Photography by Beau Gustafson
To the city’s excitement, Chris and Idie Hastings (owners of Hot & Hot Fish Club) have opened their second restaurant, OvenBird, located at 2810 Third Avenue South at Pepper Place. Ovenbird is a refined yet rustic restaurant that offers a well-conceived and beautifully executed indoor/outdoor dining experience of small plate fare cooked over a live coal fire. It is named for rufous hornero, “red ovenbird,” a South American bird that builds its oven-shaped nest with a side entrance shaped like an O. Coincidentally, OvenBird has another namesake in a poem by Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird.” And the poem’s passing of time theme also befits the restaurant. OvenBird has been in development for two years. Twenty years have passed since the Hastings opened Hot & Hot Fish Club, and a live fire restaurant has been Hastings’ dream since he was a boy, cooking over campfires.
The Hastings could have opened this restaurant anywhere, yet they chose Birmingham’s Pepper Place, and credit their location decision to Cathy Sloss Jones. This cast iron cookery pays homage to Sloss Furnace’s pig iron days. Walking through the massive black, wrought iron gates onto the pebble garden, a water fountain welcomes us toward the main door. Inside the main dining room, café tables with marble tops and wooden bistro-style chairs dot the space. Multiple exterior French doors open to the main garden, creating an indoor/outdoor space.
Behind the marble bar is a wood-burning beehive oven similar to Hot & Hot’s, but twice the size. Adjoining this space is the exposed brick hearth room, which also serves as an open kitchen with seating for eight. Along the brick wall are three black, cast-iron doors that open to a burn box for burning wood into coal, an enormous wood oven where food is cooked on a rotisserie before being broken down on the room’s concrete island, and the hearth where the meat is finished cooking over coals in the center of the space. In the back, a large warehouse space with its own bar connects to the warehouse garden. Stacks of wood are found inside and outside, as OvenBird has no gas line to the restaurant. Ovenbird seats 100 inside and 40 outside. It is open from 4:30 p.m. until late night on Monday through Saturday, and on Saturdays when Pepper Place Market is open, for a buffet-style brunch.
Chef Hastings is a nationally celebrated chef in both print and television, was named James Beard Foundation’s Chef of the South 2012, and has more accolades than I can name here. Being an outdoorsman, Hastings also has much experience with and a passion for cooking over an open flame. And he brings both to the table at OvenBird. His wife and business partner, Idie—with her own accolades and recognitions as both a businesswoman and philanthropist—runs the business and front of the house for OvenBird and Hot & Hot. Both are also leaders in the non-GMO movement. Thus OvenBird follows Hot and Hot’s GMO-free aim. Chef Sedesh Boodram is the Hastings’ “right hand” in development and creative evolution of both restaurants. The chef de cuisine is Barclay Stratton, and Zack Walton is general manager.
From the OvenBird Originals cocktail list we order two very different drinks. Rufus Horneros is a serious bourbon drink garnished with a turkey feather. And OvenBird Session is a fizzy cocktail of gin and fruit juice. We start with two warm salads. The awesome Ash Baked Onion is served in an ironclad baker. This onion was cooked in buried coals and is mixed with slices of crisp Asian pear, crumbles of Sequatchie Cove Creamery’s Shakerag Blue Cheese, and beef bacon in pimento vinaigrette. This balanced dish has it all: veggie, fruit, cheese, and protein. Smashed Beets and Carrots is an incredibly flavorful salad of roasted beets and carrots, with greens, in Marcona almond butter.
Of course, we must have an ovenbird—Piri Piri Chicken. This moist and tender bird was wood roasted over the spit, glazed with piri piri sauce, and served over the best braised black beans ever, with a lovely caramelized endive. Pumpkin Pate is also highly recommended. This dish is fall on a plate, with its pate of pumpkin paired with three slices of meaty, tender pork belly and drops of pumpkin seed pesto. The succulent filet of mackerel makes a colorful and delightful dish plated with beet puree and ash-roasted leek and topped with a salsa verde, adding the perfect bite of acidity. For dessert, we enjoy the scrumptious Apple Crostada with burnt Alabama honey, frozen yogurt, and golden bee pollen.