A Christmas Tradition 

Bottega Café was this year’s choice for a memorable holiday lunch. 

By Jan Walsh 

Richard Phillips is more like a son to me than a co-worker. I was his first client after earning his graphic design degree at Auburn. He has since designed every logo and website that I have developed. And he is the content manager for my portfolio of commercial restaurant and legal websites—in his spare time of practicing law. Yet we go much further back than adulthood. I was his sixth grade English and writing teacher at Oneonta City Schools. 

Today, 26 years later, we celebrate Christmas early at Bottega Café. We arrive promptly at 11:00. Yet 20 or so others were ready for the doors to open. But we still managed to get “our table” in the corner, which makes me happy. I am always tempted by the handcrafted cocktails at Bottega Café. The ingredients always get me… While considering the Italian Sparkler and Spiced Pear Martini, I explain to our server that I do not want sweet. So, she wisely suggests the Barbados Negroni Plantation. It is served in a low ball with an ice block and lemon peel. This balanced and deeply rummy and citrus flavored drink warms from head to toe with its five-year-old rum, Aperol, and Dolin Rouge, and orange juice. Highly recommend! 

We nibble and catch up over an array of our favorite, tried and true apps: crab crostini, marinated olives, and hummus. The marvelous crostini are slathered with avocado, piled high with a creamy mix of Gulf crab, and garnished with an acidic bite of red grapefruit. This is my favorite app at Bottega Café.  I recently chose it as a “Weekly Food Find,” and it is destined to be a 50 Favorites 2019-2020 in my upcoming awards at Birmingham Restaurants. The hummus is served with warm pita, peppers, olives, radishes, and peppers. Perfect for sharing—as are the classic array of marinated olives. 

For entrees Richard knows what to order in Frank Stitt’s Italian restaurant—Pardis’ Spaghetti! Kev has the pork chop, and I select the Pesce del giorno. Ribbons of spaghetti are cooked al dente and wound into a lovely tomato sauce with fennel seed, cumin, and chili. Kev’s pork chop is also tried and true. He orders it each time he finds it on the menu. It is a hearty, tender, and moist, bone in chop accompanied by tomato chutney aioli, venetian spinach, and roasted potatoes—a comfort food classic! My pesce del giorno is a skin on, meaty filet of tasty rainbow trout on a bed of earthy farro, with butternut squash in a brown butter butter vinaigrette. Bottega’s fish of the day is consistently delicious, and always a must

Richard has the Coconut Pecan Cake, Kev opts for his usual of daily Gelatos, and I order a glass of Champagne and a spoon to steal bites from their dessert plates. The divine gelatos are served in a pastry bowl that is a treat in itself. The cake is James Beard, pastry chef winner, Dolester Miles most famous dessert and truly is a slice of heaven. 

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View Pastry Chef, Dolester Miles' Coconut Pecan Cake Recipe 


Old School Apps

Making a meal of Pizzeria GM’s new apps takes me back…

By Jan Walsh

The kitchen at GM Pizzeria is chef Giani Respinto’s playground. Here he literally plays with food, evolving the food we grew up with—but forgot about—to foodie worthy fare.

Every time we go, there seems to be something new and fun on Pizzeria GM’s menu. Last time, we were here on a Saturday—for a pre-game day meal. And we found Wagyu Pigs in a Blanket new to the menu. As a teen, pigs in a blanket was fun food for our football parties, after high school games. We majorettes and cheerleaders would wrap weenies in crescent dough and voi·là! We had a hearty app that would please our team. But Giani beats all with his new gourmet version made of wagyu beef dogs wrapped in a thin, golden crust, and topped with an incredible house made, Dijon style mustard. Highly recommended!

And today I find Breaded and Fried Fresh Mozzarella Bocconcini. Remember fried cheese sticks? Giani takes this concept to school. Bocconcini means "little bites" in Italian. These mini bites of Mozzarella cheeses are fried to a golden brown. I dip a ball in warm tomato sauce and pop in my mouth. Hot melted cheese oozes from the thin crust on first bite. These. melt in my mouth, cheese balls are a scrumptious synthesis of crunch, acidity, and creaminess. And back I go to the aromas of the pizza place I grew up with where I always had the cheese sticks. And just like that, I have a newfound favorite app

My long-time favorite app here since the pre-opening family and friends’ dinner has always been the Hot Gulf Crab and Spinach Dip. The dip is served in a black, cast iron skillet accompanied by garlic toasts. Dipping the toast into this piping hot creamy dip filled with jumbo lump crab and spinach is another déjà vu delight, conjuring up memories of fondue with girlfriends.

