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Tag: bham eats

Forest Park’s Growing Restaurant Scene

  
With its single-street layout and proximity to stately homes, Forest Park’s business district feels like a quieter, quirkier cousin to English Village. What the park has sometimes missed is an atmosphere for lingering, but restaurant changes announced this year signal a new neighborhood era. Building on the goofily fabulous momentum of the Tour de Loo, Forest Park is set to become a more social neighborhood any night of the week.

The shift began in February, when AL.com reported that Mac Russell, the culinary chops behind Shindigs would be opening “a fast-casual restaurant and bar that will also include a produce and meat market and a kitchen for his catering business.” So while we stand behind our ideas for small business occupants of the space, we’re really pleased to be wrong on the final result.

Russell’s business concept — named DMac’s after himself and his aspiring restaurateur grandfather, according to AL.com — doesn’t sound too far off from the V. Richard’s model. The difference, it seems, is a shift in focus: the AL.com description emphasizes restaurant and bar elements, while market goods appeared to be more of a bonus feature. It’s a sound business strategy, given that there will soon be two Publix options (Montclair and 20 Midtown) within a short drive.

Even more recently, AL.com reported a reworking of the Little Savannah menu. “For years, we’ve sort of had this theme, if you will, of fine dining or trying to be a little more upscale,” Cliff Holt, the restaurant’s chef and owner, told the site. “I really want to get back in touch with the neighborhood, to be more of a neighborhood bar and restaurant.”

Holt also mentioned adding a burger option to the menu, and the currently posted sample menu does include the BHMBurger, served with roasted jalapeno goat cheese and “truck-stop” fries. There also seems to be a greater emphasis on snacks and sides than some older menus. Little Savannah’s still not a budget option, but it now seems much more drinks-and-snacks friendly.

All told, the changes suggest Forest Park will have the culinary appeal of the loft district a few years ago — a combination of Birmingham institutions and fresh start-ups. It will have the genteel neighborhood feel of English Village but close proximity to Avondale’s lively 41st Street district. In other words, Forest Park is looking better and better.

Foodie Fridays at Downtown’s Trattoria Centrale

dinner at trattoria centrale

pasta at trattoria centrale

Friday Night dinners at Trattoria Centrale have been away so long, they almost felt lost to history. We were excited enough when new owners Bryan & Erica promised to bring them back. We were ecstatic when they actually did. Even better, the dinners are just as good as we remember.

Friday night dinners aren’t just a chance to unwind; they’re also a chance to be less utilitarian than a weekday lunch allows. Dessert, for instance, is rarely part of our lunch equation, and appetizers aren’t on the lunch menu. But both were superstars on the dinner menu. In fact, here’s our big recommendation for Friday night dinners: bring at least one friend, order multiple appetizers, split an entree and then a dessert. Or just a bowl of tiramisu for one. Your choice.

Trattoria’s appetizers hit a sweet spot between Southern and Italian influences that’s very hard to beat. The blt crustini featured sweet roasted tomatoes and thick bacon for a fancy take on a classic sandwich. The tomato salad with salty field peas, sweet peaches, and micro basil is a farmers market on a plate.

dinner at trattoria centrale

Without red sauce, the bacon/corn/tomato/basil pesto ricotta pizza felt fresh and light as a main dish. The garganelli entree had perfectly cooked pasta and shrimp, just enough cheese, bitterly tender eggplant and the occasional almond crunch. It was a dish that felt simple but packed in comforting flavors, which is basically the point of pasta.

If you’re at all a dessert person, though, everything else pales in comparison to the tiramisu. We were talked into it with raves about the homemade custard, and we’re so glad. This dish is all about thick, eggy custard with a dusting of bitter coffee and chocolate. Coffee soaked ladyfingers wait at the bottom like a Cracker Jack surprise. We won’t judge if you need to lick the bowl.

The tricky part about the loft district dining options is that some of our downtown favorites are weekday lunch only. But for many of us, spending quality time in them means evenings or weekends — exactly when they’re not open. We tend to think of the weekend brunch or the odd evening open as neighborhood open house time, and we’re glad to have it.

