Whenever I’ve traveled (rare as it has been), I’ve always carried a journal, writing down everything I did that day. A Journal, I know, right? I’m so old school. The fact is…, I am old. I started out my young adult life using shorthand and typing 110 words a minute and that… was on a manual typewriter, yet, still today, I can write faster than type.
Using my smartphone or tablet is just awkward or frustrating every time the screen goes blank for saving power. I’m certain this obnoxious piece of technology can be corrected but, that would be a call to one my kids. I don’t want to give them any thought I’m in over my head.
I spent the weekend in Birmingham attending the Food Blog South Conference #FBS2014, currently in their fourth year. It’s geared towards food writers, cookbook authors, Chef’s alike. Blogging is a very important ingredient in the cyber world. Google any subject and blogs pop up. I even met one woman who wrote five different blogs from vegan cooking to neuro science. It was great meeting people you’ve only heard about, authors of books you’ve collected, editors from Southern Living Magazine, and especially people you’re Facebook friends with but, never met in person.
I am so glad that I did keep notes for this past weekend. There was much going on and I would’ve never remembered half of the information I gained.
What I took in the most was the hospitality. Sadly, Atlanta is struggling to keep this Southern bragging right. From the housekeepers of the hotel to store owners and their staff and, particularly the staff of the restaurants whose food I will review in a bit. One of the greatest privileges for Birmingham will be their representation in the Chelsea Market in Manhattan this year. Eight foot photographs will encompass the walls of this famous urban food mall bringing the south to meet the north. It’s sort of an “in your face, take that!” type approach but, any decent food critic worth their salt will hop on a flight and experience the great food Birmingham offers.
During the one day seminar, topics included writing, of course, turning your blog into a career, culinary trends, and recipe developing all delivered by experts in the particular field. Obviously, the topic was food. The food scene of Birmingham was spectacular and, has every reason to boast.
A friend commented on a short review I posted on Facebook regarding the popular restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, asking why I didn’t get BBQ. I’ll just say this…, I do love barbecue but, barbecue is everywhere. The BBQ trail begins in Hemingway, South Carolina (Scott’s BBQ) guiding connoisseurs’ across the south all the way to Texas including a stop off at my back porch. This was going to be one weekend without BBQ. I wanted to experience fine dining at its best, Southern Style.
Within the Aloft hotel, where I stayed, located in the SoHo district of Homewood, was Michael’s, a Steak House. I was skeptical trying it out because the reviews were somewhat unfavorable but, I really didn’t care to get back out to drive. The restaurant was small probably 75 seat capacity. Hanging from the ceiling was a 30 foot wide panoramic photograph of the city of Birmingham, obviously shot from Vulcan Hill and taken at the twilight hour. It was impressive.
I ordered the house salad and Prime Filet or Steer Butt as the waiter referred to it. The salad was a simple, roughly chopped romaine topped with dried cherries and roasted pecans ladled with an explosive flavor of the house dressing, Feta Vinaigrette.
While not considered a Southern cuisine, my filet came seared, medium rare, with juices flowing just as I requested. As a side, I preferred mashed, not creamed, potatoes including the skins. (I never understood peeling skins, mashed or creamed) They were seasoned perfectly with salt and pepper and a hint of beef broth. The wine list was short and rather plain. I had a decent Cabernet from someplace named “Cricket”. I’m all for trying out the micro viniculturist. The price tag for the night was $50. My only complaint was the music. I am sick of hearing Carole King, “So Far Away”. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her, I have the original LP. She’s a singer/songwriter icon from my youth but, I sure wish she’d sing something else.
The next evening I dined with a few, fellow Facebook, Southern Food Blogger friends, at Highlands Bar and Grill, a Southern cuisine with a French Twist. It was recently listed as one of the top restaurants to “try before you die” by the Charleston Southern Food Bloggers and, they know their food. Highlands is known for using local and seasonal ingredients and if I recall accurately, Chef Frank Stitt was the first in his industry in Birmingham to start this new approach in serving his guests’.
