Dinner at Avo reaches new heights.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Jan Walsh

“Where do you want to go for dinner tonight?” Often this is a rhetorical question intended to start a discussion, rather than the expectation of a decisive answer.  And it can even lead to a debate—if one does answer the question with the name of one restaurant. Competing palates collide when choosing between upscale verses casual fare and ambience. It doesn’t have to be this way. Head to Avo and Dram.

Both Avo and Dram Whisky Bar are located in the heart of Mountain Brook Village. These two restaurants are among Tom Sheffer’s Birmingham restaurants, and are partner restaurants to Jackson’s Bar and Bistro in Homewood. Avo is upstairs/elevator, and Dram is downstairs.

I love both and their differences. Avo’s ambience has a California, modern American vibe, with a crisp mix of green and white geometric shapes. Tall windows overlooking interesting arches in the architecture and slate roofs of Mountain Brook Village. A curved wine rack separates the hostess stand from the dining room and small bar, which is packed tonight.

My favorite seat is a white leather, semi circular banquette, which anchors the L shaped space dotted with tables. And their menu is perfect for pairing wines. Dram, on the other hand, is a roughhewn, whisky bar serving Kentucky and Tennessee (Upper South) cuisine that pairs well with whiskey. But some things are the same, such as the friendly service, same chef, Joseph Rozario and same general manager, Bret Bright. So you really don’t have to choose when it comes time to order because you may order off either menu in either place, mixing and matching at the table, as you'd like.

Yet tonight Richard Phillips—my friend and partner in—and I enjoy an elegant evening upstairs at Avo and order from the Avo menu.

In his semi-open kitchen at Avo, I have watched and tasted Ben Kirk evolve the restaurant’s cuisine—and himself as a serious chef since the restaurant opened in 2009.

We begin with cocktails of, my long time favorite—Blackberry Winter and a new found fav, Ying Yang Martini. Blackberry Winter is an on the rocks, lowball with Knob Creek, blackberry purée, and house sours.  And the Ying Yang is served in a martini glass and made of Ketel One, muddled strawberries, balsamic vinegar, simple syrup.

For our first course we order Forbidden Rice Salad and Rustica Flatbread, which we pair with a bottle of Schramsberg Brut Rose. The wine is served very well chilled, which allows its maximum effervescence and flavors to shine. The salad is an unusual crunchy, nutty and leafy mix of black rice, edamame, cherry tomatoes, green beans, toasted walnuts and lemon. It is refreshing and delicious. And I will order this again on return visits. The fabulous flatbread is crisp and hot—topped with caramelized onions, fresh roasted butternut squash, fontina cheese and sage. I have to stop while Richard finishes so I can save room for entrees.

For our main course, we order the Pan-Seared Scallops and the Lamb Chops. We pair Praxis (inaugural vintage) Gewurztraminer, Russian River 2012 with the scallops. The scallops are beautifully presented atop a white-wine butter sauce, sprinkled with an olive nut powder, and served with roasted shallot. The sauce adds a creamy richness to these large, lovely scallops that are perfectly browned on top and bottom, without overwhelming their natural delicate flavors and textures. And the Gewurztraminer makes a nice match. It is pale straw in color, crisp and dry with floral notes and a hint of honey.

The lamb chops are highly recommended. With them we pair Praxis Lagrein Central Coast 2008. Kirk marinated and grilled the Colorado lamb until its marinade forms a crispy coating on the outside, which adds deep flavors and textures to the tender and juicy chops. The two chops are served with a helping of divine fried faro, fennel, and gorgeous charred grapes—never had charred grapes before. The wine is lovely—purple in color with red highlights, and notes of cranberry, blueberry, coco and mocha.  

For dessert we share a hot and wholesome Pumpkin Bread Pudding—made of brioche, autumn spices and crème anglaise paired with French Press Coffee, fresh from Royal Cup.  

Given I love both restaurants, look for an upcoming review of Dram Whiskey Bar this month!

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