But as much as we love a good brunch, it can be hard to beat an evening streetscape and a well-earned meal at the end of the week. Welcome back Friday night dinners. We’re very glad to have you!

Brunch Makes the Weekend at Ovenbird

ovenbird brunch

ovenbird brunch

As Chris Hastings’s newest venture, Ovenbird has never been a hard sell, but its Saturday market brunch is really something special. Not only is it exciting food; it also makes the most of the restaurant’s Lakeview location. Brunch here turns a Pepper Place jaunt into a full-on weekend occasion.

The restaurant’s modern indoor/outdoor design creates an easy flow between the market action and the pause for brunch. It’s not a departure from your Pepper Place experience, in other words, but a framing of it. That flow also creates a fairly kid-friendly ambience for an otherwise very grown up restaurant.

At first glance, the omelette “gramajo” seems like standard brunch food, albeit with fancy ham. Google it, though, and you’ll find out it’s an Argentinian take on hangover food. Order it and you’ll find an egg dish that’s just set and smoky throughout thanks to the jamon. It is a nearly perfect breakfast food, hangover or no.

The full Spanish breakfast is a Latin riff on a heavy English feast, featuring boudin rouge as the spicy, creamy the star of the meal. Tasted separately, the rest of the plate may seem bland. Incorporate boudin in each bite, and you’ll realize how magically composed this dish actually is. It’s a full range of textures – thick grits, creamy avocado, saucy egg yolk — all there to complement the sausage.

A three-beignet order is a light dessert for two, and you may first mistake it for a tidier take on your French Quarter favorite. But a molasses-y caramel filling brings a more complex sweetness than the simple fried dough and powdered sugar combo you’re used to. (It’s dulce de leche — an amped up version of caramel — the server told us.) If you need to surreptitiously lick your plate, we’ll gladly look the other way.

For all of Pepper Place’s charm, it hasn’t typically been a brunch spot, and that’s a big hole in coverage for our city’s favorite meal. We’ll always love the market for making Lakeview a foodie playground. And we’ll always love Ovenbird for bringing brunch to Pepper Place.

Pranzo: Eating Downtown’s Live/Work Balance

pranzo

pranzo

Sometimes, you need food that’s quick and tasty and health-conscious, in roughly that order. You need places you can dine in or carry out without losing too much time, without wrecking your reasonable eating goals, and without succumbing to kale. Luckily for us Loft District types, there’s now a downtown option, complete with a little local soul. There’s now Pranzo.

Located on the third avenue side of the Cadence Bank Building, Pranzo has a funny clientele to balance. It serves busy folks darting down from work and neighborhood folks looking for a light local dinner. With their current range of Monday-Friday lunch and Tuesday-Friday dinner hours, though, they might have just nailed it. Especially since their wine and beer menus offer a little something extra during lunch or a simple after-work drink.

Pranzo’s space is spare and modern, in keeping with its glass-heavy Concord Center home. The decor is a low-key blend of deep accent walls, dome-shaded pendant lights and abstract art. Tidy print menus are available, but they’re best used as a guide to evaluate the options you see in the case.

pranzo

On a recent visit, we tried a creamy ravioli dish topped with peas and ham. The cheese-filled ravioli and salty ham strips were a nice cafe take on comfort food textures. We also tried a chicken parmesan pizza that featured a pleasantly bread-y crust and cheese applied in molten mounds rather than scattered shreds.

But to keep Pranzo from being all health-conscious business, there’s also a full gelato case, with a mix of classic flavors and candy-spiked tubs. No day is too tough to be cheered by gelato.

Pranzo’s best quality indicator is the seemingly regular crowd it’s already garnered. More than one person told us we couldn’t go wrong with their menu as we debated our order. It’s easy to see why that would be, with the speed of a chain restaurant and the friendliness of your favorite mom and pop. It’s a low-key alternative to the perennially hip 2nd Avenue. Like Tavern on 1st is to drinks, it’s exactly the kind of balance the neighborhood needs.

