The purpose of this blog is to talk about our favorite foods at our favorite places in town. These places include restaurants, food trucks, grocery stores, farmers markets, and food festivals. Here you will find interviews with owners and chefs at our favorite places, to learn more about why they chose to open a restaurant in Birmingham also the reviews of the restaurant.
Several months ago, the folks at Children’s of Alabama asked me to become involved with a new event. The event, called Children’s Table, brings together some of Alabama’s best chefs who will be cooking for a cause.
While our community has no shortage of philanthropic events, this one stood out because it merges the strengths of our culinary and publishing communities. As someone who has written about Birmingham restaurants and been part of our media community for a long time, my answer was a resounding ‘yes.”
Children’s Table at Time Inc. Food Studios March 3 at the Time Inc. Food Studios, will feature tastings by chefs, as well as demonstrations by editors and food professionals from Food & Wine, Cooking Light, Coastal Living, Southern Living, and Time Inc. Books.
It’s not often that folks get a chance to visit the Food Studios. For the seven years I worked at Southern Living as an editor, a chance to visit the Test Kitchen was the number one request from friends and strangers alike. (People were a little disappointed when I just showed them my office — look at the spreadsheets!) Since then, Time Inc. (which was recently acquired by Meredith) unveiled beautiful Food Studios, where recipes are tested, photos and videos are shot, and magic happens each day.
The Children’s Table will feature ten featured chefs, including Chris Hastings, the James-Beard award winning chef and owner of Hot and Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird Restaurant; Bill Briand, James-Beard nominated chef at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach; Rob McDaniel, James-Beard nominated executive chef at Springhouse; James Boyce, chef and owner of Galley & Garden. Abhi Sainju of Abhi’s, and MS chef Elizabeth Heiskell of The Farmstead on Woodson Ridge.
Throughout the evening, chefs will be sampling their creations in Time Inc. Food Studios, which feature 28 test kitchens, 13 photo and video studios, a prop and styling studio, and an expansive showcase kitchen and tasting room. (Trust me, it’s worth going just to see the prop rooms.)
Proceeds from the event will specifically benefit nutrition programs for Children’s patients on the dialysis unit. Children receiving dialysis and treatment for kidney failure often become enamored with cooking out of necessity. That’s because these kids require a special diet that’s much different than their healthier peers, ays Perrin Bickert, Clinical Nutritionist at Children’s of Alabama. Through the nutrition program a Children’s, these patients and their families learn what kinds of foods they can and can’t eat, and how to prepare foods within their special dietary guidelines.
“When our kids are on dialysis they can’t have foods that contain potassium or sodium or phosphorous, which cuts out dairy, nuts and seeds and some fruits and vegetables,” she says. “What’s considered ‘healthy’ for other children isn’t necessarily healthy for our patients.” For instance, even simple foods like whole wheat bread need to be avoided.
Perrin and her colleagues work with patients and their families to teach them about what they can and can’t eat, working to make cooking and nutrition fun. It’s a careful balancing act, as the them works to find creative ways to provide the right calories and proteins in foods children want to eat. (As she notes, it can be tough enough to find foods kids want to eat, but when there are dietary restrictions, additional challenges can ensue.)
Some patients require carefully designed liquid formulas and supplements designed to support kids health and continued growth. These foods, supplements, and educational programs are expensive. Many of the patients come from economically challenged homes, and funds raised from Children’s Table will help defray the mounting costs of care their parents face.
These children look up to chefs, watching cooking shows during dialysis and dreaming about what they too can create with food.
For Chris Hastings, this resonates deeply. He says the connection between Birmingham’s restaurant, medical and publishing communities is a natural one.
“We’re passionate about spreading the gospel of healthy, sustainably grown local foods and educating people beyond what we do in our restaurants. So much of health comes from what we eat. And when you see what Children’s is doing to help the kids who come through those doors — how could we not be part of this?”
Children’s Table is more than a one-time-event. As part of the partnership, Time Inc. food professionals have visited the dialysis unit to cook with the patients. Perrin provides them with details about the kinds of ingredients to avoid and include and they develop recipes that the children can enjoy.
The goal is to make food, nutrition and cooking fun for these patients, and to inspire them that they can be like those chefs they watch on TV, and the ones whose recipes are in the pages of magazines.
“For these kids, food is aspirational,” Perrin says. “They dream about what they are going to eat some day. We hear so many of them say, ‘After I get my new kidney, I’m going to have pizza!’”
When it comes to Indian food in Birmingham, we have long been fans of Silver Coin Restaurant. (There are some other good options too, but this one has always risen to the top of our list.) So we were delighted to learn that the Hoover restaurant was opening a concept in Pizitz Food Hall.
Called Silver Kati, it brings some of the same flavors we love from Silver Coin, albeit in a food stall-sized version. We tried it out today on their first day of business.
