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In Birmingham, Southern Food Legend Frank Stitt Still Leads the Way

When talking about the foodways of Alabama, the discussion might center on specialties like barbecue swabbed with mayonnaise-based white sauce, or West Indies salad (a Gulf coast favorite of crabmeat with chopped onion and vinaigrette), or the penchant for orange-glazed yeast rolls served alongside steaks in the state’s chophouses. But when conversation zeros in specifically on Birmingham, the topic of dining always begins with one name: Frank Stitt.

Decades before Charleston and Nashville emerged as nerve centers for the Southern food furor, Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham was the place to taste regional cooking prepared with supreme finesse. He opened the restaurant in 1982. He was 28 and the city, struggling in the wake of steel mill closures and Civil Rights-era tumult, needed an identity reboot. The community took newfound pride in Stitt, an Alabama native, who bucked the Continental trappings of the times and coaxed the innate elegance from local ingredients. He gussied up baked grits by surrounding them with slivers of country ham and mushrooms. He lured the best Gulf fishermen inland and paired flounder with lady pea succotash and red snapper with a sauce of ham hock and red wine. He coached kitchen talent that would go on to enrich Birmingham’s culinary scene at every level, and he followed Highlands with two other restaurants, Italian-minded Bottega in 1988 and Chez Fonfon, a spot-on evocation of a French bistro, in 2000.

Frank Stitt. [Photo: Marti Kilpatrick]

What inspired Stitt to adopt now-prevailing notions of cooking at Highlands so early? The mothership of American regionalism, of course: Chez Panisse. Stitt had been studying philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, when his fascination with food began boiling over. An unpaid stint at Alice Waters’ stoves led to her writing Stitt a letter of introduction to one of Chez Panisse’s spirit guides — Richard Olney, a lyrical cookbook author and American ex-pat living in Provence. Working as Olney’s assistant, Stitt saw how classical technique might uplift the sun-basted ingredients of southeastern France and the American South with equal élan.

Working as a critic in Atlanta in the early 2000s, I was forever disappointed by how my city’s most accomplished chefs largely ignored regional flavors. (That would finally change by the decade’s end.) I would occasionally drive the two-plus hours to Birmingham for immersion courses at Highlands: sweet potato-filled ravioli with mustard greens and ham; grilled quail served with bacon, spoonbread, and ramps; the single most perfect peach cobbler I’ve ever eaten, its biscuit cap rising golden above the ramekin’s rim like a textbook soufflé.

Highlands

Red snapper with mango relish.

Almost five years had passed since I’d visited Highlands, but a dinner late last month proved the restaurant remains as timeless and relevant as ever. Servers in crisp white shirts and tapered black vests buzzed through the dining room that’s decorated with vintage French posters and doused in butterscotch lighting. The hospitality at Highlands has long been as distinguished as the food, largely due to Stitt’s secret weapon: his gracious wife Pardis, who oversees front-of-house for each of their restaurants. She sat my friend and I at a corner table in Highlands’ bar, full of dapper souls tossing their heads back in laughter without sloshing one drop of their bourbons.

Our seasoned server had the kind of assured timing that’s subtle and rare

Our seasoned server, Dawson Caudel, had the kind of assured timing that’s subtle and rare. He paced our meal beautifully and left us to our conversation, though we never for a moment felt abandoned. Baked oysters splashed with absinthe segued to gentle scamp grouper over a nest of sauteed spinach, crisp-silky sweetbreads in Madeira sauce, and a stunning seared Guinea hen leg perched atop pirlau shot through with oxtail meat and garnished with some preserved butter beans. The baked grits soothed with its gloss of white wine-butter sauce and fragrant hit of thyme. Salted chocolate cake with bourbon buttercream was easy sweet-tooth bait, but I preferred the pistachio financier with macerated strawberries and elderflower cream. The small financier cakes harkened to shortbread biscuits — small wonder, since pastry chef Dolester Miles was the same dessert guru who made the genius peach cobbler years ago.

CheZ FonFon

Above: Braised chicken thigh with cream and tarragon. Below: Desserts and gratin of scallops and mushrooms.

Chez Fonfon sits right next door to Highlands, in the same 1920s building with a red-tiled roof. I’ve stopped there frequently over the years for lunch en route to Mississippi or New Orleans. Not to keep dogging my hometown, but Atlanta doesn’t have Gallic food like this. Nor do most towns in the Southeast. Stitt understands the soul of French cooking, its rich cadences and balancing twangs of acidity. A charcuterie platter shows unusual thought, with a spread of cured meats and homemade pâtés, sausages, and rillettes mindful of textural contrast and enough pickled vegetables alongside to keep the palate pert. Liberal amounts of capers and onions sharpen the beef tartare. Mustard aioli and a variation on sauerkraut made with collard greens animate a pork confit sandwich. For culinary xenophobes, the restaurant makes an outstanding cheeseburger.

At my most recent lunch, a dish of chicken thighs with carrots, pearl onions, cream, and tarragon warmed what was likely the last harsh day of winter in Birmingham. So did a simple, correct gratin of scallops and mushrooms. Only an omelet caused the French spell to falter. I favor the smooth, unblemished blond models that more chefs are flaunting these days. This one, brown and crinkled, resembled the homely versions served at all-American breakfast joints. The last sips of Chablis and a few bites of the signature coconut cake in a pool of crème anglais restored the reverie.

