly evenly.  Let cook until they start popping open.   Pour onto a table and enjoy.

NOTE:  The easiest way to open an oyster shell is to the insert the oyster knife at the hinge of the shell and pop it.  Once you pop the hinge, it is much easier and safer to get the oyster out.

Saturday morning, H, our friends Bentina, and I ventured off to one of our favorite restaurants, Hominy Grill. There are times when all I think about is a hot plate of shrimp and grits, and the shrimp and grits from hominy grill are about as close to perfection as you can get. The flavors are simple, Shrimp, Bacon, Green Onions, Mushrooms, Cheese Grits, and a spritz of lemon. Nothing is over sauced or too buttery. Just perfect comforting food…mmmmm!

Of course, a meal at Hominy Grill is not complete without some fried green tomatoes. Now, if you are not a shrimp and grits fanatic like me, the Fried Green Tomato BLT is my second favorite thing on the menu. I think fried green tomatoes are the greatest southern food discovery I ever made. I really love them, not just a lustful love, but more of a long lost soul mate love.

If you are in Charleston, stop by Hominy Grill for an amazing brunch destined to get your day started off right. Love on the food and let it make you whole.

Hot Diggity Dogs Sign

I don’t remember where or how I first heard about Hot Diggity Dog in Nashville, TN, but I’ll never forget the first bite. The snap of the hot dog, the crunch of the coleslaw, and their fries . . . they make the best fries. I was in hot dog heaven.

The place can’t be much bigger than my college dorm room, but where it’s short on space it’s big on personality and flavor. I never went to Hot Diggity Dog when it wasn’t packed with hungry people waiting with mouth watering anticipation for their order number to be called. On pretty days, they have great outdoor seating (just a few picnic tables outside). It’s not just the food I loved, the two ladies in charge remembered me every time I visited. Eating at Hot Diggity Dog was so comforting,like that bar on Cheers where everyone knows your name. My usual was a Texan (their version of a chili dog) and a Nashville (complete with pickle and coleslaw and cucumbers) plus an order of fries (if it was a bad day I splurged on the chili cheese fries, which are sure to cure whatever ails). Sadly, I didn’t discover the Italian Beef Sandwich until my time in Nashville was growing short. I was completely blown away. I liked mine on toasted bread with sweet and hot peppers and completely dipped (i.e. submerged in the beef jus). It was a mess to eat but it was worth every grease stain.

Hot Diggity Dog just might be the thing I miss the most about Nashville (my friends are up there, too). I don’t know when I’ll return to Nashville, but when I do a visit to Hot Diggity Dog will be a must. Until then, I need to find a good hot dog here in Charlotte. So dear readers, if you know of a place, do share. And if ever you find yourself in Nashville swing by HDD and tell them an old friend of theirs sent you.

Hot Diggity Dogs House