By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Chez Fonfon is more than a bustling French bistro to me. Having a love affair with all things French, it is my familiar way of escaping to the country that I love most without ever leaving town. Chez Fonfon’s French Provencal food, French wines, and French ambience embrace me, and I them.
The valet in waiting knows me well. He recognizes my car coming down the road. Even when there is parking in front, I valet so I can walk down the sidewalk past Highlands Bar and Grill to take in the Mediterranean façade. When I enter Chez Fonfon, the lovely Autumn Gibson greets me and directs me to “my table,” the corner, window table in the bar. I always lunch here very early in order to secure it, as Chez Fonfon does not take reservations.
The ambience boasts French Belle Époque café tables and a 100-year-old etched glass door from Lyons, along with marble wainscoting and the bar’s mahogany paneling from an old Birmingham office building. And when weather permits, there is a boule court in the back courtyard. The décor of Chez Fonfon is the brainchild of Lucullus’ Patrick Dunne. Lucullus is an antique shop in New Orleans that specializes in culinary antiques.
Award-winning and nationally acclaimed chef Frank Stitt and his wife, Pardis, are the owners of Chez Fonfon, and Frank serves as executive chef. In addition to Chez Fonfon, the Stitts also own sister restaurants Highlands Bar and Grill (a five-time James Beard finalist for Outstanding Restaurant), Bottega Café, and Bottega Restaurant. Adam Grusin serves as chef de cuisine. Autumn Gibson and Gray Maddox manage the restaurant.
Today I am dining with B-Metro magazine’s Robin Colter. Our server Brent expects that I will order French wine, as I typically do. Instead we decide on cocktails: the Blushing Lady Martini and Ginger Martini. The rosy-colored Blushing Lady is a mix of Ketel One, red grapefruit juice, and pomegranate juice from local pomegranates. It yields a slightly tart, not too sweet—but just sweet enough—cocktail. The vodka-based Ginger Martini is golden in color, boasting a fresh-made ginger syrup that shines through in this lovely, well-balanced drink. Both cocktails prove to be refreshing pairings for our hearty lunch. Cheers to bartender Allan Francis for a job well done.
The Winter Vegetable Soup sounds appealing on this icy day. It arrives hot, filled with colorful winter veggies and a deep green pistou crowning the top. The pistou also provides an additional layer of garlic, onion, and olive oil flavors that blend into the scrumptious soup. And from the list of La Petite Cuisines, we select Roasted Bone Marrow and Kale Slaw Tartine. Roasted Bone Marrow is a carnivore’s dream. The dish is served sliced along the bone with parsley salad with shallots, and grilled pain (bread) for spreading the marrow, also known as “meat butter.” As the fat cools, it becomes almost like a mousse. And if you could make meat into butter, I imagine it would taste like this rich and decadent dish that melts in the mouth. The Kale Slaw Tartine is simply outstanding. The freshness and acidity of the dark green kale melds with the flavors of the house-made mustard’s and crunchy bite of sliced radish—a newfound delight!
For our entrees, we select Les Grands Plats’ Lamb Daube and Chaque du jour Red Fish. Daube is a classic Provencal stew slow cooked in a daubiere, allowing condensation to build without evaporating, which keeps the ingredients moist. Hearty, savory flavors meld in this tender stew of carrots, onions, and picholine olives. The red fish is one of the most beautiful dishes I have ever seen. This gorgeous pan-seared fish is presented on a tasty bed of haricots vert, Brabant potatoes, and turnip and garlic purée, topped with a blood orange and beet relish. The relish adds a lovely red color and textures to accompany the wide range of flavors this succulent fish dish brings to the table.
For dessert, we share a Raspberry Almond Torte. The torte is topped with vanilla bean crème de la glace above a layer of sliced almonds and a center of raspberry preserves presented with fresh raspberries. It’s the perfect ending to my most recent Francophile fulfillment.