Nestled between Ghion Cultural Hall and Revelator, Silver Kati is the fourth restaurant by Kishore Kotian. The first two Silver Coin Restaurants are located in India and the third off Lorna Road in Hoover (our review here). Kishore says that he has taken all that he’s learned in 12 years of operating an Indian restaurant in America and translated some of the most popular dishes into those served at Silver Kati.
“The concept is fast casual, like the street food that you would eat in India,” Kishore says.
The menu is straightforward. Diners first pick from one of three bases: kati roll, which is a flat bred with onion and cilantro served with rice or raita); rice bowl or “pulao,” white rice with peaces and carrot served with raita and kachumber (a mix of cucumber, onions and tomato), or a salad bowl with mixed greens and raita and cucumber.
Next comes a choice of chicken marinated with yogurt, lime juice and spices; fish marinated with lime juice and spices, or tofu marinated with tandoori masala.
Finally, there’s a choice of two sauces: Tikka Masala (tomato cream sauce) or palak/spinach, spinach puree served with spices. (Note: dishes are served with mild sauces, which can be made spicier at the diner’s request.)
We went with the Kati Roll with Tikka Masala and chicken.
We were not disappointed. The Tikka Masala sauce was rich, with the taste of cashews. It’s the cashews and the chef’s secret spices that set it apart, Kishore says. “Cashews are expensive to buy, $6 or $7 a pound,” he says. “Some places cut corners and substitute sunflower seeds thinking people won’t know the difference. But once you taste our sauce you’ll know.” He says that the sauce has been a top seller at Silver Coin since they opened, and many customers come back for the dish again and again, despite Silver Coin’s menu. So it had to be one of the offerings at Silver Kati.
We’re glad it is. The roll is a more portable version of the dish, and the raita compliments the tomato’s tanginess.
Kishore says that their Tikka Masala is a popular dish for people who are new to Indian food. “When people are new to eating Indian, they think it’s all curry, and it’s not,” he says. “We say start with the tikka and you will be hooked.”
Also on the menu: samosa, a homemade pastry stuffed with spicy peas ad potato filling, served with chutney, tamarind and mint sauces.
Silver Kati also offers mango lassi and three kinds of Indian Cola. Kishore says he’s glad to bring Silver Coin classics downtown and with a twist.
“When I first signed a lease on Silver Coin, I had a friend who said I should cancel the lease if I could, and that Indian food in a space that large would never work in the South,” he says. We’re glad he kept the lease, at that Silver Kati is in the mix at Pizitz.
Recently, we’ve heard from a number of readers about a place that needs to be on our radar screen. (We get notes like that a lot from our readers, and appreciate when folks send in their tips, suggestions, and leads). The restaurant we were being pointed toward: La Sabrosita. We’re ashamed to say that despite part of the What To Eat Team living in Hoover, we weren’t aware of this Mexican-style ice cream and popsicle shop. Clearly we had to remedy that.
What better way to check out ice cream than during a freezing winter day? So, on the last day of holiday break, and while the rest of the world entered the January diet craze, we pivoted and went straight for the frozen sweets.
Located off Highway 150/Lorna Road, La Sabrosita has been in River Oaks Village for several years. Operating in Birmingham since 2006, it’s a family-run business.
A long freezer case is filled with homemade ice cream — more than a dozen flavors — as well as homemade popsicles and chocolate covered bananas. La Saborsita has a dazzling number of treats, including aqua frescas (including coconut, strawberry and mango), raspados (Mexican shaved ice), chamoyada (mango sorbet), as well as fresh fruit prepared with seasonings (more on that later). They also make rolled ice cream. So much to choose from!
Among popsicle flavors: Tamarind, Guava, Gooseberry, and Strawberry. Next time! We had heard a lot about their ice cream, so focused on that for this visit. Staff are super friendly and were happy to let us try samples.
Here is the banana split. Jr. Foodie gives his wholehearted endorsement. This one had birthday cake, Oreo, and chocolate ice cream.
During our multiple visits we kept coming back to Tres Marias: three scoops of ice cream served with homemade chocolate syrup, whipped cream, cookies and a cherry, served in a waffle bowl nestled in a cup.
This one had a scoop of strawberry cheesecake, salted caramel and Neopolitan. The chocolate hardens when poured over the generous scoops of ice cream. The ice cream’s ingredients shine — it’s fresh and delicious. And there’s a lot of it.
During our return visit to La Sabrosita, we put our seal of approval to the test with some friends. (When given a choice of anything on the menu, these guys gravitated toward the Tres Marias too! Among flavors samples: cookie, birthday cake, chocolate, and the ubiquitous strawberry cheesecake and Neopolitan). All passed with flying colors. And it’s saying something when middle school boys can barely finish the serving because there’s so much of it.
Fruit is a fixture at La Sabrosita and evident across the menu. The Fruit Seca ice cream (top scoop) features mangoes and raisins, which infuse the ice cream with the most delightful flavor.