If the weather suits, request a table in Fonfon’s tranquil, shaded garden behind the restaurant. Right before walking through the door that leads from the dining room to the outside, look to the left and notice the small framed picture hanging on the wall: The wry-looking fellow in the image is Richard Olney, Stitt’s mentor.

Bottega

At Bottega, the al fresco dining happens in front of the restaurant, flanking the building’s stately limestone façade. (Mid-twentieth century, it housed a grand department store.) Inside, the space divides itself between a casual cafe serving salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and pastas like rigatoni with chicken cacciatore, and a more formal, two-level dining room set with white tablecloths. The color of the walls recalls blood orange juice.

Stitt's vigilance comes through in every aspect of his restaurants.

Being a Highland and Fonfon habitué, this visit was my first dinner at Bottega. I ate in the main restaurant, and when the server brought out the parmesan soufflé, I saw that Stitt was also a frontrunner in the now-vogue notion of mingling Italian and Southern flavors. (This idea, a smart one that highlights the agrarian traditions of both cultures, defines high-profile restaurants like Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis and Rolf and Daughters in Nashville.) The soufflé, resembling the baked grits at Highlands, also came surrounded by mushrooms, with prosciutto exchanged for the country ham. A parallel emerged again at dessert time, when Bottega’s strawberry-elderflower semifreddo with crushed pistachios mirrored the flavors of the shortcake-like financiers I’d relished at Highlands.

Mostly, though, the food at Bottega put forth its own distinctly Italianate personality. A wintry riff on cannelloni enfolded braised short rib, turnips, and goat cheese into pasta as delicate as crepes. Saffron broth perfumed flounder and grilled squid with its singular, distant-lands scent. Sweet, firm Mississippi redfish huddled against a jumble of roasted cauliflower, olives, and farro was a plate of straightforward pleasures.

Around the time our entrees arrived I spied Stitt surveying the dining room near the kitchen doors. At some point he appeared during service at each of my meals in his restaurants to shake hands with regulars, instruct servers, or confer with his wife. His vigilance comes through in every aspect of his restaurants.

Elsewhere

Of course, after nearly 33 years in business, Stitt has protégés — and protégés of protégés — who have created their own successes. The most renowned among them is Chris Hastings, once a sous chef at Highlands, who opened Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham in 1995. I’ve savored meals at Hot and Hot in the past but recently had a relatively flat dinner there: Dishes like black drum en papillote and chicken fried rabbit over rice grits were strangely under-seasoned. The standout was a smooth bacon- and shrimp-studded version of gumbo z’herbes, traditionally a Lenten staple of mixed hearty greens served in Louisiana’s Creole communities on Holy Thursday.

Dinner at Springhouse, a clubby destination overlooking a lake in Alexander City about 90 minutes from Birmingham, proved worth the drive. Executive chef Rob McDaniel previously worked as a sous chef at Hot and Hot, and as a Southern cook he zips across the tightrope between tradition and invention. Deft execution and a simple presentation kept his hot sweetbreads with pickles and white bread, a take on Nashville hot chicken, from falling into parody. And the rolled-out, rectangular dumplings in his comforting chicken and dumplings came straight from the Dixie grandma playbook, but bits of crackly chicken skin gave the dish texture and edge.

Barbecue platters at Miss Myra's and chicken in white sauce at Saw's BBQ.

Chris Newsome did stints with both Stitt and Hastings, and his gastropub Ollie Irene, in the Mountain Brook area of Birmingham where Newsome grew up, energized the city’s mid-scale dining scene when it launched in 2011. I sipped a punchy lime rickey with pickled grape brine while eating fried boudin swiped through grainy mustard. A pretty, refreshing citrus salad with fennel and feta preceded a rewarding bowl of tagliatelle tangled with braised duck ragout.

Beyond the pedigreed chefs, the subject of eating in Birmingham must eventually wind around to barbecue. Miss Myra’s in nearby Vestavia Hills specifically rocks the chicken with white sauce. Saw’s BBQ in Homewood, another close-by suburb, scores on both its smoked chicken with tangy, peppery white sauce as well as its fragrant pulled pork. At sister restaurant Saw’s Soul Kitchen, surrender to the pork and greens special: a mountain of cheese grits, turnip greens, and pulled pork capped with onion rings. A trip to Magic City should always begin with a feast at one of Frank Stitt’s refined havens, but it might as well conclude with a downhome gut-buster.


Essentials

Highlands Bar and Grill: 2011 Eleventh Avenue South, (205) 939-1400, highlandsbarandgrill.com

Chez Fonfon: 2007 Eleventh Avenue South, Birmingham, (205) 939-3221, fonfonbham.com

Bottega: 2240 Highland Avenue South, Birmingham, (205) 939-1000, bottegarestaurant.com

Hot and Hot Fish Club: 2180 Eleventh Court South, Birmingham, (205) 933-5474, hotandhotfishclub.com

Springhouse: 12 Benson Mill Road, Alexander City, Alabama, (256) 215-7080, springhouseatcrossroads.com

Ollie Irene: 2713 Culver Road, Mountain Brook, Alabama, (205) 769-6034, ollieirene.com

Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q: 3278 Cahaba Heights Road, Vestavia Hills, Alabama, (205) 967-6004

Saw’s BBQ: 1008 Oxmoor Road, Homewood, Alabama, (205) 879-1937, sawsbbq.com

Saw’s Soul Kitchen: 215 41st Street South, Birmingham, (205) 591-1409, sawsbbq.com

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