Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Good Eats: Birmingham, Alabama

I didn't post any information on my latest trip to Birmingham (May 31 - June 29) but the only things of note (for public consumption) were the restaurants we visited. Again, very little time was spent actually in the city of Birmingham as the "cool" places about town aren't actually in town, they're in the suburban neighborhoods south of town. The one exception in the posts below is the Hot and Hot Fish Club which is on the outskirts of Birmingham-proper - oh, and Lucy's Coffee and Tea, which is definitely IN Birmingham (and operated by a former Seattleite, whom through a total coincidence, is a friend of one of my work colleagues).

[I didn't take photos while dining this time so all photos below are from the websites of places mentioned or google images; I tried to find pictures that represent my memories.]

On my first night back in Birmingham, we stopped at the Hot and Hot Fish Club for dinner (http://www.hotandhotfishclub.com/). The chef at this place won a James Beard award in 2012 and the food was wonderful and the decor and vibe were really pleasant. The real show-stopper, though, was a glass of pinot noir. Gary and I both love pinot and while I ordered a cocktail, Gary had a glass of the Old Dodge, 2012, Santa Maria Valley. The bartender told us is was made especially for the restaurant and it was spectacular (as it better have been at $14 a glass). Dinner started with an amuse bouche that was literally the size of my thumbnail - it was some kind of tiny crostini and quite tasty if overly miniature. If I remember correctly, we had an appetizer with shrimp, an entree with softshell crab, and a dessert with doughnuts, all quite enjoyable.

Gourmet salt is the trendy-rage these days,
but the green fleur de sel at Hot and Hot was really delicious.
And then there was our really quite wonderful dinner at 26 (http://oceanbirmingham.com/26/). We got dressed up since it was Gary's birthday, and went into Birmingham (so I take it back, there definitely are cool places outside of the suburbs) and after I asked the host for a different table than the one he seated us at (it was a Monday night, the place was half empty, I had a reservation... don't seat me at a table for four in the middle of the room when there are cozy banquettes against the wall facing the action), we ordered some drinks and the BLT sushi roll as an appetizer, which was fantastic. It was crunchy and creamy and I think had salmon, ahi, avocado, and hint of bacon aioli dabbed on top. Honestly, I don't clearly remember the details of that meal, but I'll never forget that sushi roll. I think I had the short ribs, I think Gary had one of the specials, I don't remember dessert at all, but I do remember thinking it was a really nice dinner and that we'd definitely go back.
Cotton Row, Huntsville, AL
In Huntsville, where Gary works (when he's not working from home), we went to Cotton Row (http://cottonrowrestaurant.com/). I liked it so much that Gary asked me if I liked it better than Hot and Hot - tough one - I called it a tie. Both had great food, great service, and really pleasant atmospheres. This time we started with the spring garlic risotto and had crispy skinned red snapper with creamy orzo, chorizo, and mussels for an entree, followed by chocolate caramel mousse for dessert. We have developed a habit of sharing three courses; add some wine and maybe a cocktail and it's the perfect amount of food for the two of us.

Really yummy jalapeño corn muffins at Satterfield's.

The fourth "fine dining" place we visited was Satterfield's (http://satterfieldsrestaurant.com/). It's a place we drove by many times but you can't really see it from the road as it's in a very small strip mall, as are a good many of the suburban businesses. Satterfield's is owned by the pastry chef and was a gem of a find so close to the house. We started with what might be the best cocktail I've ever had, irritatingly called "watermelon and gumdrops" and described as an "eminently refreshing quaff, high notes of citrus and savory melon." I don't know if I got all that, and I still don't know what "cathead or Cocchi Americano" - two ingredients listed on the cocktail menu - are, but this drink was cold, pink, light, and delicious. That was followed by fried squash blossoms, salmon (yes, I ordered salmon in Alabama while visiting from Seattle), and chocolate pot de crème for dessert. Oddly, given the ownership, dessert was the weak link in this one, the chocolate was grainy and I like my pots silky-smooth, but that cocktail more than made up for any slight faltering toward the end.

And while that's it for the white tablecloths and formal service, three other casual places stand out. The first, which we were only able to visit once, and unfortunately when the proprietress was out, was Lucy's Coffee and Tea (http://lucyscoffeeandtea.com/). Gary had mentioned Lucy's several times on my first trip to Birmingham, and again when I returned, as a must-do expedition, as it was a "real" Seattle-like coffeehouse with retro-thriftstore furniture and art on the walls, and the birthplace of his own coffee addiction. When his son was born, he was working in an office near the cafe and as a new father on little sleep, suddenly coffee, which had previously not had a place in his life, was of the utmost importance. Visiting Lucy's became even more of an event when someone I was working with back home in Seattle asked exactly where I was in the South, and when I said "Birmingham," she immediately said that I should go to Lucy's since she had spent some time in Birmingham and Lucy was a friend of hers, and she had even helped out Lucy out with the business when the cafe first opened - so there's another in a series of small-world incidents which rule my life. Sadly, Lucy was out when we stopped by, and since the shop is only open on weekdays, it was difficult to get back, but I'm sure I'll meet Lucy sometime and will let her know that Jill in Seattle says hello.

The Alabama Biscuit Company (http://www.alabamabiscuit.com/) was a great find, proving that sometimes if you do risk it, you will in fact get a biscuit. The place was all industrial chic and reclaimed wood, and the bearded boys behind the counter looked straight outta Brooklyn. The biscuits weren't of the fluffy, white, buttermilk variety, but instead they were hearty, brown, and made of spelt flour. We ordered one with crispy pancetta, fig preserves, and goat cheese, and another with sausage, egg, cheese, and chives, and since it was a very hot day (although cool inside) iced coffee was definitely in order. The biscuits were delish and it was a really nice place to spend a leisurely morning.

And now we come to what might be my [surprise] favorite food experience in Birmingham: Steel City Pops (http://steelcitypops.com/). In Hawaii I learned that shave ice is not merely a snowcone, in Birmingham I learned that not all popsicles are created equal, and I can't imagine one better than the watermelon pop at Steel City Pops. Unless it's the caramel, or maybe the guava. Nope, definitely the watermelon, but I've only tasted three flavors so far. I didn't think anything could beat the caramel which is the first one I tried - it tasted like an icy version of those caramel squares made by Brach's (or Kraft?) that would come close to pulling your teeth out - the kind you would melt down for caramel apples if you were the kind of person who would make caramel apples. But these pops are all natural and made with very few ingredients. The caramel pop was so delicious, so creamy, and tasted so deeply of the essence of caramel in frozen form that I didn't think anything could top it, but the watermelon was a tasty surprise. I wasn't very hungry the second time we went out for pops so I told Gary to order what he wanted and I'd have a few bites; he ordered watermelon, which I gotta tell you, wouldn't have been my first choice... or my second. But lo and behold, it was so delicious, so refreshing, and tasted so deeply of the essence of watermelon in frozen form. So yeah, Steel City Pops -- they are are cheap, delicious, and just the thing on a hot summer night in Alabama.

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