La Sabrosita serves many traditional Mexican fruit-based desserts: mangonada, a fruit juice made with mangos, lime juice, chili powder and chamoy sauce; Frescas con Cream (strawberries and cream), and Pina Loca (Mexican Style pineapple). We watched as customers visited this case by the door, grabbing cups of sliced fruit and coconut from the second shelf, handing to staff as they worked their magic.
When we asked for a recommendation, staff suggested we try an apple with Tamarind, lime salt, and chili powder. Delicious — and spicy:
And, because we clearly hadn’t eaten enough, we enjoyed a slice of sweet bread, made in-house.
We’re looking forward to adding La Sabrosita to our routine, and to going back and trying more of their offerings. And if you have a favorite of theirs, lets us know!
Once upon a time, two girls met at a high school in a West Central province of Thailand called Nakhon Sawan. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the two young women each found themselves in West Central Alabama. One came for business school at the University of Alabama; the other for a masters in Comparative Law at Samford. Reconnected, their friendship turned into a business venture, and in 2007 the pair purchased Chai Market, the oldest Asian market in Birmingham.
Fast forward a decade later and and Kay Sathianphatthanakul Golf Suchodayon have opened their newest venture: Yum Yai Takeout. Located next to the market, which they have since sold, Yum Yai offers quick takeout, as well as a dine-in area, featuring the dishes that they grew up eating in Nakson Sawan.
“This is what Thai food should taste like,” Kay says. “It’s simple and clean, not complicated.” She cooks much of the food, using recipes that she learned from her mother. Customers order at the counter and are served their meals quickly. It’s a streamlined business model that the duo spent time refining, one they believe fills a hole in the market.
“With other Thai restaurants in town you have to park and wait for a bartender to get your meal,” Golf says. “Here you can call ahead or order right here and the food comes quickly and good, and at an affordable price.” She says that during the years she and Kay owned Chai’s, they catered to a growing number of clientele who were becoming more knowledgeable about various Asian cuisines, especially Thai. Among their customers: ESL teachers and missionaries who were fluent in Thai, as well as business travelers who had been exposed to Thai food outside of Birmingham.
There were requests for more ingredients and cooking classes. Eventually the duo decided to experiment with pop-up events at Cahaba Brewing. Finding audiences receptive, they moved forward with securing space at 2131 7th Avenue. On October 13, they opened, receiving a steady stream of business from long-time customers and new diners.
“The time is right in Birmingham for this,” Golf says. “When we first bought the market there was hardly any traffic after 6 p.m. Now that’s all changed,” she says. Within walking distance of UAB, they get foot traffic from the university, as well as visitors from Lakeview and other parts of downtown. (Note: there is metered parking directly outside.)
Golf and Kay describe the menu as one filled with the dishes they cook at home, incorporating sauces from Thailand and slightly adapted to the American palate. They sell a lot of Pad Thai, which was the first thing we ordered when we visited. Portions are generous, and the weekday lunch special comes with a fried vegetable spring roll. (They also are becoming known for their Crispy Pad Thai, a dish of Nakhon Sawan, in which chantaboon rice noodles are replaced with fried wontons. Pictured here is the regular Pad Thai.)
The sauces on the table are the same ones you’d find at a Thai street market, like the Squid Brand fish sauce, which Kay describes as “The stinkiest fish sauce around.” In a good way, of course.
The Nam Sod is a perfect appetizer to share: minced chicken tossed in Thai style sweet and tangy dressing, with mint, onion, and lime:
The Spicy Basil Fried Rice features chicken and shrimp, bell peppers, sweet onions, green onions, peas and carrots, broccoli, and basil leaves. It should be noted that they use Chinese broccoli called Gai Lan. Golf and Kay source Asian vegetables, including buying them from a local woman who is a Cambodian refugee (when these veggies are in season).
They have also experimented with dishes with holy basil, and though none are currently on the menu, plan on adding it in in the future.
The Drunken Noodle features sauteed wide rice noodles in a spicy house sauce with bell peppers, mushrooms, snap bean cabbage, broccoli, baby corn, and basil. Delicious:
Topping things off, the The Thai Tea. It’s made with Brand Hand Tea, just as you would find served at a Thai street market, Golf says:
Yum Yai also features curries (Penang Curry and Massamun Curry) as well as Wok dishes (Spicy Cashew Nuts and Spicy Basil Leaves). There’s a sizable list of lunch specials served between 11 a.m. and 2:30 . They are closed between 2:30 and 4:30, opening up then for dinner till 8:30. Also closed on Sunday too — so take note. You can call ahead, or order via their site. They also offer delivery via Waitr and Grubhub.
The plan pair on adding specials in the coming months, as well as adding new menus items like papaya salad and Thai Noodle soup.
