By Sam Prickett
When Birmingham Restaurant Week first started in 2009, Mark Driskill was working at Highlands Bar and Grill under the direction of award-winning chef Frank Stitt. But as the annual dining event prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, Driskill finds himself in a very different position: as owner and executive chef of his own restaurant, Ash Neighborhood Bar and Grill.
Driskill, who also has worked as head chef at Bottega Café and Mountain Brook’s Brick and Tin, said his restaurant shares Stitt’s ethos of emphasizing the “beautiful” aspects of dining.
“Food is meant to evoke beauty, from coming through your door in its raw form, through how it’s being prepared, how it’s being plated and presented to the guests, how it’s being eaten and enjoyed – all of that together is supposed to be an experience that magnifies the beauty of the food,” he said.
Ash, which opened in West Homewood last August, takes its name from the restaurant’s wood-fire cooking process, which Driskill said he chose to use because “it’s such a natural way to cook. It’s how people first cooked anything, thousands and thousands of years ago. It’s an element that provides familiarity and comfort and yet uniqueness to food that people don’t get in a lot of dining experiences.”
But just as importantly, he said, the wood-fired technique “really forces me to be grounded in how I approach the ingredients.”
In many ways, Ash’s culinary approach is a reaction to trends in cooking during the past 10 years, which Driskill characterizes as “people moving further away from the natural state of the food, manipulating it and trying to turn it into something else, trying to change flavors, trying to combine odd flavors, and really missing the point of the natural ingredients.”
Instead, he said, he focuses on getting “really fresh ingredients that don’t need a lot of extra manipulation” from vendors such as Joyce Farms and Smitherman Farms, and then letting them “speak for themselves.” As an example, he points to the restaurant’s simple herb marinade, which the restaurant uses with many of its dishes, including chicken, pork, steaks, even okra.
“It’s three very flavorful herbs, shallot, garlic and really good olive oil … . The marinade doesn’t overpower (the dish), it’s not anything super distinguishable, but it is going to enhance the flavor of what it’s put on,” he said. “For me, the manipulation comes when you’re trying to find ways to impart flavor or combine flavors using really fresh ingredients.”
Emphasis on Family-Friendly
Driskill has another goal, for Ash to become a family-friendly gathering place in the developing West Homewood area.
“We really want to go back to this idea of community,” he said. “We’re a neighborhood restaurant. That’s why we planned it here as opposed to Second Avenue (in downtown Birmingham), or Avondale, or Pepper Place, or Railroad Park. I think we’re filling this niche of giving a space for people to come with their family and to feed them affordably, and to feed them food that you can trust, that wasn’t frozen, that didn’t come from a bag, that was made from scratch and made with care.”
In contrast with some high-end restaurants, Ash goes out of its way to be child-friendly. Children eat free on Tuesdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., for example, and Driskill emphasizes that the children’s menu is made with the same ingredients and care as the rest of the menu.
“I have three kids, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old, so I know how important it is what you’re putting into their bodies,” he said. “At the same time, we want to provide the same quality across the board, indiscriminately, for adult and for child.”
That family-friendly approach, Driskill said, is also important because it fits the demographics of the neighborhood.
“Homewood in general is a young (area) with tons and tons of kids,” he said. “For me to come in and try to build something that doesn’t fit in with that would have been asinine on my part.”
At the same time, Driskill said, he hopes the restaurant’s kid-friendliness doesn’t distract from quality of the food.
“We think, for the most part, a lot of people know us as the kid-friendly place or a more casual destination, and we absolutely want to continue to be that,” he said. “But when it comes to our food, it’s far more than that, and that’s what we want to set ourselves apart in.”
Restaurant Week Plans
Driskill said he hopes that Birmingham Restaurant Week will allow people who might not live in the West Homewood neighborhood to discover what Ash has to offer.
“I wish more people knew that we were over here, that they have another option in Birmingham that is elite,” he said. “I say that with trepidation because it sounds arrogant, but I know how much love and care we all put into it … . We want people to recognize us and that the quality of food we’re putting out here is worth driving across town for.”
“But at the end of the day, we’re serving our community, and that’s what it’s about,” he adds. “That’s what food has always been about.”
Birmingham Restaurant Week – which is actually 10 days long – will take place Aug. 16-25. As part of restaurant week, Ash will offer a three-course meal for $30, featuring a choice between house salads and farmer’s market salad, grilled shrimp and marinated chicken, and peach cobbler or soaked bourbon cake. For more information, including a list of participating restaurants, visit bhamrestaurantweek.com.