Written by Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Bellini’s Ristorante has satisfied foodie appetites in Birmingham since 2008. Located at 6801 Cahaba Valley Road off Highway 280, Bellini’s is open for lunch and dinner on Monday through Saturday.
Bellini’s has an outdoor patio, a bar, and two dining rooms. Entering through the separate bar at Bellini’s, warm tones of Tuscany and exposed brick provide a welcoming scene. Also inside the bar space, there is a curtained alcove space to the right with arched entrances for semi-private dining. Inside the main dining room, where we are seated tonight, the exposed brick continues with wine stored in the wall along with Reidel wine glasses. Drapes hanging from the ceiling here separate the space into smaller ones. And a second dining room is located down the hall. In addition to serving lunch and dinner in the restaurant, Bellini’s also provides catering. Catering By Bellini’s has its own location at 5511 Highway 280, which houses a cafe open for lunch on weekdays and provides healthy meals delivered to homes or businesses. These meals are scratch-made with a focus on low-calorie, paleo, and gluten-free options.
Owners Doug and Niki Hovanec conceived the concept of Bellini’s Ristorante over a bottle of wine in 2008. The Hovanecs are also planning a new chef-driven concept, Revolve Kitchen and Brew, opening soon in the Doug Baker Shopping Center below the Melting Pot. Bryan Cates is executive chef at Bellini’s. Cates is a native of Jamestown, North Carolina. He attended the International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Charleston and earned a bachelor’s in culinary arts management. His cooking background includes stints at Hot and Hot Fish Club and an executive chef position at Basico in Charleston, South Carolina.
Having reviewed local restaurants, including their cocktails, for more than 10 years, I know where the cocktails are special and where they are ordinary. I have never had a cocktail at Bellini’s that was not memorable. And tonight is no exception. The Charred Grapefruit Gin and Tonic arrives in a low ball on the rocks. It’s golden in color and garnished with a plump slice of grapefruit. On first sip, there is a hint of char, which adds a smoldering complexity to this tart and tasty cocktail.
I receive Bellini’s e-newsletter, which pictures and describes the weekly chef features. So I already know what they are before the server describes them. But tonight, in addition to the weekly features, Chef Cates has whipped up some special dishes, which he recommends to us. We take his recommendations, and he then brings out each and describes one at a time.
Our first course is duck stew. It arrives laced with carrots, poached in a brown butter caramel. We also find it chock-full of pulled duck, first-of-the-season pea tendrils, and cauliflower. This earthy stew, with its remarkable flavor profile, is one of the best duck dishes I have ever tasted. Our next course is small on size and big on flavor. A beautiful Brussels sprout is seared to perfection and served with lemon hoisin, olive oil, and aged balsamic. Next is a meal in itself, the boursin cheesecake, which rests atop lamb sausage covered in spicy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. And it is crowned with a lovely leaf red-veined sorrel for a touch of acidity. Chef also sends us a lovely intermezzo (palate cleansers) between courses.
For entrees, this week’s chef features include two dishes that we did not order, but would love to catch if offered again—seared scallops with poached ricotta gnocchi and oven baked squash and a seven-layer white lasagna with spinach, artichokes, goat cheese, mozzarella, and parmesan. But we made a great choice with our order of the wood-grilled filet of tenderloin feature. The tender steak was hand cut in house and comes cooked rare and thinly sliced over a bed of roasted fingerling potatoes in a creamy Mornay sauce, finished with veal demi-glace. And for our other entrée we include one dish on the regular menu. A golden piece of Gulf Snapper arrives floating atop fire roasted asparagus and Reggiano risotto. The creamy rice makes a hearty accompaniment for the delicate, succulent fish. And for dessert we choose a creamy, chocolaty Tiramisu and a divine Godiva Martini.