“We want to offer good food at a good price and be that place where people can come to eat two or three times a week,” Golf says. “We’re not fancy, but make good food. And the people of Birmingham have given us such a warm welcome.”
Kay adds, “When you eat good food you feel happy. That’s what we want to bring to our customers.”
Exactly one year today I (Editor E) was on a plane back from Portland, where I had spent a long weekend doing many things, including sampling PDX’s finest doughnuts. They’re really into doughnuts in Stumptown, and coffee too (see name), and during the trip I took a fascinating Third Wave Coffee Tour, which featured pairings of sweet circular treats and the city’s famous coffee.
Sitting down at the newly opened Hero Doughnuts in Homewood, I was struck by the similarities in the offerings here to what I experienced last year. And, judging by the looks of the lines out the door, Birmingham is more than ready for this brick and mortar destination
The new shop is located in the former Homewood Musical Instrument Co and across from Homewood Central Park. There’s plenty of parking, but they also get walk-in traffic from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Hero Doughnuts opened on Halloween. But they had already built up a huge fan base at pop ups like the one at Seasick, as well as Revelator Coffee, Pepper Place Market, and Big Bad Breakfast. (We wrote about them last year in this post, after a March 2016 popup at Seasick.)
The first thing you’ll notice walking up is that you can see the staff making treats through a large glass window. Co-owner Wil Drake (his business partner is Jason Wallis) has worked for more than a year to perfect their brioche style doughnuts. Heavy on eggs and butter, the dough is also used to make their breakfast sandwiches.
The actual dining space holds a few small tables and one long communal table.
Order from the counter, where doughnuts of the day are on display. If you’ve been following them on Instagram you will be alerted to when flavors sell out for the day. It happens. So if you see one you want, snag it quickly.
Among the dozen or so flavors during our recent visit: maple sea salt, pistachio, lemon cardamom, and cream filled. “Sidekicks,” aka doughnut holes, are served in plastic cup and seem to be a favorite among the kids.
Below are Pink Sprinkles and Pumpkin Brown Butter doughnuts. The Pink Sprinkles got thumbs up from a dining partner and Pumpkin Brown Butter met the seal approval from yours truly. (So. Much. Doughnut!)
As mentioned previously, Hero Doughuts also offers sandwiches. Made with Fatback sausage and bacon and McEwen & Sons Farm eggs, they are served with pepper jam and mayo based “crack sauce,” and a great option if you’re in the mood for a little more savory and a little less sweet. (Though the bun offers a perfect degree of sweetness to balance out the spiciness of the sauces.)
During our visits, we sat at the communal table, which provided for some prime people watching. On a recent Sunday morning we noted that SpongeBob was on the television (props from Foodie Jr.) and Slowdive was on the speakers, which is a good representation of the Hero Doughnuts vibe.
It’s sort of a sleepy dads wiping their kiddos’ fingers meets people in workout clothes kind of place. And one dude on a laptop. (Though it should be noted: we visited one day school was out of session and another time on a Sunday, so the weekday clientele might be different.)
The doughnuts are good — almost too big to finish yourself. Our suggestion is to get a few and split them. Throw in a cinnamon roll, as we did.
They are huge and good and we dare you not to leave with sugar in your hair, as Foodie Jr. did. “Those rolls … they are as big as my face,” he said. Um, salad for the rest of the day!
With locally roasted Domestique Coffee and Harvest Roots Kombucha, plus Topo Chico, the beverages are on point. We’ve yet to try Hero Doughnut’s fronut — their sugared doughnut filled with frozen custard.
But we’re sold on this place. And we’re not alone. Lines have been out the door during the weekends. Don’t let that discourage you — service is quick. And even if you can’t snag a seat inside, you can pop over to the park. It’s worth it: these are nice people using beautiful ingredients to make this slice of Birmingham a better place. They love what they do, and it’s evident in their enthusiasm and with each bite. So be patient if you have to wait a bit.
We’ve long said that Birmingham can handle more doughnut options, and we’re happy to see what the Hero team has done.
And who knows … maybe soon the Magic City, like Portland, will have doughnut tours of its own?
When it comes to ice cream concepts, we’re always game for testing.
Most recently, this took us to Pelham, where the new Cream and Cones Ice Cream Lounge offers rolled ice cream. It’s the first brick and mortar rolled ice cream in the Birmingham Metro area. (There is a pop up with a similar concept, but we haven’t tried that yet.)
So on a recent Wednesday afternoon we (Editor E and Foodie Jr.) drove down Highway 31 to the new shop. Located in a strip mall with a personal trainer (look away, personal trainer) and a cake shop/Italian takeaway (note for next visit) Cream and Cones opened its doors last month.
A derivation of Thai style ice cream, rolled ice cream made by pouring a mixture that freezes when it hits a frozen, stainless steel surface. The rolls are made by using a spatula to shape the freezing mixture. Toppings are mixed in and the flat ice cream is shaped into a roll.
