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Celebrating my Birthday at Chef George McMillian’s FoodBar

By Jan Walsh

FoodBar is the newest member of Birmingham Restaurants. But it is not a new restaurant. Renowned Chef George McMillian opened his farm-to-table, Cahaba Heights restaurant in September 2013. So, tonight is a two-toast celebration: my birthday and FoodBar’s upcoming 10th Anniversary in September.

First, we order before dinner drinks, with whimsical names. Kev has Toes in the Sand, and I get a Shot Through the Heart. Kev’s lemony delight cocktail with a fizzy finish pushes summertime! Served in a lowball over (not too much) ice. It is a synthesis of vodka, elderflower liqueur, Aperol, and prosecco. My orangey delight is a serious sipper, served in a wine glass. This tasty thirst quencher is a mix of bourbon, orange juice, jalapeno syrup, and orange bitters.

Our server suggests we start with a dish not listed on the menu, Crab Claws. The claws are offered fried, sauteed, or half and half, which we choose. The claws arrive with both house-made cocktail and tartar sauces. I have never been a tartar sauce fan. Yet as I dip the plump, meaty claws into FoodBar’s tartar sauce, I am wowed by its flavor! No boring mayonnaise relish here. This creamy deliciousness redefines “tartar sauce,” boasting hints of fresh dill and tarragon. And the house made cocktail sauce with a touch of heat is equally as good. Both bring forth, without overpowering, the delicate crab’s salty, sweetness.

As Chef George visits our table, we catch up. He and I go back decades. I previously featured him in print publications, from the kitchen for cooking demos and from the front of the house where I reviewed his fare. He and I are of the same mindset tonight… As I opt for the Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras, I learn that he was planning to treat me with it and does. This divine delicacy, along with poached apple, is sandwiched between moist, airy brioche French toast, balancing its rich, fatty, and buttery flavors with a fruity sweetness and doughy confection. It is further enhanced by a finish of port wine syrup, which finishes this masterpiece with a touch of sweet acidity. Highly recommended!

Shh! FoodBar’s worst kept secret dish is the FoodBar Burger. Not listed on the menu, yet a favorite of bar patrons. The beef is ground in house, and the bun is house made. We split one as a second course. For Kev, the bun makes the burger. If it is too hard, too thick, or too anything I hear about it on his first bite. Not tonight. He says that he has never had a better bun, both in flavor and in holding the burger together. And the thick, hand ground and hand patted beef is cooked to order perfection, moist, juicy, and crowned with a gilt, pungent parmesan crisp. Rounding out the plate are fresh cut, skin on, golden fries and farm pickles. Next time, not sharing!

For our second toast, to 10 years of FoodBar, Sommelier and Head Waiter, John Rusiecki recommends Le Black Creation from Champagne Lanson, founded in 1760. The bubbly is light in color, medium in body, and boasts fruity notes of apple, pear, and citrus. And soon it proves to be food friendly with pork and shrimp…

Looking over the entrée list, Kev opts for Lacquered Pork Roast. And my eyes stop at “Royal Red Shrimp.” Kev’s pork fusion is presented with Korean house kimchee, Asian sticky rice, Chinese ginger scallion sauce, and local butter bibb lettuce for wrapping. The savory pork is melt-in-the-mouth tender, chewing easily. We line the crisp lettuce with the pork and start stacking… Kimchee adds sour, spicy, and umami flavors, acidity, and crunchiness of the fermented veggies. The subtle, sweet rice helps hold it all together. And the aromatic sauce ups the ante in his lettuce wraps, enhancing it all.

I first caught Royal Red Shrimp decades ago on a trip to the beach. Afterwards I would look for these crown jewels of the Gulf in restaurants along the beach, boil them at the rental, and bring them home in ice chests. The FDA labels 41 species of shellfish as simply “shrimp.” Yet only one, “pleoticus robustus,” can be sold as “Royal Red.” And a fisherman must be licensed to catch them, in their deep, cool waters. Royal Reds’ season is from late summer to late fall with a peak of September, yet some are available year-round. What a find for my birthday! Ribbons of semolina bucatini wind around perfectly curled, Royal Red Shrimp in a saffron fumet, accented with roasted garlic and tomato, and topped with dainty microgreens. The pasta is al dente divine. The tender red shrimp boasts a distinct rich and nutty flavor, more lobster like and sweeter than other shrimp. And the fumet’s flavors brighten. Catch this dish if you can.

For dessert Kev has the Strawberry Ice Cream Cake. Recently on social media, FoodBar’s Operations Manager, Heather Bullen Hay generously offered to put a candle in their Burnt Basque Cheesecake for my birthday dessert. I accepted! Tonight, my candlelit cake arrives with candied popcorn and crème fraiche, making me feel like a kid again. I make a wish and blow out the candle. The thick, dense, crustless wedge is custard like inside, and scorched outside, with lovely, caramelized flavors throughout. The fraiche adds moistness and creaminess. And the candied corn adds a witty pop to the plate. Kev’s divine cake is made of three of my favorite things, strawberry, blueberry, and chocolate. A tall slice of strawberry ice cream is crusted with blueberry jam, macaron coco. Opposites attract as deep, dark chocolatey, crumbly goodness is juxtaposed with bright and light berries: contrasting and complementing each other. Both desserts are recommended!

FoodBar proves to be one of the best restaurants in Alabama. And Chef George’s signature is easily found in each stellar course tonight, from his sourcing of products to his novel preparations.

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