Chef Saab, Two Ways

If he is not in the kitchen, he might be the guy in a suit, sitting at the bar.

By Jan Walsh

Chef Tom Saab’s restaurant philosophy is that the focus should be on the food—not the chef. And when Saab and wife, Christina opened Bistro 218 in 2012, this perfectionist put the lid on some amazing dishes from the start, many of which remain on the menu tonight... There are crab cakes, pommes frites, house cured pork belly, BLT salad, duck confit, shrimp risotto, prime New York strip, and “Hellefied” file gumbo… Wait, I recall file gumbo. What is hellefied?

Chef recalls, “I was sitting at the bar at Bocca one night in street clothes, and a gentleman from New Orleans was telling the bartender that he dined at Bistro recently, and they made some ‘Hellefied’ gumbo down there.” And thus, the name! “So that is why you walk around in a suit sometimes, incognito like Howard Hughes, to see what is really going on?” I jokingly ask. “Pretty much,” he says. “He did not know who I was.”

Enlarging on its success in 2016, the French bistro expanded with the addition of Bistro 218 Bar in the space next door—doubling the seating capacity, with its oak bar, bar tables, and 600-bottle wine cellar, procured by sommelier and wine director (at both Bistro 218 and Bocca Ristorante) Carlos Cisneros. Most recently the restaurant was updated inside and out. Chic black, tufted, leather banquettes line the brick walls of the dining room and outside a dramatic and expansive, wine hued awning spans the width of the bar and dining room, above the restaurant’s sidewalk tables. And as you read, when Chef is not at Bistro 218, he is likely found at its sister restaurant, Bocca Ristorante, the Saab’s Italian restaurant, which they opened in 2020.

The dining room’s storefront building dates to the 1880s and has been a boarding house, barbershop, candy store, and more in its history. Yet it has never been more alive than it is as Bistro 218, tonight.

From sidewalk tables to the balcony’s rafters, Bistro 218 has a full house. And seated at our window table we have the cat bird’s view of it all. On this evening before the Alabama-Tennessee game and the UAB-Memphis game, I am impressed how well the Tennesseans, staying in Birmingham tonight, have scouted out this restaurant. There is an orange showing in the full bar and filling the sidewalk tables. Perhaps they used Birmingham Restaurants site or app. Among the locals is a well-dressed, young coupe being dropped off at the door. There are tables with couples older than us, some obviously are regular patrons. And there are larger tables of entire families here, seating three generations.

From my first review of the restaurant in 2012: “I fall in love Bistro 218 at first bite.” And in the years to follow, many more memories of dining here and being in his kitchen for cooking demos are glued to the Bistro 218 scrapbook of my mind.

Tonight, we start a new page with signature libations. Kev orders the latest creation of Bartender Tiana, not yet on the menu, S'more Amour. And I order the Christy Jo, just because it is the namesake of Christina. The S'more Amour is a beautifully decadent blend of Five Farms Irish cream liqueur, crème de cacao, and vodka. It has the prettiest cocktail rim ever, made of chocolate and crushed graham cracker. And it is garnished with a marshmallow. Highly recommended! My drink is a luscious, citrus beauty of gin, St. Germain, along with Vitamin C in its fresh grapefruit and orange juice. It is garnished with orange peel and rosemary.

For our first course, Maryland Style Crab Cakes and Pomme Frites it is, always was, and hopefully always will be! The crab cakes, plump with lump crab float atop a rich, white wine butter sauce that I also spoon over them and dredge them in. I could also eat it with a spoon if no one were looking. The golden frites are generous in portion and are accompanied by a delightful dipping sauce of lemon aioli.

For our second course, Hellefied Filé Gumbo for Kev and Roasted Beet Salad for me. File is dried, ground sassafras leaves, used as a thickener in gumbo, and can be traced to the Choctaw Indians. “The file is added after the roux is cooked. The okra is roasted so it doesn’t get stringy and added at the end to finish the gumbo,” Chef Saab explains, as he graciously shares the Hellefied File Gumbo Recipe! The gumbo is a dark rue with deep layers of flavor, brimming with Gulf shrimp, andouille sausage, and crawfish, but not too much rice. Hellefied is a heck of a fine gumbo and highly recommended!

My salad is stunning in color, flavor, and texture. The rich earthy, candied sweetness of the red beets mixed with the mild juiciness of the golden beets are complemented by the goat cheese’s pungent creaminess. The walnuts add earthy crunch and the lacy arugula brings a peppery sharpness to the plate. Yet the scrumptious strawberry mustard vinaigrette is the cherry on top of this salad, synthesizing all the flavors. The best beet salad ever!

For entrees it is the Char-Grilled USDA Prime New York Strip for Kev, with a larger. And I catch the Pan Seared Gulf Pompano Provencal and pair it with Black Cottage Sauvignon Blanc 2022. The steak is a classic at Bistro 218. You won’t find better anywhere. Adorned with a glistening, earthy veal glace, it is juicy, tender, and cooked to order. The potato gratin is generous in portion, so my fork reaches over for a bite. Oh, my! I can’t stop. Perfectly browned, each bite of these thin buttery, cheesy slices of potato comfort my soul. Crisp asparagus and a lovely oven dried tomato round out this memorable plate of steak and potatoes. If you have a steak and potatoes man on your hands, bring him to the Bistro and order this.

Our son, Jordan catches pompano and grills it at his home on the Gulf Coast. He sends us photos of his highly prized fish, which he says is difficult it find in restaurants. Now I can send him mine. The pompano is pristine! Cooked skin on, crowned with roast tomato, the fish is firm and finely textured, white, mild, and sweet. Its Provencal preparation and mignonette elevate not only the fish but everything on the plate, including the grassy asparagus and fingerlings bursting with just picked freshness. Catch it if you can. It is one of the best pieces of fish I have ever had and will be a chapter in my mind forever.

To end the evening, we share pastry chef, Elizabeth Jackson’s Apple Cider Cake for dessert. This tiny tower is just the size we needed, although its looks are deceptive, as it is dense and filling. And it is made even more delightful by its artistic maple ginger sauce and bacon pecan tuile. A night to remember!


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