Village Tavern's Birmingham location is home to the company's corporate executive chef.

By Jan Walsh

Photography by Beau Gustafson

Mary Grace Viado is the corporate executive chef for the eight Village Taverns across the United States. As corporate executive chef for the company, it is Viado's job to create and execute recipes.

And she could do this job in any of those kitchens and has been offered the opportunity to do so—including New York and Atlanta. Yet Viado prefers Birmingham and is here to stay as executive chef of the Birmingham restaurant. “I have been here since we opened this restaurant in 2003. Birmingham is my home and love it,” Viado describes. “Why would I leave?”

Viado’s resume is almost as impressive as her cuisine. After graduating cum laude with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Administration from the University of the Philippines, she earned a James Beard Foundation scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America. She then started her culinary career at Masa’s Restaurant in San Francisco and later worked at several prestigious hotels including the Savoy Hotel in San Jose and the Four Seasons in both New York City and Atlanta. She also worked for several top New York restaurants, including Restaurant Daniel, Aquavit, Le Cirque 2000, Aureole, Payard Patisserie and Bistro, Café des Artistes, and Le Bernadin. Brooke Vosika, executive chef of New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, calls Viado “the consummate 21st century culinarian.”

Yet no matter how talented the chef, the first bite of a dish whispers the truth to the diner’s palate—telling the truth about the freshness and quality of the products. Viado’s innovative recipes and feature dishes are artful, original—but most importantly—delicious. The quality of the crab, apples, and other products are apparent in both their beautiful appearance and their flavor. “We find reputable vendors that meet these specifications and even inspect their facilities,” Viado says.

Much like Viado, customers feel a sense of belonging at this neighborhood tavern. The restaurant is divided into several dining spaces including a popular bar area. But the focal point of the space is a two story, stacked stone fireplace open on both the front and back to different dining areas. Wooden rafters in the a-frame space meet at the top of the fireplace. Jewel toned upholstery and carpeting lit by art deco lamps along with soft, festive music further enhance the warm and welcoming ambience. The concept is based on the community taverns in early America. Yet at this tavern, there is a complimentary valet in waiting, and a sign outside stating how long the wait is for those without reservations. Tonight it says, “30 Minute Wait.”

It takes more than a great chef to run a successful restaurant that is open for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, and for both lunch and dinner seven days a week. General manager Curt Hummel runs the front of the house, and kitchen manager Matt Inouye both cooks and manages the kitchen. Also among the well trained staff is our server Chris King who shares tonight’s specials.

Several appetizers are selected and paired with Robert Mondavi Leaning Oak Sauvignon Blanc 2006. Highly recommended are the Small Plates Sampler and the Gruyere and Bacon Flatbread. The sampler includes servings of calamari, spring rolls, crab cakes and toasted bruschetta. I could easily make a meal of this dish. The Gruyere and bacon flatbread is crisp and hot with generous chunks of applewood smoked bacon and caramelized onions. And the food friendly Sauvignon Blanc meets its match in all of the dishes.

Salads are successfully paired with Alluvium Blanc, Knights Valley 2006. The Chinese Chicken Salad is a hearty portion yet light in flavor. It is filled with salad greens, cabbages, daikon radish, tossed in an Asian sesame ginger dressing, topped with crisp and crunchy wonton strips. And the Spinach Salad is the best that I have ever tasted. It is a delicate and delicious balance of flavors that delight the palate. Fresh spinach, grape tomatoes, crumbled bacon, spiced green apples, dried cranberries, candied spiced pecans and crumbled blue cheese are tossed in a divine poppy seed dressing. Don’t miss this delectable dish.

Four entrée offerings provide a sampling of the main selections and are paired with Penfolds Shiraz Grange 2002. Steak Au Poivre is a presentation of two pan-sautéed filet medallions—cooked to order—in a cognac cream sauce with cracked black pepper. Shrimp Risotto shows off Viado’s techniques—accomplishing the desired ala dente—and her talents for laying flavors. “You can’t rush risotto. It takes time,” Viado explains. “Jumbo shrimp are brushed with butter and garlic over a wood fire grill. Arborio Italian rice is slow cooked with olive oil and red onions. Then salt and pepper are added, before the spinach, cheese and butter.” These simple flavors synthesize into a complex and comforting risotto that is topped with the shrimp. The wine’s balance of fruit and oak compliment the risotto and the two other entrees. A light and sweet dish of Black Cod with Acacia Honey is pan roasted, glazed with the soy-honey and served with sautéed spinach. And a hearty portion of Maple Cured Pork Chop is accompanied by house made apple chutney, garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed seasonal veggies.

Both a Dessert Sampler and a special dessert are ordered. The sampler includes Key Lime Pie, Apple Cobbler with a pot of caramel, and St. Barths Chocolate Torte. And the special is a Strawberry Parfait—topped with a tiny swirl of cotton candy! Yes, Viado has a small cotton candy machine in the kitchen. The desserts are paired with a huge cup of cappuccino topped with whipped cream. Although each is a tasty treat, the parfait is the favorite among the desserts. It is a balance of tart and sweet that provides a refreshing finish to the evening and the first cotton candy I have had in years.

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