Highland’s Bar and Grill hosts Thomas Keller dinner and book signing.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson

Celebrity chef Thomas Keller visits Birmingham. He is hosted by Frank and Pardis Stitt for a dinner and book signing—for his latest cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home—at Highlands Bar and Grill.

The Keller
The Keller Restaurant Group includes nine restaurants and bakeries in the United States. In addition to Ad Hoc, French Laundry, per se, and Bouchon (in Yountville, Las Vegas and Beverly Hills), he owns three Bouchon Bakeries in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York. He is the author of three other cookbooks: The French Laundry, Bouchon, and Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.
Keller’s Ad Hoc serves the comfort food Keller enjoyed growing up. Ad Hoc, which means “for a specific purpose,” began with the purpose of being a temporary restaurant—offering four course family style menus that changed daily—until Keller’s permanent restaurant opened at its Washington Street location. Ad Hoc’s patrons, however, had no temporary plans for dining here. Thus Ad Hoc remained by popular demand.

The Timing
There is—and never was—anything temporary about Highlands Bar and Grill. It is the landmark restaurant of legendary chef Frank Stitt. And today March 22, 2010, Highlands is named a semi-finalist (one of five in the United States) in the James Beard Foundation Awards 2010 for “Outstanding Restaurant.” This is the second consecutive year that Highlands has been up for this prestigious award. The winner will be announced early May.

The History
Memorable dinners with renowned guests have played an important part of Highlands’ history. Thus Keller is one, among many, who have been the focus of a dinner here—including many famous winemakers. “Highlands’ winemaker’s dinners are our finest moments—of creating a menu that focuses on a wine’s subtleties, yet showcases our food—and would like to think that we find that delicate balance where the food allows the wine to show its full potential,” Frank Stitt describes. Through the years Stitt has been honored to have some of the world’s greatest winemakers from Aubert de Villaine to almost all of Kermit Lynch’s top estates—Vieux Telegraphe, Domaine Tempier, the gang of four from Morgon in Beaujolais, Raveneau, to Domaine Leroy and most of our California favorites—Bruce Neyers, Dick Ward of Saintsbury, Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Randall Graham of Bonny Doon, Ted Lemmon of Littorai, and the list goes on and on—Joseph Phelps, Jed Steele, Dick Grace, Robert Mondavi, Spottswood, Montelena, and so many others.  “These have been some of our proudest moments of marrying food and wine.”

The Scene
Highlands Bar is the setting for the aperitif, book signing, and it fills quickly with local foodies. Bubbly flows setting a festive tone. Flutes of Prosecco Adami are paired with golden nuggets of Keller’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken. During this delightful aperitif course and book signing old friends socialize and new friends are found. For one couple, executive chef Haller Magee of Satterfield’s and his fiancé Micah, the book signing brings an opportunity to get Keller’s autograph on their keepsake menu, from the evening they were engaged during dinner at The French Laundry.

The Dinner
Tonight’s seated portion of the dinner is family style—Ad Hoc style. Highlands’ tables have been arranged accordingly with guests seated in both the dining room and the bar. Stitt welcomes diners and introduces both Keller and Ad Hoc’s Chef de Cuisine, Dave Cruz—who will be in the kitchen tonight. Cruz leads and supervises Ad Hoc’s kitchen and played an instrumental role in the restaurant’s successful opening in 2006. Keller thanks the diners for the hospitality he has been shown while in Birmingham, and provides a brief history and Ad Hoc’s—feels like home—philosophy. At home your mother did not give you a menu. Your meals served were shared family style, with big bowls and platters of iconic American dishes passed at the table,” he describes.

The dinner provides a taste of the recipes in the Ad Hoc cookbook. A tasty platter of Haricots vert, potato salad with smoked trout—with toasted pecans, frisée, Honey Crisp apples, and chopped shallots, in sherry vinaigrette—is paired with Pinot Bianco Lageder 2007. For the entree course tender Braised beef short ribs with wild mushroom conserva, bulb onions, and crisp polenta cake is matched with “Geyserville” Ridge Vineyards 2007. And for dessert an array of gourmet cheeses—Sweet Grass Dairy Thomasville Tomme (Georgia cow) Blackberry Farms Singing Brook (Tennessee sheep) Wabash Cannonball (Indiana goat)—as well as one of Keller’s favorite desserts, Lemon bars—with brûléed meringue, blueberry sauce—is served.  

Incredible food, delightful wine, legendary chefs and good friends make for another memorable evening—at a restaurant that feels like home to many of us—Highlands Bar and Grill.

Published, B-Metro magazine, May 2010

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