Not long ago I visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in a Ku Klux Clan bombing 50 years ago. A small exhibit in the fellowship hall tells the story in a matter-of-fact way. Across the street, exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute lay out the events of the long struggle for racial equality, including poignant documents like Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Not to miss, either of these sites, but there’s more to Birmingham than its troubled civil rights history. As Janet Keeler says in a Tampa Bay Times story, “It’s a city in 3-D” that entertains and educates 35,000 University of Alabama students, goes crazy over football and roller derby, is busy revitalizing its downtown…and loves to eat well.
Birmingham is, like New Orleans and Charleston, a destination for food lovers. Chef Frank Stitt set the bar high more than 30 years ago when, after a Chez Panisse stint and European travels, he returned to his hometown to open Highlands Bar and Grill. Since then he’s opened Bottega and two other restaurants, written cookbooks, won awards and honed a reputation as an authority on Southern cuisine. I couldn’t wait to taste food from this chef I’d heard so much about.
At Bottega, an Italian restaurant with Southern touches, I chose three appetizers. Beef carpaccio looked like the classic preparation of paper-thin raw beef with Parmigiano Reggiano shavings and arugula, with the chef’s twist–smears of creamy horseradish sauce–cleverly hidden underneath.
Next came caponata, a Sicilian dish that American restaurants often fail to do right. Caponata is not a eggplant paste to smear on crostini but a hearty mixture of braised eggplant and bell pepper chunks with olives and a sweet-sour dressing. This rendition was deeply satisfying, with the slight chewiness of the eggplant skin yielding to the softly caramelized flesh underneath. Slightly oily, but in a good way, because I could taste the quality of the olive oil.
It’s fair to judge an Italian restaurant on its pastas, and the ravioli with fresh tomato coulis delivered the simple, pure flavors of ricotta, lemon zest, basil.
You can tell I was loving my dinner, but I was also happy just being there. From the refined dining room, I could see people mingling at a private party on the second level and glimpse the rich wood bar in another corner, where customers were sipping cocktails and slurping freshly shucked oysters. Through the door is Bottega Cafe, serving pizzas and other rustic fare from a wood-burning oven. Strategically placed mirrors amplify the experience of sitting in one wholly appealing place while observing others.
My feast continued the next night at Highlands, where I started with the famous baked grits surrounded by sauteed chanterelles and country ham on a beurre blanc sauce. The chanterelles, abundant and meaty, stole my heart. As my waiter Mark explained, they were gathered by a forager at an undisclosed location 20 minutes from Birmingham.
Highlands started out mostly French with a few Southern twists and now the ratio is flipped the other way. But I was also struck by how many dishes had an Italian sensibility. The plate with house-cured salumi (including pig’s head salami with porchetta seasoning) and spicy pickled vegetables would be right at home in Emilia Romagna. Except for the mystery item, which turned out to be pickled watermelon, rendered bright yellow by turmeric in the pickling solution.
I finished with a plate of creatively prepared vegetables, including stewed okra, rattlesnake beans (think green beans), more chanterelles (!), farro with bell pepper chunks and fried green tomatoes.
On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings in the August heat of a Southern city, these restaurants were filled. Not with out-of-towners like me, for the most part, but with the city’s elite. To the right a table of dowagers was seated next to a young, hip-looking couple, while to my left table hoppers congratulated a chic middle-aged woman on some achievement. There were not as many black faces as I hoped to see, fresh from my visits to civil rights sites, but I was told that two African-American gentlemen sitting in the adjacent bistro were the mayor and his chief assistant.
Frank Stitt was also on hand, overseeing his kitchens in the dog days of summer, and that’s what sets him apart from the typical celebrity chef. I realized by the end of the first evening that the striking woman in white circulating through the dining room is his wife, Parvis. She and the front-of-house staff collaborate to create a service experience that’s warm but thoroughly professional, with a big dollop of Southern charm. By the second night, I was treated like a regular.
Exploring more of Birmingham’s culinary scene–such as Hot and Hot Fish Club, whose chef/owner Chris Hastings (a Stitt protege) won the Beard Foundation’s Best Chef of the South last year–will have to wait for another visit. In the meantime I’ll console myself by making some of Chef Stitt’s memorable food at home.
Frank Stitt’s Beef Carpaccio
(from Bottega Favorita: A Southern Chef’s Love Affair with Italian Food)
Makes 4 servings
1 pound beef eye of round, trimmed of all fat
1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup finely grated peeled horseradish, or more to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Dash of Tabasco
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Generous cup arugula
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
1. Freeze the beef for 45 minutes to an hour. Chill 4 large serving plates.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, horseradish, 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice, Tabasco, and salt and pepper to taste. If necessary, adjust the amount of horseradish to your liking. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
3. Slice the beef into 1/8-inch slices, cutting across the grain. Place each between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with the smooth side of a meat mallet into uniformly thin slices.
4. Using the back of a spoon, spread a tablespoon of the horseradish sauce over each plate. Arrange the carpaccio over the sauce, overlapping the slices to cover the plate.
5. In a medium bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining 1 teaspoon lemon juice, the olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Mound greens in the center of plates. Shave the cheese over the top.
Note: Use leftover horseradish sauce as a dip or sandwich spread.