The Highlands Bar & Grill
ver the last decade, my wife and I have bought a few dozen cookbooks, remodeled our kitchen at home, and tried to mimic the professional chefs' recipes, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If I have finished the Sunday crossword puzzle, which often takes me a week, or am not in the middle of an engaging novel, I'll curl up with a cookbook. The best recipes are like great short stories.
In Charleston last summer, while wandering through a cooking store, I spotted a large stack of cookbooks by Frank Stitt. I had never heard of
Chef Stitt, but the cookbook looked interesting. I have one test on any cookbook by southern chefs; I turn immediately to the pork recipes, and if they sound good, I buy the book. Chef Stitt's pork recipes made the bar, as did his recipe for corn pudding, which I successfully duplicated at home. We have also been on a grits kick, and I wanted to try the chef's grits recipes. (Believe it or not, I have found an excellent source of grits in Manchester, CT, of all places.)
I had the chance to eat in the chef's famed Highlands Bar and Grill restaurant in Birmingham Thursday night (although the daily menu I was presented indicated that Mauricio Papapietro was chef de cuisine for the evening). I sat at the crowded bar among a convivial group of people who clearly knew each other well. The restaurant was almost full at 6 pm and would be full, with a small waiting line, when I left at 7:30.
There wasn't a false note throughout the meal. I was greeted promptly by one of the five bartenders whose movements during the evening were well choreographed and reminded me of hockey teams on a rush toward goal, weaving and passing and utterly coordinated. The six components of my meal -- drink, bread, appetizer, entrée, dessert, coffee -- were served without hiccup by four different people (I thought just three until I noticed two of them were twins).
The daily menu presented many great choices for appetizer, but when I see Apalachicola oysters, nicely sized and briny beauties from the Florida Panhandle, I have no choice. These half dozen ($9) were fresh, briny and so well shucked that I slurped them right from the shell. The three guys to the left of me were too busy with business talk and their beers to notice my happy slurping, and the amusing and friendly lady of a certain age to my right, who spent the evening regaling her friends with funny stories, seemed to watch with amusement. The restaurant thoughtfully provides small ramekins of vinegar sauce, fresh grated horseradish, and homemade cocktail sauce. I experimented with the different combos, my fun-with-food moment. I had to pace myself so, sadly, I could not indulge in the chef's renowned Stone Ground Baked Grits with country ham, mushrooms, fresh thyme and parmesan.
I ordered the night's special soup, a Vidalia onion and sweet pea puree ($8) that was indeed sweet but without being cloying. I am not a pea soup fan and I was pleased that the color of this pea soup was closer to Vidalia than to pea. And the puree did not have a hint of graininess in it. It was a sweet and refreshing pallet cleanser.
The first main course listed was a "Fudge Farms Pork Shoulder and Belly" with "swamp cabbage" and collards, apples and bourbon ($28). The other entrees never had a chance. Pork and collards are as native as jazz and the blues, and I knew from the chef's cookbook that he had a way with the pig. Fudge Farms pigs are crossbreeds (Durocs and Berkshires), and the result is extra marbling, tenderness and flavor (and no hormones). The plate of food delivered to me was beautifully symmetric, featuring a circle of darkly burnished square pieces of pork belly, with the layers of meat separated by a thin vein of lustrous fat. At center, was a mound of the best collards I have ever tasted, the sharp taste of collards tempered by a more sweet than sour braising liquid and smoked with so much hickory that the greens tasted as if they were made in someone's fireplace 100 years ago. The dish was as good an example of southern cuisine as I have had in my 30 years of eating in the south.
If the pork belly had not been on the menu, strong contenders for my order would have been the Jamison Farms Leg of Lamb with artichokes, sweet peas, bulb onions, sugar snaps and local carrots ($29) or the "Canard Nantais" North Carolina Duck with spoonbread, star anise and red wine ($28).
After the pork belly, ordering dessert was more about my job as ersatz restaurant critic than having any room for it. Frank's Favorite cake ($7.50) was excellent, a white cake with layers of a flavored whipped cream and topped with a fresh meringue, all clearly made in house. Truth be told, I would have preferred just one more of those squares of pork belly for dessert.
Highlands Bar & Grill, 2011 11th Avenue South, Birmingham, AL. (205) 939-1400. Web: HighlandsBarandGrill.com
. The restaurant is about 15 minutes from the Robert Trent Jones golf courses at Oxmoor Valley and Ross Bridge.