Remember this number, 26.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Being a writer I am not number oriented. I find it difficult to recall phone numbers, account numbers, any numbers. But there is one number that I have no problems with at all. And that is 26. Perhaps it is the memories of good times shared lunching there with friends and nights out with my husband. Perhaps it is the Monday night special of unforgettable baby lobster tails with Champagne. Perhaps it is the chocolate desserts. 26 makes a lasting impression.
At 6:00 p.m. on a Friday evening, the restaurant already has a crowd, with every seat in the house filled soon afterwards. The ambience is upbeat and inviting. Wave effects make a splash on the banquettes, wall tiles, bar mirror and ceiling. Colors of the ocean reflect each other from the bar mirror and the water fall. And the kitchen is shared with its partner restaurant, Ocean, located next door. Executive chef George Reis and his wife Harriet—a Birmingham native—are the owners of both 26 and Ocean, which they opened in 2002.
The menus at 26 have an Asian influence, and the wine list is excellent. Both were a part of co-owner and executive chef, George Reis’ life early on. “I grew up in upstate New York, where my father cooked on not just one but two woks,” he recalls. “I also worked in wine country there, hand shelving grapes for 50 cents a flat.”
Looking over the menu I recall my first meal at 26 back in 2006 when 26 opened its doors—the roasted shallot hummus, wok seared scallops, and the chocolate pot de crème. I see all of them on the menu tonight and know that I cannot order dishes, which I have previously reviewed. Nor will I order dishes that I have enjoyed here since that night. Instead I order dishes that I have never tasted.
Dinner begins with a basket of hot bread and butter. And the dinner menu begins with a long list of “Rolls”—sushi rolls. Offerings include many varieties of fish and vegetable rolls. From this list, the Spicy Tuna Tempura Bonbons are selected. These beautiful ball shaped rolls are made of Ahi Tuna, cream cheese, and sushi rice—tempura fried. They are served with a tasty sambal (a spice made of peppers) hot mustard and sweet chili glaze.
Two “starts” are selected, Gulf Coast Shrimp Spring Roll and Mussels Diablo. The two spring rolls are a fusion of Southern and Asian. The thin, crisp shells are filled with cabbage and shrimp from the Gulf and are served with the same hot mustard and sweet chili glaze as the bonbons. Aromas of the sweet chili sambal broth rise from the bowl of mussels and are as satisfying as the tender, delicious flavor of the mussels and their rice noodles.
Popular dishes that are not ordered from the list of “mains” include the Grilled Wild King Salmon with fresh field pea salad, vine ripe tomatoes and stone ground mustard vinaigrette and Gulf Coast Shrimp with George’s Bank Sea Scallops with proscuitto ham, shitake mushrooms, sweet peas, and handmade strozzapretti pasta in a sate white wine cream. Ordered from the list of “mains” are the Chang Mai Wok Seared Ahi Tuna, Wood Oven Seared Grouper, and the Citrus Braised Short Ribs. One bite of the rare tuna with its vegetable lo mein, pea tendrils and sweet soy proves Reis learned much from his father’s woks. A tall filet of grouper sits atop a jalapeno white cheddar grit cake with corn maque choux, sautéed spinach, tasso ham and roasted garlic cream. The combination of grouper and grits are another divine example of Reis’ creative talent for synthesizing southern and other cuisines. And the short ribs with their roasted jalapeno white cheddar tamale, cipollini onions and carrots with natural jus offer layers of deep, rich flavors, which speak a bit of Spanish.
From the dessert menu one selection is shared—“Double Chocolate Cake and Milk.” The tall wedge of cake—and its chocolate ganache with hazelnut mascarpone and hazelnut sabayon—may be better than your grandmother’s. The pairing is for sure as this cake is paired with a shooter glass of foamy “milk,” Grey Goose Vodka, Godiva White Chocolate, Cream de cocoa, and a touch of milk. And from the sushi to the “milk,” Reis makes tonight another memorable one at 26.