Thai style rolled ice cream has taken off around the U.S. (Both Hunstville and Atlanta have offerings.) So Kash Rojani and his sister Kim, seeing an opportunity, jumped on it. The Los Angeles natives who have called Birmingham home for more than a decade opened the 2,000 square foot shop, which is designed to be more than a shop, but a lounge. But more on that in a moment.
First, the offerings: Cream and Cones offers 36 flavors of traditional scooped ice cream, milkshakes, mocktails, and specialty sundaes. Kash said he intentionally created a large menu so there’s something for everyone (aka: even if rolled ice cream isn’t your thing, something else on the menu might be).
And though Kash, whose family runs gas stations, looked at various franchises he felt strongly about opening an independent store so he could have more control over the offerings. Kash experiments with recipes himself, testing them on his family and friends. “They will tell me when something doesn’t work,” he says.
We, like the other people in the shop that day, were there for the rolls. This is how it works: you pick from one of five base flavors: vanilla, chocolate, mixed berry, black charcoal (like a dark chocolate) and rose (made with rose syrup). Then you choose your mix in. There are about 30 combinations. Think: LaLa Land (Twinkies mixed in), Pieology (Pecan Pie mix in), Peanut Butter (made with Reese’s or Butter Finger) or Wake up (Fruit Loops mix in).
Staff pour the base on to the stainless steel surface, adding in ingredients and then shaping the freezing mixture into rolls. The whole process takes about three to five minutes and is mesmerizing.
Foodie Jr. ordered the Cookie Monster, made with regular and mini Oreos, with a vanilla base. Editor E ordered Love in Paris, made with Ferrero Rocher and Nutella or Kit Kat and with a chocolate base. Obviously Nutella was chosen because it’s the best substance known to man. (And a key ingredient in many of the rolled ice cream mixes at Cream and Cones. We approve.)
Rolls are gently placed into a cup — five to a cup. You can order toppings to finish the deal.
One of us (the adult) was very excited about the step and repeat backdrop in the shop, which allowed us to photograph ourselves like we were on the red carpet with rolled ice cream. It was in that process we realized that the rolls, though they look like bread or pastery folded in that cup, are ice cream and do melt. So pro tip: shoot your ice cream quickly!
The flavors are robust and fun. Kash said he intentionally chose recognizable favorites as ingredients, including candy and cookies people know and love. The ice cream-sweet ratio was delightful, and both of us loved digging into this new form of the frozen treat. Portions are large: two people could easily split one cup.
Kash says that he’s constantly experimenting with new combinations and flavors, and not just for the rolled ice cream. They recently debuted a doughnut ice cream burger, which features scoops of ice cream between two glazed doughnuts. The cotton candy ice cream burrito is exactly what it sounds like: a burrito of ice cream. Dreams do come true.
Photos of the creations line the walls at the lounge. “Many ice cream shops don’t have much of a seating area,” Kash says. “I intentionally wanted to create a place where families could come and hang out. There aren’t a lot of places locally for families to go at night and just spend time together. So I decided to make a lounge.” To that, Cream and Cones has ample seating, a leather couch, and stacks of board games. Here the goal is for people to stay.
We like that. For us, having another local destination where we can share an experience as a family is a plus. We can see Cream and Cones being the kind of place where our friends from across the Birmingham area head for the experience too.
Just don’t spend too much time standing on that red carpet. Ice cream, in any form, does melt.
Yesterday we had the chance to duck into the soft opening of Rougaroux in Forest Park. Located in the “pink house,” once home to the Pink House Cafe, we were eager to check it out.
Rougaroux comes to us via a collaboration between owner Anne Carter and Hotbox. Walking in you get a distinct feeling of New Orleans, almost like you’re walking into a place in the Bywater. Points for that.
When we visited they’d only been open 24 hours, and they were still in a soft opening period. That said, it was a strong dining experience — so much so we wanted to share it now.
Orders are taken at the bar. The Rougaroux menu is robust, so you might want to study it in advance. Word about this place has gotten out, and the day we visited there was already a line out the door. So here you go. (Nice branding, by the way.)
Although many of the items looked tempting, we believe in judging po boys in their traditional form, and ordered half of the traditional fried shrimp po boy, fully dressed (shredded lettuce, seasoned tomatoes, shaved red onions, dill pickles, Duke’s Mayo and Crystal Hot Sauce). For .50 cents extra, we got the spicy horseradish cocktail sauce, which was a solid choice
We also ordered a cup of the smoked chicken and andouille sausage.
Portions are generous — the half sandwich was overflowing with delicious fried shrimp. As we looked to diners around us we noticed the same thing, with sandwiches the size of a large man’s hand. This is a good thing. The six inch sandwich was more than enough, and we noticed folks who had ambitiously ordered the 12 inch asking for boxes. (Special shout out to our fellow diner who went for it with the Crawfish Zombie Bread, served with sauteed tails. It looked glorious and she said it was fantastic.)