Parkside-Style Mediterranean at Glory Bound

glory bound gyro parkside

 

What Chipotle is to the idea of quick, healthy-ish Mexican food, Glory Bound Gyro Co. is to Birmingham’s classic Mediterranean joint. Often, our city’s Mediterranean food niche is about a  certain hybrid comfort food, available at odd hours. Glory Bound offers a lighter approach, in line with the Parkside neighborhood’s active branding.

Despite gyro being part of its name, grease is hard to find at Glory Bound. The original gyro features meat that’s tender and fresh-tasting. It’s topped with a tzatziki that’s tangy and delicious, a partner to the meat rather than a counterpoint. The pita bread is warm and fluffy, and the cottage fries are thick potato wedges. The Greek salad is relatively light on dressing but wonderfully heavy on feta. And Glory Bound even has a liquor license, should you decide your falafel pairs best with a brew.

Glory Bound’s interior is charming — Parkside modern with just a hint of country store — but the restaurant’s outdoor space makes it special. Situated by the Rotary Trail entrance, it’s literally across the road from one of Birmingham’s best outdoor spaces. The combination of north/south traffic on 20th Street and east/west action on Rotary Trail rates Glory Bound high on the list for people watching.

This part of Parkside is becoming a corridor of convenience for both the UAB medical district and the downtown Loft District. Chains local to national bring all your basic essentials to the area: in the same block of Station 121, you can work out, get a haircut, and grab dinner. Add another block, and you can grocery shop as well.

It’s no accident that Rotary Trail is the defining outdoor feature on this end of the Parkside district. Unlike the lingering vibe around Railroad Park, there’s a forward energy to the trail that works well with the businesses here. The area is an urban reimagining of a well-stocked suburban shopping complex, and it’s Birmingham’s newest lifestyle center.

Wooden Goat: Why Avondale Food Earns the Hype

wooden goat

 

Wooden Goat has been a highly anticipated addition to the Avondale food scene, so much so that Thrillist mentioned it as a place to solidify the neighborhood’s Brooklyn vibe. It’s no surprise, then, that the Hotbox owners’ take on a restaurant would feel fresh and fun, while still affordable. Right in line with Avondale’s everyman atmosphere, eating at Wooden Goat is an easy adventure.


At only one page, the menu isn’t large. Which is a relief, because it’s challenging enough to narrow down delicious choices. Because we chose to sit outside in an Alabama summer, we quickly nixed anything soupy as a poor choice for temperature management. The cucumber salad — which our server described as “fresh” — was exactly right. It was light and tangy, with peanuts for extra crunch and a hit of cilantro in most bites. Short of ice cream, it may be the perfect summer dish.

We also chose the Vietnamese wings, which were wonderfully meaty. A sweet fish sauce glaze worked well against the crispy fried skins. The Indonesian fried noodles had a fascinating chargrilled flavor and an unexpectedly creamy texture that we really loved.

We suggest starting your dining experience with an Avondale beverage – either of the craft brew or clear distilled variety. We went with the Nathaniel Meriweather, which turned out to be our best gin cocktail in recent memory. Not too sweet or too sour, its lingering cucumber taste and hint of grapefruit tang offset a hot summer evening.

Do save room for dessert, though, and try the Vietnamese coffee affogato. The coffee and ice cream really blended into the flavor of a rich Vietnamese coffee. It was served with rice crackers, which we thought might just be a textural addition, a nice crunchy element for a creamy dessert. But they also had a slightly cheesy flavor that made the dessert a nice play on savory and sweet.

Paget Pizitz of Fancy’s on Fifth — another favorite — told Style Blueprint: “One of my servers said it best the other day: ‘We are fine food, not fine dining.” She was talking about Fancy’s, of course, but she could just as easily have been talking about Wooden Goat or, indeed, the Avondale food culture. The neighborhood has a pretense-free appreciation for good food that’s impossible not to love.

Bham Eats: Standout Sides at Urban Standard

urban standard

 

Urban Standard is no stranger to our posts on Birmingham living. It’s shown up as a recommended first date spot, a great place for a client meeting, a doughnut purveyor and a defining vegetarian option. But in all that talk, we’ve never really discussed their meals. Consider this post a remedy, a return to the basic elements that have made Urban Standard such a downtown Loft District staple.

