By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
On November 21, 1982, Frank Stitt opened his first restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill. And Birmingham’s transformation into a culinary gem began. The restaurant set the benchmark for Birmingham restaurants and began an evolution of the city’s education, appreciation and sophistication of both food and wine — one winemaker dinner at a time. And while Birmingham had some great restaurants before Stitt’s, today we have many more because of him, including his four restaurants and all the chefs who worked with Stitt before opening their own eateries.
Located at 2011 11th Ave. South, this 1920s building has a Mediterranean façade. Enjoy the historic bar for a handcrafted cocktail before dinner. Or enter through the restaurant for your dinner reservation. Here tables covered with pristine white tablecloths are filled with the color of the lives of their dinner guests. A senior couple holds hands while sipping wine. A large group gathers at the window banquette table with big hugs and greetings before dinner. And Highlands’ tall, storefront windows reflect it all by candlelight.
In addition to Highlands Bar and Grill, Stitt and his wife, Pardis, own and operate Chez Fonfon, which is located next door to Highlands, and Bottega Restaurant and Bottega Café on Highland Avenue. Stitt is executive chef at all of the restaurants. At Highlands, Zack Redes serves as Chef de Cuisine. General Manager David Parker’s friendly smile greets all who enter. And Highlands has a staff that includes loyalists who have worked here for decades.
Highlands and Stitt’s incredible list of national recognitions and accolades are a book in itself. Stitt was named a James Beard Foundation 2011 Who’s Who of Food & Beverage inductee, and Highlands was one of five restaurants in the country to be named a James Beard Foundation Outstanding Restaurant Finalist for the past four years (2012, 2011, 2010, 2009). Esquire magazine inducted Frank Stitt into their Restaurant Hall of Fame in 2011. For three decades, Esquire has published an annual list of the best new restaurants in America, and Highlands appeared on their first list in November 1984. The James Beard Awards that Stitt has received include Best Chef in the Southeast in 2001 and Outstanding Chef Finalist in 2008. Highlands and Stitt have also been featured on numerous national television shows and in print publications.
Tonight we toast the restaurant’s anniversary with flutes of Champagne Rene Geoffroy Brut, 1er Cru, Cumières. And we pair the bubbles with one of our favorite dishes, Highlands’ Crab Claws in their tasty marinade served with Stitt’s heavenly ginger sauce. This light and fresh pairing is the perfect beginning to our meal. In addition to the claws, we find much on the menu to celebrate, including many local, organic food products, some from Stitt’s own farm. Highlands classics always tempt and bring back memories of previous meals: Stone-Ground Baked Grits, Seared Foie Gras, Friture de la Mer and Sweet and Salty Chocolate Cake.
Yet tonight we venture out and try new offerings, selecting appetizers of Southern Seafood Soup, fried okra and Paradise Farm-Roasted Pepper Salad. The hot, creamy and appetizing bowl of soup boasts crisp bites of fresh corn, Paradise Farms leeks and succulent marinated crabmeat integrated with sweet hints of sherry. Bringing back childhood memories of fresh veggie plates at my grandparents’ farm are the golden, fried rounds of fresh okra atop a bed of pink-eye peas, butter beans, fresh basil, crisp bacon and corn vinaigrette. And the roasted peppers stand up to Stitt’s mix of feta cheese, caper berries, marjoram and the most wonderful Cerignola olives served with stem intact.
We pair entrees of pan-seared snapper and grilled Fudge Farm pork loin with food-friendly Sancerre Reverdy 2010. The gorgeous snapper is served in two thick pieces on a bed of butternut squash pirlau (a Southern low country rice stew) with lovely lady peas in a zesty, creamy lemon-chive beurre blanc. And Stitt’s Southern table is at its best with Henry Fudge’s grilled, tender and juicy pork loins presented with a comfortingly delicious potato hash, caramelized onions, lardons and the best mustard greens ever — deep layers of goodness — in a flavorful Bourbon-peppercorn gastrique.
We end the evening just as it began with a food and wine pairing. Malted Vanilla Crème Brulee marries well with one of my favorite dessert wines, Vidal Inniskillen 2007. Happy Anniversary!