The po boy was spot on. First, the bread is actually from New Orleans, made by the century-old Leidenheimer Baking Company. We’re not exactly sure how they get it from New Orleans to Birmingham while staying so fresh and delightfully flaky, but we’ll take it.
The andouille sausage in the gumbo was outstanding. And while we had to add a dash of hot sauce to increase the gumbo’s spiciness, we understand not all diners share our proclivity for heat.
Overall, though, the meal indicated that Rougaroux will fill a void in our food landscape — the locally owned place to satisfy our cravings for New Orleans staples. A word on that: we are eager to return to check out the house made boudin links, and the banana pudding (which we have heard very good things about.) We’re also eager to dig into the specialty po boys, including the turtle and veal meatballs, fried chicken livers, and pork cheek cochon de lait. For our vegan friends: they do offer a vegan special with fried eggplant, red bean puree, braised collard greens and spiced praline crumble.
If you go in the coming weeks, you might expect a short wait. There’s a small seating area outside where you can stretch your legs and enjoy our fall weather. And hey, it’s still quicker than traveling to the Crescent City … but dare we say just as good.
When Ollie Irene closed a year ago, we, along with a lot of other people in Birmingham, were bummed out. The Mountain Brook gastropub had become a local favorite, as well as receiving critical acclaim (including a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best New Restaurant in 2011.) The closure, a result of the Lane Parke Development, was just part of the restaurant’s story. Owners Chris and Anna Newsome have said for some time that they would be opening a new Ollie Irene.
Exactly a year to the date of the closing — September 30 — we had the pleasure of eating at the new before the public opening on Tuesday, October 3. The sneak peek dinners (see: butcher paper in the window) have allowed them to test their new setup. Though, like all What To Eat meals, we went in anonymity and paid for our meals.
We’re happy to report: Ollie Irene is back, better than ever.
Just like before, guests will recognize Anna at the front of the house and Chris’ work in the kitchen. But there are also some differences.
First, a bit about the new space. Located at 75 Church Street, it’s the site of the former Tracy’s Restaurant in Crestline Village. The space is physically smaller than the first Ollie Irene, but actually has seating for about the same number of people. This includes seating at tables, the bar and a few outside tables.
Seating will be first come first serve — no reservations. Opened Tuesday-Saturday, service will begin at 4 p.m., with small plates and drinks available until full service begins at 5:30.
Instead of an overarching “concept,” the menu relies on seasonal ingredients and Chris’ technique. The Mountain Brook native got his start cooking for Frank Stitt, and later went on to work for Chris Hastings, and in DC for chef Bob Kinkead, and in Charleston for Frank Lee, as well as studying at Johnson & Wales University.
Newsome’s training, and global influences, including French, Italian, and Spanish, is evident across the menu, which is divided into three main sections (plus drinks and desserts). “Odds and Sods” feature small plates to share, including classic mussels ($16), house smoked catfish ($10), Thai Basil Shrimp Salad ($14), and Boudin Balls ($9).
Our group that night included three of us — me, my husband and 11-year old son Nate (junior foodie). Nate is used to traveling for “research,” and said he felt like Ollie Irene was a welcoming space to learn about variations in food he’s learning about. (As parents, we also felt like it was the kind of place where a kid his age would be welcomed. That’s always a plus.)
So here’s the run down:
We started with an order of the pub fries ($7). Served with house mayo on the side, they are huge and delicious.
We also ordered from the Mozza Bar ($8-10). New to the restaurant, Chris Newsome and team make mozzarella each day in house, and offering four variations: Modest Mozza (with olive oil and sea salt), Mushrooms and Mint (with marinated mushrooms and mint pesto), Mozza and Bacon (featuring radicchio, bacon onion jam, and picked mustard seeds). We opted for the Lemon Crunch, with preserved lemons, crispy breadcrumbs, cerignolas, and parsley.
The hand-stretched mozzarella (above, right) was a subtle delight, with the lemon complementing its taste and texture. (And it was just as good as the loads of mozzarella one of our diners had just eaten in Tuscany.)
The House Made Sausage ($11) with sweet and sour red onions and garlic toast satisfied even the most picky of our diners, the Junior Foodie. (Leftovers also made for a good addition to our breakfast the next day.)
For our entrees we had the Seafood Stew ($24) and the Gulf Shrimp and Chorizo ($30). Here’s the Seafood Stew, filled with good portions of shrimp, mussels and catfish in a spicy green curry with cilantro, ginger, coconut milk and lime:
The Gulf Shrimp and Polenta is served with capers, and cerignolas served over soft polenta:
As we were finishing our meals, we chatted with Anna Newsome, complementing her on the excellent job with the atmosphere, food, and service. Just as before, the restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood place, with a chef who has put in his time training and evolving his craft.
