Ageless and Elegant

Newly renovated Bottega Dining Room is a beauty.

By Jan Walsh

After closing for renovations in March 2022, the formal Dining Room at Bottega Restaurant recently reopened. Her paneling and trim are painted dark, showing off her architecture like a black, cocktail dress. Her slender sconces resemble drop earrings that catch the light. In this same classic style, her chandeliers, drape from above, like opera style necklaces. Crisp, white linens smile across her, wide open space. And Bottega Dining Room is well heeled with a newly tiled floor, which is a replica of the vintage flooring in its owners, Frank and Pardis Stitt’s Birmingham home. Make a reservation. The formal side of Bottega is back!

Built in 1925 on Highland Avenue, Bottega opened here in 1988, and the Café in 1990, after Highlands Bar and Grill opened in 1982, and before Chez Fonfon in 2000. In the late 1980s, on his way to Highlands Bar and Grill each day, Frank Stitt passed by the Bottega Favorita building, which at that time housed a consignment shop. Here he envisioned a patio front, tall rose bushes, and himself inside, cooking seafood risottos. During the process of turning this, and his other culinary dreams, into reality, Stitt and his restaurants have amassed more food and wine accolades than can be named here, including numerous James Beard Foundation Awards. And just this week, Bottega was named James Beard Awards 2023 Semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality. Accolades aside, most importantly Stitt forever changed the course of Birmingham’s history by putting it on the culinary map by refining it into a celebrated food and wine city. And all of us, who have fine food and wine related careers in Birmingham owe him our opportunities.

Pardis is Bottega personified. Nuances of her personal touch and taste bring Bottega to life. She is the jewel of the setting, found in the front of the house, with a backdrop of the grand staircase. Always authentic and thoughtful, Pardis’ beauty and poise perfectly befit the Dining Room. And her charismatic personality shines in the Café, where a margarita is named for her. She makes visiting with guests and overseeing staff look effortless, while juggling all the behind-the-scenes challenges of running restaurants in today’s environment.

Tonight, our table is full dress with warm candlelight and my favorite, stems of yellow roses. Across the room fresh, colorful citrus fruits punctuate the white marble bar, setting the mood for a before dinner drink. On the cocktail menu, Kev spots pineapple and opts for the Jungle Bird. And the Fig Julep had me at “tawny port.” Rum shines through in his slow sipper, over a full ice block. It is made of two rums, Plantation 3 Star Rum, a white rum blend and Plantation OFTD (Old Fashioned Traditional Dark), which is also a blend of three rums and aged for 15 to 20 years. Select Aperitivo adds hints of ginger and vanilla, to this rummy pineapple cocktail. My Fig Julep is a serious sensation. Whiskey meets port in this marvelous mix of Bulleit bourbon, fig preserves, and tawny port.

The word, “Bottega” means an artisan’s workshop, where one’s craft is displayed and offered for sale. And Bottega’s cuisine speaks a synthesis of Italian accent and South Alabama Southern drawl. We order our favorite Focaccia with Bottega Infused Olive Oil. As we sip our drinks and dredge bites of our soft, airy bread in the glossy oil, Pardis surprises us with an appetizer of Smoked Salmon and Oscietra Caviar. The scrumptious salmon is crowned with caviar. This delicacy is soft, loose, light gray in color, with flavors of walnut. A slather of crème fraiche melds the salmon to a bed of potato cake.

We hardly glance at the menu because we have watched it for days online in anticipation of this moment. For firsts, Kev has had his eye on the clams and happily finds them on tonight’s menu. And I catch the lobster and shrimp pasta.

A generous portion of clams, but who’s counting? Kev is, and there are 16, nice in size, like the ones he grew up eating in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Yet these are Cedar Key Clams from Florida’s Gulf of Mexico. In 1995 when Florida residents voted to ban the use of gill nets in Florida waters, many commercial fishermen stayed afloat by pivoting to growing clams. Cedar Key’s geography benefits from two high tides and two low tides each day, making it a haven for growing shellfish, most especially clams. Kev’s steamed clams are kept warm by their cast iron dish and are enhanced with vermouth, lemon, and garlic, yet the clams’ fresh flavor is not overpowered by it. Dipping the accompanying grilled focaccia into this buttery deliciousness adds sustenance and texture.

My Spiny Lobster and Gulf Shrimp Tagliatelle combines three of my favorite foods: lobster, shrimp, and pasta. I have been in the kitchen with Frank and team as they make fresh pasta. Thus, I understand what goes into each al dente bite of this pasta. Ribbons of long, flat noodles wrap around each other, intertwined with the Gulf Coast’s finest heads on succulent shrimp and chunks of sweet spiny lobster, garnished with parsley, capers, and lemon. Not only does the pasta pull this tasty dish together, it speaks Italian. We pair our seafood with glasses of Champagne Gaston Chiquet “Tradition” Brut 1er Cru MV Dizy. This beautifully balanced bubbly boasts notes of orange citrus, almond, and lemon. And its effervescence brightens the shellfish and made for the caviar. Catch all three dishes if you can!

For mains, we have also been peeking forward and find our two pre dinner picks on the menu, the ultimate surf and turf for Kev and more Gulf goodness for me. Bear Creek 36-day Dry Aged Ribeye and Half Spiny Lobster Tail, with potato puree, is a man-sized meal. We want to know where our food comes from. And this grass-fed, grain-finished, angus cut is sourced from family owned and operated, Bear Creek Bear Creek Farm in Tennessee. This independent farm supplies angus steaks and heritage pork to chef driven independent restaurants. On first cut you feel and see the quality of this, cooked to order, well marbled beef. And first taste confirms it. Deep, rich, and earthy flavors and tenderness are intensified by its aging. The savory steak is sauced with a rich, creamy, and velvety Béarnaise, adding a pleasant piquant and herbaceous finish. There is nothing skinny about spiny lobsters. These Caribbean lobsters have 25 percent more meat per pound than Maine lobsters. Their name is derived from their defense mechanism of using their spine and tail to defend themselves because they have no claws. The plump lobster comes cuddled up with the beef, releases from its shell onto the plate, and is more tender and sweeter than its cousin from Maine. Highly recommended!

My Gulf Red Snapper is quite the dish. Delicate and divine jumbo lump crabmeat puts this plate over the top. And a bed of fresh spinach and potato puree brings the dish to earth, brightened by Meyer Lemon. It is light, vibrant, fulfilling, and far exceeds days of expectations.

For dessert, Kev has not had Baked Alaska since his 2019 Birthday at Highlands Bar and Grill. On this Birthday 2023 week, it is a must. And I opt for Buttermilk Panna Cotta. The Baked Alaska arrives, complete with lit candle and “Happy Birthday” in chocolate. The center is filled with a luscious, house made ice cream and is ensconced in a decadent Swiss meringue, making another Baked Alaska birthday memory. My panna cotta is a comforting pudding of cooked cream, caramel, and slices of blood orange. Perfect. Wondering what he wished for, after he blows out his candle, Kev said that he wished I would not take his picture. Oops! I blew that wish… But our evening enjoying the beauty of Bottega and her fabulous flavors, is all we could wish for.

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