Highlands Bar & Grill transcends time and exceeds expectations.
By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Convinced that Alabama would support a restaurant with "southern soul and Provencal flavors," Frank Stitt raised money teaching cooking classes, his mother mortgaged her home, and Highlands Bar & Grill opened November 21, 1982. Stitt quickly became Birmingham's celebrity chef and put the city on the culinary map.
During the 24 years, and all the accolades that have followed, Stitt has served as both a mentor and an inspiration to countless others who share his passion for food. He furthered Birmingham's reputation for fine restaurants with Bottega, Bottega Café and Chez Fonfon, which he owns with his wife, Pardis. He trained other chefs eventually opened their own successful eateries. And in Frank Stitt's Southern Table, he reaches far beyond the state sharing Highlands recipes, its history and the people who helped make it happen.
This landmark building on 11th Avenue South dates to the 1920s. Yet one would never imagine that the dining room-with its creamy colored coffered ceiling, columns and fireplace focal point-was ever anything but Stitt's. Double French doors separate it from the adjoining marble topped bar, where the ritual of handmade cocktails being poured to regulars discussing football, politics, and what's on the dinner menu is alive and well.
Touring the kitchen-at 7:30 on a Saturday evening-is an exciting blur of flames dancing, steam rising, pans flipping, and delicate garnishes sprinkling onto finished plates. Divided into hot and cold lines, Jason Neely sautés, James Bramlett grills, and Mauriclo Papapietro prepares vegetables while Stitt stands a few steps above the kitchen, dressed in his white chef coat and long white apron, watching over the action. "This is a big team effort that takes many dedicated and hard working people working 10 to 12 hours a day, and I am the coach," he explains.
From the quiet window table in the dining room, where general manager David Parker runs the front of the house and where glasses of "Grower Champagne," A. Margaine are poured by sommelier Sean Meyer, one would never imagine such a production of food just a few steps away. In contrast to big bubbly houses, Grower Champagnes refer to Champagnes that come from more specific vineyard sources and are tended by the same family who produce the wine. "We are very excited about serving grower-produced Champagnes. This idea of sense of place, or terroir, really fits in with Chef Stitt's cuisine," Meyer says. "We are always looking for the highest quality artisan products, which are often produced in small quantities by very passionate people." Presently serving as sommelier and beverage director for all of Stitt's restaurants, Meyer was previously the lead sommelier for Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Napa Valley.
Black Olive bread and delectable, bite-sized cornbread muffins arrive hot with cold butter. From the oyster bar is a classic Fresh Gulf shrimp cocktail. And the Marinated Lump Crab and Avocado salad is simple, beautiful and appetizing. One half of an avocado rests on a chiffonade of romaine and is topped with crabmeat, Sherry and fresh herb vinaigrette. The French term, chiffonade literally translates to "made of rags," but is a culinary term for finely cut strips of leafy vegetables or herbs. The salad is garnished with Bayou La Batre crab claws and tiny tomatoes halves, and will be remembered and reordered whenever it is available. Also on the appetizer menu is Fried Oysters Spinach Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette and Cornbread Croutons, which comes highly recommended by local television's Mike Royer-sitting at the next table. "Did you have the oyster appetizer on spinach? It was so good that I wanted to cancel my order for an entrée and order it again for dinner," he says.
Eight entrees compete for selection. And advice is sought for a decision between the Bayou La Batre Shrimp and Scallops or the Destin Red Snapper from server Su Rostami. "Which of the sides do you prefer?" he asks. The corn sauté with tomato relish determined this entrée selection.
A glass of Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner "Steinsetz" 2005 is paired with the Bayou La Batre Shrimp and Scallops with corn sauté and tomato basil relish.
"It has the acidity and body to work with sweeter shellfish, such as the scallops, but the herb and spice notes go with the tomato basil relish. It also has a lot of pop and complexity," Meyer describes. An additional entrée of lamb grilled rare over hickory with pole beans, rosemary potatoes, and red pepper is fork cut tender. And the thick, tender, juicy, and flavorful Harris Ranch New York Strip is cooked to order and served over garden fresh baby butterbeans and Stitt's now famous corn and cheese grits, and Arugula salad.
"I like to source the ingredients and find the freshest food everyday. The scallops come directly to the chef without the middleman. They are 12 to 18 hours out of the water, and so is the salmon" Stitt explains. "Leaving the heads on the shrimp brings more bright and lively flavors, an idea that resulted from my recent trip to Spain when I realized that we should be doing this."
Desserts of a divine Chocolate Truffle Cake with candied peanuts and chocolate-Jack Daniels ice cream and delectable Profiteroles (round cream puffs) with vanilla bean ice cream and warm chocolate-bourbon sauce provide the perfect finish to an unforgettable meal.
"It is our obsession to be the greatest restaurant with the greatest food. We don't always make it, but that is our intent," Stitt assures. Highlands Bar & Grill is not only a dream come true for a man who dared to pursue his passion, it is an archetype for quality-from food that comes in the door to the staff serving it. And it is the landmark of a legend.