Like Woodlawn Cycle Cafe, Urban Standard thrives on the combination of delicious coffee and an unexpected food menu. Before there was a Starbucks or even a Revelator within walking distance, Urban Standard anchored the neighborhood with your basic coffee creations, including the kind of smoothly milky iced latte that keeps Birmingham summers both caffeinated and bearable.

When we were debating our lunch order, we thought hard about the grilled cheese — a not so basic combination that includes provolone and herbed cream cheese spread — and were told that the chicken panino is the most popular menu item. We ended up with the nopalito BLT, a sandwich that combines buttery toasted bread, crispy bacon, mixed greens, tomato slices and pimento cheese. The pimento cheese had a classic tea sandwich texture any native Southerner will recognized, updated with a Southwest kick.

What stands out the most, though, is the way Urban Standard has cleverly re-thought the lunch side. You can get potato chips if you want, of course, but with options like marinated broccoli and parsnip salad, there’s no good reason too. We tried the parsnip salad with our meal and loved its tangy red onion and fresh Italian parsley as an alternative to potato salad.

The result is a meal out that feels like real food. We’ve mentioned that phenomenon before at places like Feast & Forest, and we say it’s a critical niche in neighborhood food options. Assuming you stay out of the dessert case, eating out at Urban Standard feels like an indulgence only in the sense that you’re not cooking your own food. For the neighborhood’s on-the-go live/work mix, that’s a powerful amenity.

Bham Eats: Foodie Fun at Fancy's on Fifth

 


If you created a restaurant with the guiding principle — in both food and style — of “because it’s fun,” we’re pretty sure you’d end up with Fancy’s on Fifth. A special that involves funyuns? Check. A Magic 8 Ball on the table? Check. A mother-lovin’ ice cream sundae for dessert? Also check. Add in an impressive beverage list, and you’ve basically sold every foodie with an inner five-year-old. Which is to say, everyone.

If an original Big Mac and fries was re-made with real food, it would be the Fancy’s Blue Collar Burger, and we say that with nothing but love. In fact, it’s currently on our short list of best burgers in Birmingham. You know how we said Avondale was a combination of picnic fun and working class nostalgia? This burger is the neighborhood on a plate.

But Fancy’s has run with the burger as a concept, and not just a literal sandwich. With the theme of boneless meat that will fit between a bun, toppings, and sauces, they’ve also created seared tuna and turkey variations we’re itching to try. There are even vegetarian and vegan substitutions.

You need not be an oyster aficionado to appreciate them at Fancy’s. (Though if you are, you’ll certainly enjoy the rotation of offerings from different coastal waters.) If raw oysters aren’t your thing, Fancy’s has you covered with the perfect middle ground option.

Their epically brilliant solution is the partially cooked oyster. It’s the same principle as parboiling haricot vert to soften them slightly without totally sacrificing texture. Their par-baked/fried varieties take the edge off for fair-weather oyster lovers without losing the creamy briny-ness that makes them interesting in the first place.

Like most good Avondale eats, the place is small and thoroughly democratic. General admission, rather than reserved seating. And if you’re very good and bring enough friends, you just might score the “mafia booth,” also known as the best booth ever. Besides, the cocktail list and glasses of bubbly should more than sooth your wait.

Loft District Spotlight: Ono Ice on the Menu at Bamboo

ono ice
Image via Ono Ice

 

It’s safe to say that Ono Ice is a symbol of the new Birmingham. Equal parts vintage nostalgia and modern food values — at once globetrotting and hyperlocal — it blends owner/ice queen Rebecca Davis’s self-described Birmingham background, international adventures, and reimmersion in the local arts scene. Last summer Davis ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the purchase of an Ono on wheels, a truck that she hopes will become “a Birmingham tradition.” The truck is in process, and in the meantime, Davis has been popping up regularly at the Loft District’s Bamboo on 2nd. That’s where we first tried her custom creations and where you should too.

