By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Birmingham’s downtown restaurant scene just got a little bigger. In December 2016, Tom Saab, chef and owner of Bistro 218, expanded by adding an adjoining bar into the space next door—doubling the seating capacity. Saab originally opened Bistro 218 in November 2012.
Bistro 218 is located at 218 20th Street North. A valet awaits our car at the front door, and the hostess opens the door at Bistro 218’s new bar, which is now the main entrance. The new bar space boasts a massive, elegant, quartz-topped oak bar that lines the left wall. Center stage is a 600-bottle wine cellar of their procured wines.
Bistro 218’s bar has its own menu. Here we can drop in for most appetizers less than $10 and entrees less than $20. These include some dishes on the dining room menu and some that are not, such as Bistro Burger. The bar is expected to appeal to a broader demographic than Bistro 218’s usual patrons, such as loft dwellers and millennial casual diners.
Tonight we are ushered into the dining room through two French doors that adjoin the two spaces. Above the dining room remains the upstairs bar space, which is now available for private wine tastings for groups up to 20 guests rather than serving as the main bar. The dining room is flanked by exposed brick on each side lit by glowing sconces. Tables, appointed with crisp, white tablecloths, red roses, and candlelight, line the left wall’s long banquette, which wraps itself onto the back wall. Gone are the mirrors that covered the bricks on the right. And with no hostess stand there are now two window tables, one on each side of the dining room front doors and a large table in the center of the space. This is the dining room that Saab says he has always wanted.
Saab—a Birmingham native—graduated summa cum laude from Johnson and Wales and has years of culinary experience, including stints at country clubs and resorts. Service manager Tracy Carter has been at Bistro 218 since it opened. Bar manager Cameron Hughes is a Master Court of Sommeliers, Level Two, Certified Sommelier. Jenifer Dimma is the sommelier for the dining room.
Looking over the cocktails and wine list, there are 14 signature cocktails and an aggressively priced by-the-glass list. This cold night calls for some vitamin C. So I order the Paloma of Jose Cuervo Tequila, orange bitters, with grapefruit and lime juices. This luscious drink is light lime in color and served in a low ball on the rocks with a lime garnish and a salted rim. Tonight we order octopus and crab cakes as starters and two of tonight’s specialties, a steak and bouillabaisse as mains. The Charred Spanish Octopus dish makes a lovely presentation of two complementary sides. The plate is divided into two halves with succulent and tender octopus, served sliced, on a smear of squid ink vinaigrette and flavorful, crumbled chorizo atop a bright bed of racy romesco. Saab achieves perfection with his Maryland Style Crab Cakes, with just enough breading on the outside to hold them together and full of lump crab inside. They are plated on a delicate white wine butter sauce that enhances their beauty, rather than overpowering it. The thick, sizzling New York Strip Steak is cooked perfectly to order, medium, and is tender and juicy from first cut to last bite. It is served with a lovely veal glace and is accompanied by a creamy potato gratin and topped with crispy, golden ringlets of chili fried onion. The Gulf Bouillabaisse is a pristine stew of shrimp, scallops, snapper, and clams in a simple saffron fennel broth, which allows the fresh seafood flavors to shine through. For dessert we enjoy coffee with the Grand Mariner Chocolate Cake oozing with a hot lava center. And a gorgeous glass of Torbeck “The Bothie” Barossa Valley Muscat Blanc is paired with the “to die for” Caramel Apple Cheesecake. This golden, round cake is topped with a generous drizzle of caramel and is baked on a bed of sliced apples and a thick and gooey crumb crust.