Written by Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Chef Chris Hastings and his wife, Idie, opened Hot and Hot Fish Club in November of 1995. During the two decades that followed, the Hastings developed and maintained strong relationships with local purveyors, foragers, artisans, farmers, and fishermen who supply food to this farm to table restaurant. These local and seasonal products are featured in dishes inspired by all cultures from across the globe. Through the years, Hot and Hot has also cultivated an ever-growing foodie following of locals who dine here regularly and the well-deserved reputation of being among the best restaurants in Birmingham and the South.
True to the farm to table movement, the Hastings source food locally and seasonally and support organic farming and sustainable, community-supported agriculture. And as a luminary in the farm to table movement, Chef Hastings believes that this movement is the only sustainable answer to our country’s food issues. Thus the Hastings have “stood up” on GMO labeling by banning GMOs from Hot and Hot’s kitchen and proudly boast the Alabamians for GMO Labeling group’s emblem on their menu and door. Chef Hastings is also an advocate for the Alabama Seafood Commission and supports sustainable seafood.
Located at 2180 11th Court South, Hot and Hot’s historical building began as a burger restaurant, Caddell’s Creamery, in the 1950s, and housed a pool hall/bar, Upside-Down Plaza, in the 1970s and 1980s. The Hastings maintained the integrity of the building while also making it theirs. There is a valet in waiting on the sidewalk beside the small private patio for dining al fresco. The warm and welcoming Harvest Room serves as the restaurant’s entrance. It also has a harvest table for large groups and smaller bar area tables, as well as Hot and Hot’s bar. And the dining room boasts warm fabrics of chocolate and pumpkin juxtaposed with cool black metal chairs and creamy honed marble tabletops. Local artists’ paintings flank the walls surrounding the tall windows and semi circular chef’s counter, framing the open kitchen where Hastings and his team execute excellence nightly, Tuesdays through Saturdays.
The Hastings are both accomplished individuals, each in their own right with education, experience, and accolades too numerous to name here. Yet notable culinary achievements among them are Chef Hastings’s James Beard Best Chef South in 2012 award and his Food Network’s Iron Chef win. And most recently the couple made a dream come true, opening their second restaurant, OvenBird, at Pepper Place. Hot and Hot’s staff have also worked hard to maintain the restaurant’s high standards. In the kitchen, Sedesh Boodram serves as chef de cuisine, and Austin Sumrall is sous chef. Butcher Hector Reyes and prep cook Roberto Macias are both longtime employees. In the front of the house Franklin Flanagan serves as general manager. And several longtime senior wait staff members are Don McGill, John Cordes, and Josh Tolbert.
We toast Hot and Hot’s 20th anniversary with two appetizing cocktails from their farm to glass menu, the Peach Julep and The Unholy Matador, while looking over tonight’s dinner menu. My two favorite appetizers are in season tonight, Hot and Hot’s famous Tomato Salad and Okra Basket. We order both and a dinner wine of Spatburgunder Brut Rose 2013. A lovely treat of Amuse-bouse arrives first, quickly followed by bowls of the Conecuh County Sausage Gumbo, which Hastings sent to us. The deep, dark rue is chock full of spicy sausage, bites of Bayou La Batre shrimp, turnip greens, local peppers, and the perfect proportion of plump, Carolina gold rice, making this among the best gumbos I have ever tasted.
The now famous salad boasts thick slices of juicy, meaty, heirloom tomatoes, stacked high and filled in between with a lush mix of sweet corn, field peas, and fried okra, which also tops the tomatoes and overflows down the sides and onto the plate. A dollop of chive aioli adorns the top, adding a touch of velvety creaminess. And a slice of smoked bacon crowns the top, providing crisp texture and salty, smoky pork flavors to this divine dish. I love fried okra but hate to fry it, so I never get my fill. Each and every piece is fried to the same golden crispness—crunchy on the outside and silky on the inside, each bite is bursting with freshness. And knowing that this okra is cooked in non-GMO oil, we quickly devour the whole basket.
From the entrees I want the Pan Seared Scallops, but I have an allergy to one of the items in the setup. Our server offers to leave it out of the preparation or switch the setup to the one paired with tonight’s fish dish. I opt for the fish set of sautéed baby squash, snap beans, fingerling potatoes, and flowering herbs. It makes for a colorful and spicy backdrop to the five delicate scallops. The succulent scallops are seared to a golden crisp on top and bottom and are translucent in the center. We also order the Carne Asada Prime Chuck Eye. The tender and juicy steak is cooked to order and is served with Refried Field Peas, which exemplify Hot and Hot’s style of seasonally Southern, globally influenced food. No tossing in-season field peas into other apps and entrees just because they are presently plentiful. Hastings recognizes their similarity to a pinto bean, which is used in refried beans and creates refried peas. The steak and peas are topped with other Spanish accents—creamy spoonfuls of queso fresco along with roasted local peppers and barley verde. And for dessert, we split decadent Hot and Hot Doughnuts accompanied by sweet plum, shortbread, white chocolate, and pistachio ice cream paired with my favorite after dinner drink, Hot and Hot’s German Chocolate.