The list of restaurants I long to visit has grown so exponentially large, that I've gone from calling it a traditional "bucket list" to a "dump-truck list". Neither sounds sexy and I'm not ashamed to admit I have a serious problem. It is a dump-truck list, folks, and I won't bore you with what region of the country is winning the race. I have amassed lists far and wide, but I was lucky enough recently to mark off a long-anticipated visit to Hot and Hot Fish Club, a vibrant restaurant in Birmingham focusing on farm to table in all ways possible, and on creating a memorable dining experience you won't soon forget.
Chris Hastings, 2012 James Beard winner for Best Chef: South and Iron Chef America Champion (he trounced my much-beloved Bobby Flay), takes a modern-day approach to blending French, Southern and California-style cooking. He and his team of enthusiastic helpers procure their ingredients from local farmers and artisans throughout the Birmingham area.
You will not be surprised, I'm sure, to hear I totally food-nerded out at this place. I made a total and complete fool of myself, and the staff at Hot and Hot Fish Club ate it up. After putting up with my gushing about how this had been on my "dump truck" list forever, the waiter promptly moved me to chef's counter that wrapped seemingly endlessly around the open kitchen. There is nothing better, in my humble opinion, than dinner and a show - especially when dinner is the show.
A crackling wood-fire oven in the background and fresh ingredients prepped and on display were the main attractions, but before I could get lost in the magic that is cooking (admit it, you know it's magic), my waiter sidled up with the cutest little amuse-bouche ever. I'll admit that I'm a total food snob, but I still have a lot to learn. I didn't know what an amuse-bouche was. To me, it looked like an appetizer. Turns out that's what an amuse-bouche is, but more on a single-bite scale instead several bites. Amuse-bouche also differ from appetizers in that they are not ordered from the menu by the patron, rather they are served free and according to the chef's selection. They are often served with a complimentary wine (I was served a Reisling) and provide a glimpse into the chef's approach to the art of cuisine.
I bite-sized morsel of pure joy. Rutabaga is a root vegetable that I've had little experience with, but as I would come to find out later on, root vegetables turned out to be the star of the show for me that evening. A cross between a cabbage and a turnip, the earthy rutabaga mousse paired nicely with the salty-sweet bacon-jam. Next to arrive was a basket of small baguettes with complimentary seasoned salts and a trio of lardo: beef wagyu fat, pork lardo and sour milk butter which I spread lavishly and lovingly on my bread.
I ordered the Tuna Tartare appetizer and while I waited on it, I continued to schmear lardo on morsel after morsel of tender bread, watching the kitchen staff buzz about, prepping and plating beautiful food. The tartare was comprised of shaved fennel, avocado mousse, grapefruit, black garlic and a benne seed cracker. Can I just say how much I love grapefruit, or any citrus for that matter, with raw fish? It's magnificently refreshing.
I could have honestly died quite happily at that point and not been the worse for wear, but I still had an entree to choose. As the Hot and Hot is best known for their local suppliers, I wanted to focus on something distinctly Southern with an emphasis on vegetables, so I ordered the Chicken and Dumplings.
What arrived looked intricately French but tasted deeply of the South. Pillowy gnocchi replaced the more traditionally heavy dumpling and the roasted chicken was both crispy and moist, but I found myself quite honestly pushing those aside for the deeply caramelized smokiness of the roasted carrots and turnips. They quickly became the star of the show and on my plate, that rarely happens. Brightening the deepness of this dish were fresh celery leaves. Chicken and Dumplings is most definitely a comfort food, but it can often get a bit heavy and the flavor a bit muddled and muted. Every single component of this dish sang with individuality but it was the combination of all the ingredients together which produced a truly spectacular dish that satisfied in both the comfort and flavor departments. I can still taste it ...
And then things got crazier. I truly wanted dessert, but where would I put it? I'd left my wooden leg at home. I did, however, request to purchase Hot and Hot's cookbook. It had been waiting out in my cookbook wish list for months, but I knew I'd be making the trip to Birmingham and I wanted to pick it up personally at the restaurant. As if the night could not get any better, who walks the cookbook over to me but Chef Chris Hastings himself.
Well I almost absolutely died right there. I was like a kid on his first trip to Disneyland who just met Mickey Mouse. Look, I live in a small town and I don't get out often. And when I do get out, I don't often get to meet the visionaries and yes, magicians behind the fantastic food concepts I get to enjoy. It's just a real rarity for me and I was so pleased I got to meet Chris. He appreciated my food-nerdiness. He identified with me. It was pure heaven you guys.
Eating a meal like the one I enjoyed at Hot and Hot Fish Club reminds me of all the great meals I've enjoyed with all of the family and friends I love that have stuck with me throughout the years. I was appreciative of Chef Chris for making that happen, but it wasn't until I climbed into bed that night with my freshly-autographed Hot and Hot Fish Club cookbook, that I discovered this is exactly what Chris and Indie Hastings want your experience at their restaurant to invoke. They call it "memory-cuisine". Then I read the autograph and everything came full-circle. I've always felt food and cooking was magic, and apparently, so does Chef Chris ...