There were eight of us seated at a large, round table. The atmosphere the entire evening made me feel like I was in the scene of the French Restaurant, Le Grand Colbert, from the movie “Something’s Gotta Give”; a setting where Diane Keaton’s character, Erica Barry, celebrates her birthday each year. We had one main staff member who saw to our needs along with two other members of the wait staff who were right behind him.
Everyone ordered appetizers and we were delivered three more that were placed in the center of the table. I won’t go into what everyone ordered. My suggestion if you want to visit Highlands is to check the current menu on the website; it changes with the season. After the appetizers, of course came the entrée. Here’s where I have just learned about food critics. Three of us order the Bourbon Braised Pork Shoulder. I thought mine was splendid and the other two were less impressed. I never used a knife to cut through mine yet, theirs contained bits of fat. Well, I know Pork Shoulder because my husband smokes them regularly. It is difficult to avoid fat and perhaps too much was left on their portion.
When one gets older they tend to consume less. I was the oldest among my table companions by 20 years. I didn’t have an appetizer because I wanted to enjoy the entrée and hope for dessert. I downloaded the menu in advance of coming to the restaurant. I had been fasting for the previous week and earned a night of good wines and luscious desserts. I knew right away that I would have the Chocolate Chip Mousse Cake complimented with Sauternes Château Villefranche 2010 Bordeaux. I felt so sophisticated. I’ve benefited immensely from the wine classes I’ve been taking. In times past, if a restaurant didn’t offer Sutter Home, White Zinfandel, I didn’t drink. This night, I started with Prosecco, enjoyed a blended Red from Sonoma which paired perfectly with the Pork Shoulder and finished with Bordeaux. How cool am I? After a 2 ½ hour relaxed, dining experience, this evening was well worth $87.
During one of the lectures, Jennifer Cole of Southern Living was asked “of all the restaurants in Birmingham, which was her favorite”? Sheepishly, she admitted Chez Fonfon, which just happens to be next door to Highlands and…owned by the same Chef, Frank Stitt. This is a French Bistro right down to the décor with what looked like marble speckled flooring and black and white tiled inserts. The bar was wood along with the stools, antique lighting fixtures, arched wall length mirrors, stressed, wood tables and an uncomfortable leather row of benching for seating which separated the bar from the small café on the other side. At the front entrance hung, heavy, thick drapery blocking the unusual, bitter cold air, the South was experiencing.
Jennifer stated this was a place where one could go alone. Since, I have no problem eating by myself, I knew immediately where I’d go for dinner. Walking in, it was no surprise to the hostess I was only one patron. As I was guided to my table, I saw four others were dining alone. This was on a Saturday evening. Yeah! No fear here of being seen without a companion.
I ordered, Hamburger Fonfon with Comté and pommes frites aka Hamburger with cheese and fries. The meat is ground each morning and hand pressed for grilling. A red onion, char grilled, only enhanced the juices flowing from this medium cooked rarity. The buns are prepared and baked on site. The “frites” are julienned on site. No frozen stuff at this bistro. I enjoyed yet, another Bordeaux with the Hamburger and, for dessert….well, if I want a birthday cake, I have to make my own and I’m the only person in my family who enjoys Coconut Cake, so I celebrated my close to Social Security collecting/Medicare age and paired this wonderful slice of toasted coconut with a glass of Sauternes Château Haut-Mayne ’09. My quiet evening while reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott came to $60.
I will never make it to Paris to celebrate my birthday like Erica Barry, but I can drive two hours and experience the same fine dining experience. I don’t make it a habit eating upscale dining, because the budget doesn’t allow it. I knew in advance I was going to attend this conference and I put aside funds purposely to experience Birmingham’s Food Scene.
Get to Birmingham, it’s a beautiful location to visit.