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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.