Hot and Hot Fish Club's tasting menu has it all.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson

Co-Owner and executive chef of Hot and Hot Fish Club, Chris Hastings created a menu just for my table and paired each course with wines. And they will happily to do the same for you.

Many diners at Hot & Hot—myself included—find it difficult to narrow the multitude of enticing menu choices down to just one appetizer and entrée. To solve this dilemma, regulars call ahead and have Hastings develop a customized tasting menu for their table. So rather than dining on just a couple of dishes, the tasting menu provides a broader taste of what the restaurant has to offer.

The development of a tasting menu begins just as it should—from a diner’s taste perspective. “We consider the food allergies and dislikes when developing the menu,” Hastings explains. Upon learning of fungi and salmon allergies—and just not in a mood for raw fish tonight—he asks whether we want six courses or up to ten. We opt for six, and enjoy watching Hastings and his culinary staff prepare our dinner in the restaurant’s open kitchen.

Although she is not currently found in the kitchen, Hastings’ life and business partner is his wife, Idie—who is also a chef. She holds a culinary arts degree from California Culinary Academy, worked the pastry station at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, Postrio and afterwards at Patisserie Francaise, where she honed her skills as a baker. As co-owner and director of operations, Idie is involved in almost every aspect of the business, from hiring and overseeing the wait staff, tweaking the dessert menu and handling the bills.

Dinner at Hot and Hot is served in the hand made pottery of local potter, Tena Payne. The lovely pottery is a perfect match for Hastings’ artsy yet unpretentious cuisine, restaurant, and service. And dinner begins with a small and delicious bowl of Chilled Heirloom Gazpacho with Blue Crab Meat, selected for us by Hastings from tonight’s menu of 13 appetizers. This crisp, cold soup is matched with Australian Slip Stream Sauvignon Blanc 2006. Both the wine and the soup are crisp, cold and light. And the wine’s citrus and melon notes provide a refreshing compliment to the tomato dish’s acidity.

The second course—not found on tonight’s menu—is a Study of Heirloom Tomatoes. “Tomatoes really shine in this dish. It is a study of each different tomato with only cracked black pepper. And it is at the polar end from our Hot & Hot Tomato Salad,” Hastings says. The tomato salad is a very popular dish, which also includes Apple Wood smoked bacon, fresh peas, fresh corn, fried okra, and chive aioli. Yet the Study of Heirloom Tomatoes is served with chopped, roasted eggplant, Sweet Grass Dairy’s goat cheese, extra virgin olive oil with fresh basil and flat leaf parsley. We begin tasting each tomato separately from left to right, on this rectangular platter, with the expectation of finding a favorite. The tomatoes are the products of Friends Natural Market in Anniston: Yellow Sweet 100, Ida Gold, Evergreen, Peach Tomato, Red Flame, Nebraska Wedding, Ivory Tomato, Purple Cherokee, Green Zebra, Yellow Lemon, and more! Yet studying soon gives way to savoring and relishing in this rainbow of colored slices and flavors as they synthesize on the palate. Tomatoes are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. But Rusiecki meets the challenge with the crisp grapefruit notes Vincent Delamont Sancerre 2006 from France. And as with the first pairing, the acidity of this wine compliments the acidity of the tomatoes.

From the entrée menu we begin with Pan Seared Black Grouper with avocado, hearts of palm, papaya and cumin vinaigrette. The mildness of this dish is matched with mildness of Luigi Bosca Reserva Chardonnay 2005. The wine’s creamy textures and tropical fruit flavors of pineapple, mango and melon marry well with the simple and refreshing fish dish.

The BBQ Braised Pork Shank and Summer Tomato Sauce arrive atop sweet corn succotash with coleslaw and cracklin’ cornbread. This dish has deep Southern roots and flavors, and barbecue in Birmingham has never been better. Admitting to Rusiecki that I am surprised and intrigued by the pairing of a Pinot Noir with barbeque, he explains, “A simple Pinot Noir might not work with this dish.” But his selection of Maysara Pinot Noir 2005 from Oregon—a full-bodied wine with flavors of dark cherry, cassis and spice, fine tannins, a lively acidity, and nice minerality stand up to the scrumptious BBQ.

Our final entrée is a Hickory Grilled Beef Sirloin on Panzanella—a bread salad that includes the same local tomatoes, along with eggplant, peppers and sweet onions. For this delectable dish, a California wine is served. Vertex Red Cuvee Blend Number 611, from the Gabrielle Collection, is non-vintage with light tannins and notes of black cherry preserves, cedar and spice. The cuvee makes a beautiful compliment to the layers of flavor in this beef centered dish.

Each entrée was as delicious as the last. But given the portions were just the right size, dessert sounds appealing. A tart for two of fig with lemon verbena ice cream arrives with glasses of Royal Tokaji 2000. The fig jam inside is made of Brown Turkey Figs. Locally grown LSU Purple, Green Ischia, and Alma Figs are sliced over the top of the tart. Distinctive and pure flavors of the ice cream’s lemon herb contrast with the earthy fig. And the dramatic acidity of the dessert wine—deep golden in color with flavors of honeyed apricot and orange peel— elevates the richness and mellowness of the tart.

Hot and Hot’s Tasting Menu has it all. And so it seems do the Hastings—with two sons interested in and helping in the restaurant, Hastings’ recent “James Beard Nominee for Best Chef in the South 2007,” and a cookbook on the horizon.

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