To be clear, we’re not traditionally Hawaiian shave ice fans. Why bother with clunky slivers of ice and kool-aid flavored syrup, we wondered, when there was ice cream available? It’s a perspective we’ve held into adulthood. Until this February, that is, when the Coconut Coffee dessert at Bamboo had us singing a different tune. We’d heard the raves about Ono Ice, of course, but we can be bullish in our culinary tastes. Yet, something about the combination of coconut milk and Revelator coffee on ice drew us in, and we’re very glad indeed.

The dish was fluffy and delicate — Davis’s Kickstarter site described her ice as “so delicately shaved it literally melts in your mouth” — with a touch of coconut crunch. It was rich and soothing and, well, dessert-y, all qualities we never anticipated of shaved ice. Our only regret is not trying it earlier in the Tiki menu rotation, so we’d have had time to return for another round. We haven’t drowned too far into our tears to try out the latest menu, which includes raspberry lemon buttermilk and blackberry ginger dishes. You may as well begin your meal with an Ono Ice cocktail as well, which is our definition of balance.

Davis has been bringing Ono Ice menus to Bamboo diners since September 2015. Owners Sam Fallaw and Bernie Smith had learned about her through the Kickstarter campaign, Davis told us, and thought her ices would be a nice dessert option to round out their menu. We couldn’t agree more. And while Bamboo does their fair share of tasty libations, it’s clear that Davis brings the district’s craft cocktail vibe to a whole new level. Check out Ono Ice at Bamboo on 2nd most weeks Monday through Thursday, 5 until 10pm.

 

Follow Ono Ice on facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for schedule updates.

 

Loft District Spotlight: New Looks, Flavors at John's City Diner

hong style chicken and waffles
Image via John’s City Diner

 

You don’t have to be a John’s City Diner patron to know it’s seen some dramatic changes recently. Walking by the Loft District staple, you might have noticed a brightened facade and an entire sidewalkscape that wasn’t there six months ago. Follow the diner on social media, and you’ll know its menu has seen changes too. We’ve watched our neighbors transform, in other words, and we wanted to find out more. So we asked John’s owner Shannon Gober to give us the lowdown on the new diner experience.

“We started a pretty major renovation over a year ago, that started inside with all brand new booths, new ceilings throughout the building, a lot of structural or mechanical things, if you will,” Gober explained. Much of the work went into things the customers never see, he said, like updated plumbing and food storage, but some of it involved decorative details.

The Magic City Mural Collective, which created a custom “It’s nice to have you in Birmingham” mural for the diner’s exterior, also worked on interior murals. Featuring simple graphics and bold fonts, the murals highlight John’s signature dishes. The new look, said Gober, “goes along with our theme of who we are — being an upscale diner.”

“We’ve done a lot internally, and then we slowly but surely have moved that to the outside,” said Gober. A new coat of creamy white paint unifies the tile on the building’s ground level and the embellished concrete on the second floor, which Gober said is original to the building. They finished up the outside refurbish with galvanized steel planters and a pair of picnic tables, creating a friendly patio space outside the diner. “We just wanted to make the front of the restaurant more open, more appealing,” Gober explained.

As for the menu, Gober said his approach is to “constantly look for those things that are popping up or things that might be a little different that people in Birmingham maybe haven’t had.” An example is chicken and waffles, which Gober said was relatively unheard of when he began serving it several years ago but has since “almost developed a cult following.”

The most recent menu has retained some of our favorite dishes, including meatloaf and three different takes on macaroni & cheese. With chicken and waffles now available three ways, Gober seems to have replicated the macaroni & cheese approach: tripling down on another of the dishes John’s does best.

“We’ve got our original version, with the cheddar waffle, the Springer Mountain Farms fried chicken, the balsamic-infused maple syrup, but we’ve also done a Nashville style,” Gober said, describing an expectedly hot variation. “And then we’ve got an Asian — a Hong-style waffle, where we actually put candied ginger into the waffle,” he said, also describing a honey/ginger/soy glaze on the chicken. Gober said the idea of the new items is to “introduce some things that are really who we are — which is elevating these old school classics.”

 

Want more? Read our 2014 post on John’s City diner here.