Chef Randall Baldwin’s Vintage 2298 opens in Auburn to applause and esteem.
By Jan Walsh
If Vintage 2298 were a wine, 2022 would be its first vintage. It would deserve a score of 100 points from Wine Spectator. And Chef/Owner, Randall Baldwin would have just become a rock star winemaker.
Yet Vintage 2298 is not a wine. It is a new restaurant, opening in an important year for Auburn’s culinary scene. 2022 is the game changing year of the avant-garde. In addition to Vintage 2298, Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, 1856 - Culinary Residence, Hey Day Market, and Laurel Hotel & Spa and its Rooftop Lounge have all arrived onto the scene this year. As a result, Auburn’s gastronomic board game has been tossed into the air with all pieces falling onto newly cultivated soil, in Auburn’s culinary terroir. And Chef Baldwin along with Tyler Lyne, the Chef in Residence for this inaugural year at 1856 have well positioned their restaurants on this groundbreaking game. Chefs Randall and Tyler stand in ovation and on the shoulders of the restauranteurs and chefs that made Auburn a foodie city. The brand-new and the old guard must now join hands, in support of each other, as their interests are aligned, in redefining Auburn as, more than a culinary city but a culinary destination.
Here in Auburn today, with my Auburn Restaurants partner, Auburn and Culinary Institutes of America (CA) grad, Ada Ruth Huntley, we support their efforts, by cutting the ribbon on AuburnRestaurants.com and Auburn Restaurants App, Auburn’s newest cutting-edge, culinary technologies. Given we are not a brick-and-mortar business, we planned a virtual ribbon cutting. But when the Auburn Chamber of Commerce heard this, they would not allow it. Instead, they hosted us for a real ribbon cutting at the Chamber office this morning! Auburn Restaurants Founding Member, PONKO Chicken’s Team, led by Matthew Ventimiglia, surprised us all with scrumptious trays of award-winning PONKO Chicken and PONKO Fries.
Chef Randall’s Vintage 2298 was Auburn Restaurants Inaugural Founding Member, long before the restaurant or our website and app existed.
Two years ago, Randall and I were sending each other bits and pieces of our plans and dreams, as he texted me photos of his old Chicago warehouse brick and architect’s renderings, and I sent him Auburn Restaurants logo and beta design. Thus, it was my hope to have Auburn Restaurants Grand Launch Luncheon at Vintage 2298. And although he is not open for lunch, today Chef Randall hosts us for a private Grand Launch Lunch!
A Culinary Institute of America (NY) graduate, Chef Randall has been a chef at the finest restaurants in Birmingham, from Frank Stitt’s Group to a long stint as executive chef at Dyron’s Lowcountry. Yet in addition to his expertise, Randall also brings his own South Alabama heritage to the table at Vintage 2298, where he serves Southern fare with coastal roots, highlighted by the seasons and prepared with tradition.
Although Vintage 2298 is a new restaurant, it opened with a story, his mother’s story, as the restaurant is a tribute to Randall’s mother, Nancy. Long before CIA or Birmingham restaurants, it was in his childhood home in Mobile County, where she first taught him to cook as a boy, and later encouraged him to become a chef. A portrait of Nancy looms large, over the arched opening to the kitchen. “Her spirit is in this place,” Randall describes. “Walking in here every morning is like coming home as a child. I see it, feel it, touch it, and taste it.” Given Randall is like family to me, I wanted to contribute something to this memorial of his mother’s memory. And Randall places the antique sterling basket, from my own collection, to his mom’s silver displayed at the restaurant. Randall carefully places it on its side, to “show it off,” as he smiles and wipes his eyes. Along with his mother, Randall feels his sister, Jessica, also watches over him and the restaurant from Heaven. And she was recently spotted by his two-year-old son, Bennett, as the brightest star in the heavenly sky above… “See that star? That’s Jessica!”
Yet Randall’s leading lady, partner in life and in the restaurant, Laura is here in the restaurant with him, literally on the job. “God brought this beautiful, intelligent woman into my life. And she is on top of everything from the back office to playing a firm mama role with staff, managing the front of the house, and talking to the tables with her little charm.” The Baldwins have three young sons, Liam, Bennett, and Ford, who are living his dream, from touching the grass on the football field, and walking on the basketball court, to excitedly spotting Aubie. And Father, Howard is seeing Auburn magic through the eyes of another generation. “He sticks his chest out a little further these days,” Randall describes.
In addition to Ada Ruth and my husband, Kevin, Thomas Price, my friend and Master Sommelier in Residence at 1856 is also in attendance for our celebratory lunch. Thomas does the honors of selecting two food friendly, yet very different pinot noir wines to pair with lunch. We toast Auburn Restaurants Grand Launch, and start our lighter courses, with La Crema Pinot Noir 2012, from the Panorama (single) Vineyard of Arroyo Seco in California. “This pinot is very concentrated with a savory texture,” he describes. Thomas goes further, calling it “crunchy” to express the way we feel it between our teeth. His expertly trained palate also detects alluring juicy notes of raspberry, Bing cherry, a little sassafras, and cola in this lovely wine.
