Whenever I am in Birmingham, Alabama, Highlands Bar and Grill is on my agenda. And my most recent visit to “The Magic City” was no exception. In fact, I dined at Highlands twice in May, and, as always, loved it.
But this time I added another restaurant to the schedule, a place I have had on my list for years but for whatever reason – and the main reason is Highlands Bar and Grill – never entered: Hot and Hot Fish Club. (Chris Hastings, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, was named best chef in the South in 2012 by the James Beard Foundation, and I’ve long admired his support of Alabama agriculture.)
My decision to visit Hot and Hot was made at the last minute, and it was a Saturday, and I was arriving around 8:30, but I was dining solo and scored a seat at the end of the bar, near the kitchen door. Which was fine with me, because I like to see how people move in a restaurant, how the food flows. The bartender set my place and I looked at the cocktail list and the wine board, settling on a glass of Riesling.
The restaurant was buzzing, full, loud. People were waiting near the front door for a table, and the tables on the patio were full. After a first taste of my wine I walked through the main dining room, where one is treated to a view of an open kitchen. Men and women and a few teen-agers were talking and drinking and eating at their tables, and all of the places at the chef’s counter were occupied. A warm room, inviting.
Back at the bar, I enjoyed my wine and the bartender handed me the menu. I quickly homed in on the ravioli as my first course. Good choice. The pasta was filled with farmer’s cheese and chicken, and the plate was completed with summer squash (including a blossom), English peas, and spring onions. And, in what would be a welcome and delicious leitmotif that evening, the ravioli was bathed in a sweet corn broth. (Corn is what I am talking about when I write “leitmotif”. Early corn, sweet, amazingly flavorful. It featured in every plate.) This first course was perfect. Vegetables cooked to point, or the point I like: right below crisp, giving a sublime mouthfeel. The ravioli was as thin as paper. The cheese, firm and mild, crossed the membrane in a delicate manner. Ideal opening.
Next: Pan-seared Duck Breast and Crispy Confit. (I love duck; in fact, one of my favorite breakfasts in memory is the morning I cooked two breasts for breakfast. Duck, with Champagne. It was a Sunday, and the day began well.)
The duck at Hot and Hot was as it should be: the breast pink, the confit crisp and dense. The plate contained, continuing the theme, corn, Anson Mills grits, Alabama strawberries, pecans and arugula. (I don’t know where Chris Hastings got that corn, because I failed to ask, but I hope many more people have the chance to eat it. It is the best corn I have had in about five years.) Plates such as this one sing, all of the flavors and textures communicating, harmonizing, and for a little while on that stool at the bar I was completely happy.
I often decline to order dessert. I consider wine to be my dessert. Or I have cheese. But this time I was intrigued by something on the menu: Sweet Corn and Lemon Bread Pudding with Benne Seed Brittle, Corn Cream, and Lemon Ice Cream. Put simply, it was the highlight of the evening. And that’s saying a lot.
Think moist and dense bread pudding. And, once again, think corn. Sweet corn. The corn cream I slathered on the bread pudding, and I made sure to slide a few of the kernels on each spoonful of bread pudding, because that corn was amazing. And the bread pudding … I once had a superb bread pudding in Portland that featured pigeon. I remember thinking during that meal that this was “the” bread pudding. But at Hot and Hot Fish Club I had another great one. Warm, not too sweet, slightly crisp exterior. Eating two portions would not have been out of the question. I could have done without the ice cream and the brittle; to my palate they were too sweet. But I think I am being too harsh. I imagine most people would not have a problem with the sweetness.
Speaking of the bar, the man working behind it and bringing me my food and drink that night is an exemplar of his profession. His name is William Hamrick, and he mixes and pours with grace and care. He answered my questions forthrightly, and when I ordered the bread pudding for dessert he made me the best libation I have had in a long while, saying they would pair perfectly. He called it Jason’s Corn n’ Oil, and it was made with John D. Taylor Velvet Falernum. You take 2 ounces of the Falernum, ¾ ounces of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, and ¾ ounces of fresh lemon juice. Shake. Serve over crushed ice and garnish with a lemon peel. It was delicious. It seemed to me that the dessert and drink were created together one night in a divine session of inspiration. Mr. Hamrick wrote the recipe down for me. You can see it below. And you should make this drink tonight.
After a bit of conversation with a couple from Atlanta sitting next to me, and a few more words with Mr. Hamrick, I left Hot and Hot Fish Club and headed up the road. I shall return, though, and if a table isn’t available I’ll be more than happy at that bar.