James Claborn and Ian Barker takeover Iron City Grill.
By Jan Walsh
Iron City Grill has a new executive chef, Ian Barker. The restaurant and the venue of Iron City also have a new general manager, James Claborn.
I sat down for lunch with Claborn and Barker this week and got my first taste of the scrumptious new menu that is still evolving. The style is Southern grill with an international twist. Read my upcoming Food Find review next week.
The menu has a new focus—on sandwiches. Old favorites remain in addition to new found ones, such as barbecue chicken tacos and an authentic Cuban pressed sandwich. I also find all new apps, other than their famous cauliflower bites. They include a sweet potato hummus and fried green tomatoes with pimento stuffed crawfish Étouffée with Japanese rice. Salads are all new including a wedge, spinach, and knife and fork Caesar. The shrimp creole was replaced with chicken, shrimp, and sausage gumbo, and soup of the day remains on the menu. And next week entrees will be updated including rolling out of a braised short rib cottage pie. Additionally, this same short rib will become the protein for the current French Dip. Pastry Chef Ashley Thompson will keep her cream brulee, but will debut her new dessert menu next week, which will include a Neapolitan with Grand Mariner and whipped cream, a New Orleans style bread pudding with golden and dark raisin rum sauce, and cookies with ice cream. Barker’s menu evolution is occurring over a few weeks’ time. This allows regulars to sample new items one at a time, rather than facing a whole new unexpected menu overnight. And it gives the staff time to adjust.
Barker has renamed each section of the menu, paying tribute to the music venue. Soups are now named Opening Acts. Small plates and apps are Sound Checks. Salads are Green Room. Entrees are headliners. Sandwiches and handhelds are Stage Hands. Sides are Groupies. And desserts are Encore. Some menu items are also designated as vegetarian, gluten free, and vegan.
Barker credits Chef George Reis as being his biggest influence, teaching him to compose, taste, and analyze, such as balancing salt, spice, and acidity. Barker looks forward to spring fruits and vegetables, connecting with local farmers and making seasonal dishes of local produce. In addition to his stint with Reis at Ocean Restaurant, he has cooked in the kitchens of Seasons 52 Fresh Grill and Carrabbba’s Italian Grill, after starting out as a dishwasher in an Italian deli. But it was at home in Huntsville at the age of two when he stood on a chair by his mother “helping” her cook breakfast that his future career began to unfold. And at seven-years-old, he began helping as a stage tech where his mother taught ballet. “By the age of 13, when I could begin getting paid, I had done 100 shows.” On his arm he boasts a tattoo of a ballet shoe and a fishing lure for the two skills his parents taught him. His culinary and stage show background make Iron City a perfect fit. “It is my dream job,” he says.
Claborn began working in the restaurant business in 1975 at Mr. Steak, while he was in college, earning a degree in philosophy with a minor in English. He later worked at Highlands Bar and Grill and Bottega for 14 years. He was a partner at City Hall Diner, the first GM at Dyron’s Lowcountry, worked for Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que, and partnered in Big Bad Breakfast in Hoover. “Iron City is a wonderful new challenge. We plan to make the Grill a standalone destination restaurant and become the place for lunch for UAB employees.” Plans include a special weekly discount for employees and offsite catering to UAB offices. Speedy Print building next door is now an additional parking lot. And future plans include expanding the Grill to offer outdoor dining there. Claborn came to Iron City in October 2018 and spent his initial days learning the concert business, as he serves as general manager for the concert business, private events, and restaurant.
Barker and Claborn have also revived Sound Sessions at the stage in Iron City Grill, where small act, local artists get exposure and entertain guests. And in the spring Iron City Grill will add Saturday and Sunday brunch weekly, and only be closed on Sunday evenings.
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