Below Nancy’s Portrait and in full view of the open kitchen, we watch as Randall and his team including Sous Chef, Jacob Hanks, prepare our lunch. Several dishes at Vintage 2298 are reminiscent of those Randall made as executive chef of Dyron’s Lowcountry, including our starter of West Indies Salad. “It is thanks to Dyron and Sonya Powell for allowing me to run Dyron’s like it was my own that prepared me for Vintage 2298,” Randall recalls. “Life is a struggle, but if you stay the course and believe in yourself, there are people out there to help you fulfill your dreams.” West Indies Salad is a South Alabama original, just like Randall. And his version of this delicious dish, simply crab, onions, vinegar, and oil, is served in a small jelly jar encircled with Saltines.
Next arrives two more of my favorite foods in life, hot Southern Cornbread and fried crab claws. Vintage 2298’s Fried Bayou La Batre Crab Claws are served atop a pool of bourbon cocktail sauce, with just the right bite of its own. These golden babies are crisp and crusty on the outside, moist and meaty inside. With the efficiency of their cocktail sauce coating, we wasted no time dipping, and quickly devouring two plattersful. Catch them if you can!
From surf we move to turf, as two Southern Charcuterie Boards come swaggering to the table. We quickly adapt, by piling on smoky pork to hot grilled bread. Ribbon folded, Benton’s Country Ham and sliced Conecuh Sausage are held and melded together with a creamy house made pimento cheese, sharp enough to cut with a knife. And we top them off with a gorgeous bacon and caramelized onion jam, and crisp tart French cornichons. This interactive dish allows time for a lively discussion of what is happening for the holidays. Thomas is excited about 1856’s Christmas Eve and NYE menus and pairings. And Vintage 2298 has invited patrons to come and enjoy dinner with live music. Makes me want to get back to Auburn before the year ends!
For our sixth course, Winter lettuces, mixed with grilled apples, roasted pecans, and Belle Chevre Goat Cheese, tossed in a honey cider vinaigrette is a light and lovely preface to the most substantial course of the lunch, Pecan Grilled Venison Leg.
As we move onto the entrée style courses, Thomas selects a wine from a benchmark Oregon producer, Cristom, Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvee 2019. “Pinot Noir is light in body, so it won’t overpower fish but brut in structure, cutting the meat well,” he explains. This elegant wine shows well, wowing us all. “It is silky, smooth, and layered with notes of pomegranate, exotic red fruit, and black raspberry, along with earthy hints of pine, sage, and seamlessly integrated oak flavors.” It also stands up well to the nutty, firm, rich, and earthy venison, and its accompaniments. Pink, meaty slices rest on a bed of the absolute best sweet potatoes I have ever tasted. Did Randall dig these this morning from his backyard veggie garden? They surely taste it. His Brussels have the desired crunch outside and soft inside, adding a touch of bitterness, balancing the sweetness of the potatoes and the sweet red pearl onions. And a pomegranate gastrique interfuses this dish and its wine with its delightful sweet and sourness.
My favorite course of the lunch is Sunrise Caught Trigger Fish. “Oh, my!” I exclaim after my first whiff and bite. Thomas looks at me, also wide eyed in amazement, saying, “I am scheming how I can recreate this at home.” Good luck with that! Integrated flavors that are built on each other often result in a beauty that is difficult to decipher. I will leave that to him, while I make a memory of this masterpiece. Randall later shares that this dish originated from his mom’s Shrimp Creole recipe. He evolved into this lighter, broth style dish. His broth is made of Gulf shrimp shells, and their plump and succulent shrimp are cooked in the “red rice,” not red in color, but rice that is red with tomatoes. The Holy Trinity (carrots, onions, and celery) and bits of Conecuh Sausage further fulfill its flavor profile. Fresh parsley, dill, and lemon brighten this incredibly interesting dish, and Tabasco adds a touch of heat. Boasting hickory grill marks, a filet of light, white, and sweet triggerfish crowns his classic new creation. This dish is made to order, also accounting for its freshly built flavors. Highly recommended!
Dessert arrives in four courses: Crème Brulee, Pecan Pie, Chocolate Torte, and a heavenly Coconut Cake that was Nancy’s recipe, which she only made at Christmastime. Who could ask for more than this assortment of pastry perfection, with its spread of creamy, nutty, chocolatey, and coconut decadence… I imagine Nancy smiling, as we rave about her coconut cake, ending the lunch on the sweetest of notes.
All parents want better for their children than they have had for themselves. Yet we can’t make it happen for them. They must achieve it for themselves. At Vintage 2298 Randall is honoring his mother’s memory, sharing the flavors of his childhood, and creating his own culinary legacy, here in Auburn and beyond.
The following day Wine Spectator publishes my article, “Thomas Price is Teaching a New Generation of Sommeliers.” What a week this turned out to be… Auburn Restaurants Ribbon Cutting at the Chamber followed by Grand Launch Lunch at Vintage 2298, with the Wine Spectator article on Thomas and Auburn University, as the cherry on top!
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