Case in point: the chicken liver pate, a closely guarded recipe passed down from a mentor. When Anna learned our junior foodie had expressed an interest in trying, she sent one right over for him to try. While the junior foodie is still not sure he’s a chicken liver pate fan, we were absolutely sold, both with the flavor and Anna’s kindness.
For a finale, we ordered Le Kit Kat, chocolate mousse and peanut butter crunch bars served with a shot of milk ($10). Fantastic.
Our overall take: The Newsomes have outdone themselves with Ollie Irene 2.0. It’s the kind of place we’ll take our friends when they visit Birmingham, and meet with local pals for an early bite.
We imagine that it will become one of the hottest tables in town, and for good reason. This is well thought, well-made food that calls on classical technique without being fussy.
Expect it to be on the food media radar too. Chris Newsome continues to represent the evolution of our region’s food culture, and we won’t be surprised when the Best New Restaurant lists are published and award seasons rolls around.
If you would have told us at the start of 2017 that Birmingham would have not one, but two Ethiopian restaurants, we might not have believed it. But here we are, and we’re delighted to report that the second Ethiopian restaurant to open in the Magic City is another must-visit.
Red Sea Ethiopian and Mediterranean opened September 1. Nestled next to the new Halal Supermarket on Greensprings (which opened the same day), it’s a welcome new addition to our food landscape. (Ghion Cultural Hall, which opened in the Pizitz Food Hall in March, was the first Ethiopian to open in Birmingham.)
We spent time this week at Red Sea, enjoying some amazing meals prepared by the restaurant’s co-owners Giniyat Mohammed (Gini) and Kedija Teyeb. The two friends, both Ethiopian natives and Birmingham transplants, met in 2004. As their friendship developed, they shared their love of cooking traditional Ethiopian dishes with each other and with friends and family.
“People were always asking us when we were going to open a restaurant, and here we are,” says Gini. What became cooking for her neighbors in McCalla quickly turned into the search for and renovation of a restaurant space, something neither Gini nor Kedija had done before. (In addition to running restaurants, both are also moms — Gini and her husband have three children and Kedija and her husband have two.)
The turning point came when the pair cooked at the Taste of Bessemer Expo earlier this year. There they gathered lots of new fans, including Bessemer’s mayor, who offered them a space to open a restaurant in Bessemer. However, they decided on the spot at 22 Greensprings Highway, where they opened shop on the Muslim holiday of Eid.
The lines were out the door.
“We had 300 people. I nearly cried I was so happy,” Gini says.
Red Sea is located in the space where Red Bowl once was. Yes, our once beloved dim sum spot is no more, but we’re consoled by the food we found here now.
Open seven days a week, with Gini and Kedija serving customers from 11 am. to 9 p.m. The menu features both Ethiopian and Mediterranean dishes –Kedija lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. We concentrated on trying the Ethiopian dishes this go around, but should note that there is an extensive Mediterranean menu (including kabobs, lamb shank, and falafal, as well as a variety of salads including Tabbouleh and Fatoush.)
On our first visit we started with an order of sambusa (the Ethiopian version of samosa): first chicken, then lentil. Lightly fried and steaming hot, they were a big explosion of taste in a little package.
A moment about the spices Gini and Kedija use to cook. Gini’s father has them ground in his home of Nazret, Ethiopa, and shipped to her in Birmingham. The star is the berbere, a potent all-purpose chile and spice blend that seasons many of Red Sea’s dishes.
The injera, the traditional sourdough-risen flatbread, comes from Atlanta, thanks to Gini’s husband. (Gini and Kedija are working on perfecting Red Sea’s own house made injera, to come.)
On a recent visit we watched as fellow customers learned to use the injera to scoop up helpings of their entrees, which is how it’s done in Ethiopia.
Here is the Lamb Alicha Wot, a curried lamb stew that was spicy but not overpowering. The lamb had the perfect tenderness and salad (served with many of the main dishes) was a good palate cleanser.
The veggie combo was a standout. Perfect for both those new and familiar to Ethiopian, the plate features six fresh vegetables and a salad. That night’s dish included split pea, green beans, cabbage, beets and the most divine spinach. Gini says she prides herself on the varieties of vegetarian dishes prepared in Ethiopia, and plans to add more vegetarian-friendly options to the menu. She says she thinks this appealing not just to vegetarians, but to people who want to find new ways to add fresh veggies to their days
“I would never use vegetables from a can,” Gini remarks. “All of our vegetables are fresh and chopped every morning. Ethiopian food must be prepared fresh every day.”
On another visit we tried the Chicken Doro Wat. This spicy chicken stew is served with chicken leg on the bone and a a boiled egg, simmered in Berbere sauce and served with cottage cheese and salad. Be prepared for the heat — Gini likes to make it spicy. But you’ll have plenty of injera nearby to take the edge off. (They also serve a Beef Wot and a Lamb Key Wot.)
