By Lynn Grisard Fullman
Sharing a meal can be romantic, especially if you choose a quiet place, a remote corner and order something special, whether a plump steak, crisp salad or towering dessert.
This year, as the Alabama Tourism Department promotes the Year of Alabama Food, (www.yearofAlabamafood.com) the state’s restaurants are in the limelight, making it easy to browse through a host of grand places to dine.
While some people might prefer ribs at a barbecue joint (and, face it, nobody does barbecue better than Alabamians), Valentine’s Day calls for something more intimate.
From shoals to sand dunes or from big cities to small hamlets, the state has abundant places where food is outstanding (most often showcasing locally grown products), service impeccable (a prerequisite to a grand meal) and the setting worthy of a few photographs.
In late January, the Alabama Tourism Department released its updated brochure, “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die.” Using the brochure, you can find some great eats in the state.
If death lurks following the final taste of dish number 100, you may want to drag your feet a bit before undertaking those last few bites.
In the meantime, just in time for Valentine’s Day, you may want to consider a few of the restaurants included in the brochure. Just be sure to call ahead for reservations as others might also be clamoring to taste what Alabama restaurants are offering.
Right Here in Birmingham
A logical first option is Highlands Bar and Grill on Birmingham’s Southside. Owner Frank Stitt III changed the course of Alabama dining when he first appeared on the restaurant scene. With the opening of Highlands Bar and Grill (939-1400 or www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) in 1982, Stitt was the first to bring sophisticated dining to Birmingham. The Cullman native studied in California, worked in Europe and later returned to his home state to introduce continental trends that blended well with Southern influences. At Highlands, which Gourmet magazine has named the nation’s fifth best restaurant, Alabama Tourism suggests ordering the signature baked grits which constantly are on the appetizer list. No matter what you order here, you’re in for a treat.
The tourism department recommends both the camel rider sandwich, with salami, bologna, roast beef, provolone cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, and moussaka, an eggplant and ground beef dish topped with Béchamel sauce, served at Nabeel’s Café (879-9292 or www.nabeels.com) on Oxmoor Road in Homewood. However, for Valentine’s Day you may want to venture beyond those recommendations to other Greek and Mediterranean dishes, most from recipes belonging to John and Ottavia Krontiras, who bought Nabeel’s in 1993. In addition to its regular menu, for Valentine’s the café will serve filet mignon and salmon.
Another sure bet in Birmingham is Cafe Dupont (322-1282 or www.cafedupont.net), where Alabama Tourism recommends the buttermilk fried chicken with lemon basil sauce, all the handiwork of chef/owner Chris Dupont, who opened his first restaurant in Springville in 1994. Nine years later, Dupont moved his restaurant to 113 20th St. North in downtown Birmingham, where he continues using products from local farmers and growers. The bistro is housed in a building that dates to the 1870s, evidenced by exposed brick walls, original floors and high ceilings.
Chris and Idie Hastings’ Hot and Hot Fish Club (933-5474 or www.hotandhotfishclub.com) is best known for a menu spurred by the couple’s access to local and regional produce which drives daily changes on the restaurant’s menu. At 2180 11th Court South on Birmingham’s Southside, the restaurant, specializing in new American cuisine, is named for Hastings’ great-great-grandfather’s epicurean hunting and fishing club established in the South Carolina low country in the early 19th century. Alabama Tourism recommends Hastings’ tomato salad, which has been featured on the Today show, a suitable forum for Chris, twice a James Beard finalist.
The tourism folks suggest trying the lobster pot pie served at Ocean (933-0999 or www.oceanbirmingham.com), a Southside landmark that for the past five years has received both the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and AAA 4-Diamond Award. Chef/owner George Reis serves fresh seafood, fresh oysters and fish from around the world. The contemporary atmosphere makes it a neat place to dine. Ocean, at 1218 20th St. South, is next door to Reis’ younger restaurant, 26.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better Italian restaurant in Birmingham than Gianmarco’s (871-9622), where brothers Gianni and Marco Respinto serve up recipes they learned from their father. Loyal customers favor the neighborhood setting (721 Broadway, Homewood), where the tourism folks recommend the hearty lasagna.
Fox Valley restaurant (664-8341), on Shelby County 17 in Helena, has long been known for its unlikely location, fine dining and unrivaled crab cakes. While the menu is ever-changing, the crab cakes, the tourism folks agree, are well worth trying. The restaurant has won numerous Wine Spectator Awards, which pleases co-owner and co-executive chef Sue Lemieux. Her love for cooking was inspired by her parents.
Minutes from Alabama’s beaches, Jesse’s Restaurant (251-965-3827 or www.jessesrestaurant.com) is in Magnolia Springs, a quiet community known for its massive oaks and as a place where mail still is delivered by water. Most noted on Jesse’s menu is a 16-ounce Jack Daniel’s-marinated rib-eye steak that would make a perfect Valentine’s dinner. As far as overnighting, a walk away is Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast (www.magnoliaspring.com), a restored two-story home that operated in the 1920s and ’30s as the Sunnyside Hotel and today is known for its charm and gourmet breakfasts.
Sweetbreads with braised seasonal vegetables are the tourism personnel’s pick at Chef Wesley True’s namesake eatery in Mobile. A 2011 James Beard semifinalist for the South’s best chef, True uses French techniques to present a constantly evolving menu with global influences and local flavors. In Legacy Village on Springhill Avenue, True (251-344-3334 or true.trudine.com) has received an Award of Excellence from HYPERLINK “http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Home/” Wine Spectator and an Award of Unique Distinction from Wine Enthusiast.
Bread, herbs and olive oil are draws at Trattoria di Ricatoni’s (256-718-1002 or www.ricatonivalentino.com) in downtown Florence, where brick walls and a tin ceiling are all that remain of the original structure which houses the restaurant. Open since 1996, Ricatoni’s is known for pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven, old country-style entreés and freshly-baked bread with herbs and olive oil that caught the attention of the tourism tasters.
When the time comes to celebrate Valentine’s Day, pull up a chair, unfold your linen napkin, reach for your outermost fork and skewer some of the nation’s finest food right here in Alabama. Here, grits aren’t just for breakfast anymore, wines are for pairing and fresh seafood likely paddled in the Gulf last night.
Lynn Grisard Fullman is a professional writer based in Vestavia Hills.