We linger at Pizzeria GM, while making a meal of these apps, a bucket of fries, and a pitcher of Blackberry Farm Brewery beer. Time well spent where food is fun, again.


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Opening Night

Abhi Eatery and Bar opens a second location, in Mountain Brook Village.

By Jan Walsh

Chef Abhi Sainju opens his third Birmingham area restaurant. The new Mountain Brook restaurant is the second location of Abhi Eatery and Bar. He opened the original location at The Summit in 2017. And in between his two signature restaurants, he opened a banhi mi dumpling restaurant, mo:mo at Pizitz Food Hall.

Tonight’s soft opening at Abhi Mountain Brook is a special treat for family and friends, before the highly anticipated opening to the public this week.

Arriving at the door, we are offered the “scenic route of the staircase or the elevator. One glance at the newly, artist painted walls of the stairwell leads me there. Local artist Andy Jordan created a masterpiece mural of Swayambhunath Stupa, the most ancient and ambiguous of Kathmandu Valley’s holy shrines—a place of “peace and prayers”.

Once we reach the top of the mural, big hugs and well wishes for Abhi and team as they all beam with pride. If you ever climbed these stairs to the former AVo, flanked by a statue of Jack Daniels at the bottom and a bourbon barrel at the top, you won’t believe it is the same space. The whole space has been reimagined inside and onto the patio. Abhi’s signature orange with notes of aqua energize the atmosphere.

Kev and I are seated with neighbors and new friends at the banquette. Here a large lazy Susan for sharing sushi and more brings a feeling of déjà vu from my 1996 trip to Beijing, where tables were also made for sharing. Abhi graciously treats us to dinner.

Having been a bartender himself, for more than a decade before evolving to chef, Abhi understands the importance of a thriving bar program. Bar manager and beverage director, Steven Bradford. Bradford was the winner in both 2017 and 2019 of the coveted Alabama Hospitality Association Bartender of the Year award. Looking over the cocktail menu, I see the first drink on the list has tequila and Champagne—The Famous Warrior. It might as well have my name on it. Think margarita on the rocks meets bubbly and Grand Mariner. And Kev orders Mississippi Summers. It is a frothy dream of honeysuckle, coconut, and peach.

The menu offers shared plates, salads, sekuwa, no-share features, bowls, noodle bowls, and desserts. Although Abhi’s Summit location previously had to limit its sushi offerings (after another restaurant opened there, due to non-complete legalities), the full sushi menu is now served at both locations. This is good news to loyal sushi patrons. And the Mountain Brook Abhi offers new dishes exclusive to this location.

Tonight, we opt for new dishes or ones we have never tried. We start with Malaysian Chicken Curry with roti. And we enjoy dipping the flatbread and soaking up the delightful dish until the last drop.

Abhi’s salads have long included an array of chicken, salmon, pork, steak, tofu, and seaweed. Debuting tonight is the Shrimp Salad, a succulent delight for shrimp lovers! Destined to be the go-to salad for shrimp lovers.

In our sushi, we enjoy shrimp two ways—tempura and steamed in the Double Shrimp Roll. It also includes cucumber and avocado with unagi sauce. It proved to be a contagious dish tempting our neighbors to order the same.

For my entrée I select Khao Soi Noodle Bowl, a Burmese inspired dish popular in north of Thailand. Protein add on options include chicken, pork, beef, pork belly, shrimp, or tofu. I opt for shrimp. Digging through the fried noodles on top into the pickled mustard greens and egg noodles below in their deeply flavored curry sauce. Highly recommended!

Years ago, Abhi hosted us to a preopening meal at The Summit, sharing his turkey burgers before putting it on the menu. We have often ordered them since for take lunch on the weekends. Thus, Abhi knew Kev would be excited to find the Waygu Burger on the Mountain Brook menu. And indeed, he is. The decadent beef burger literally melts in the mouth. No teeth needed. It is served with the same fried green beans as the turkey burger. And he is the envy of the table with this “no share feature.”

Abhi is still evolving the new menu, adding new dishes. And we can’t wait to come back soon. So, stay tuned…

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