Another word about the Mediterranean menu: since we were focusing on the Ethiopian side of the menu, we’ve only had bites from the Mediterranean selections — specifically the chicken shawarma. Judging by this, and the quality of the Ethiopian offerings, we are eager to return for more. Also on our must-try list: one of their family plates, which serves five and must be ordered three hours in advance. Among the options: rice kasba, rice mandi and rice saleeg. Yum.
The meal wouldn’t be complete without an order of their homemade creme caramel. Finish it off with Ethiopian coffee or an order of the cardamom tea — you’ll thank us for it.
Gini says she is excited to bring the dishes she’s loved and cooked since she was a little girl to her customers. “It’s really my passion to see people try Ethiopian food and enjoy it,” she says. She said she was delighted when Ghion Cultural Hall opened and that as someone who has lived in the area since 2001, she thinks Birmingham is ready to support multiple Ethiopian restaurants. They’ll be adding to and expanding the menu as time goes on, and she welcomes guests who are interested in trying something new.
“I find that they are pleasantly surprised,” she says. “It just makes me so happy to see that.”
We know it’s been some time since our last post. But dear readers, we haven’t forgotten about you! As mentioned in our last post, this is a time of transition for the What To Eat team. Never fear: we didn’t stop eating. Phew.
Since we last wrote, our founders moved to Pittsburgh. Our entire team continues to read your emails, messages, and notes. And our Birmingham crew is keeping dibs on what’s happening in the Magic City’s food community. Which has been a lot, so stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.
First things first, let’s discuss Fero. When we met at Urban Standard to work on transitioning What To Eat, we discussed how much happened this summer in terms of new restaurants and things to come. After taking look at the list of the newcomers to the scene, we decided to explore Fero. (Together, we went as a team to a complimentary preview dinner, with several of us returning weeks after the opening.)
Fero, which opened last month in the northwest corner of Pizitz Food Hall, is the second full-service restaurant to open in the food hall. (Ghion Cultural Hall was the first.) Italian with a (U.S.) Southern influence, it’s run by Fourth Earl Hospitality, which also runs Pizitz/ Choza Taqueria and The Louis Bar. Designed by Appleseed Workshop, the restaurant seats 85 and will later feature outdoor seating.
Fero complements Birmingham’s existing Italian offerings. The long established Gianmarco’s offers old-school classics and family recipes in the heart of Homewood. Fero is closer in concept to Bettola in a modern interpretation of Italian on 2nd Avenue. There’s room for them all.
As for Fero, with a bar, an open kitchen, and a private dining area, the restaurant, with its sleek decor, is designed to become a destination onto itself.
There was a good bit of advance press for Fero (which means “steel” in Latin). Co-owner Chef Akhtar Nawab of Brooklyn brings a distinguished pedigree, working among San Francisco and New York’s top chefs, and at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Craft, and his own restaurant, Elettaria. Oh, and he was also on Iron Chef.
We know, we know. That’s great and all. But how is Fero’s food?
We’re pleased to report that it lives up to the buzz.
First, Fero’s menu is divided into four parts: starters, pasta, mains, and vegetables. We ordered family style, and recommend that you do the same. Servers are friendly and attentive, happy to help you order depending on your appetite and preferences.
The oysters are incredibly fresh, notable since they are from Nova Scotia. Served with black pepper and horseradish granita, they’re the perfect way to begin the meal. (Though we’d also link to see Alabama oysters on the menu, hint hint.)
The buckwheat crepe provides a savory note. Filled with Fudge Farms pork belly and black cabbage, and served with parmesan crisp, it’s a welcome addition to Birmingham’s crepe-sparse menus.
The Vitello tonnato is a dish popular in both Italy and Argentina that features thinly sliced braised veal, tuna aioli, and arugula, served with a poached egg. Savory and delicious.
Two pasta items are standouts: the free form ravoli with braised lamb, harissa and smoke ricotta:
And the the quadrucci, a charcoal pasta with duck ragout, black olives and tomatoes, has become a favorite for the What To Eat crew:
For the mains, the black grouper is served with an excellent vadouvan curry and baba ganush. (One member of our party, a notoriously picky eater, commented that the curry was a perfect complement to the fish.)
The scallops are served about four to give to a plate, served with a coconut beet yogurt, farotto, charred broccoli rabe, and dukkah.
The Fudge Farms Porterhouse Chop is a generous portion and was a hit at our table.
For vegetables, the outstanding dish is the crisp brussels sprouts, served with chile, honey, and pecorino. It’s perfect as a starter or side dish and a must-order.
With prices starting at $9 for an appetizer, pastas starting at $13, and mains starting at $23, pricing is on par with upscale restaurants around town. They are currently open for dinner only, and do take reservations, which is a plus. We’re looking forward to seeing how Fero continues to evolve. If you go, let us know what you think. And save a plate of quadrucci for us.