When I was invited to visit Birmingham, I jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea, however, what lay in store for me. I fell head over heels in love with The Magic City.
Birmingham is in the heart of the south, rich in history, diverse, and with a wealth of things to do, places to see, and some of the most delicious food I’ve eaten anywhere. Riding from the airport to The Tutwiler Hotel with a fellow writer, our cab driver was a native of Birmingham and wanted to know what we were planning to do during our all too brief visit. He displayed enormous pride in his hometown and was eager to share his wealth of knowledge with us.
The Tutwiler is in the heart of downtown and has a majestic elegance. I checked into my spacious and most comfortable room and eagerly anticipated what lay ahead. There was a basket of goodies waiting for me filled with Alabama treats, including potato chips, cookies, and the best ginger ale I have ever tasted. My heartfelt thanks to the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau.
We headed out to Hot and Hot Fish Club for dinner. What a strange name, I thought, but I was spellbound by this charming spot. Antique bricks and soft lights set the tone. I loved the menu which was broken up into Opening Act, The Big Show, and Closing Act. Their cocktail list had several intriguing choices and I went with The Corner of Havana and Torino, with Bourbon, aged rum, Cocchi Dopo Teatro, and Angostura bitters. This is a sipping cocktail, one to be savored.
I was honored that we were joined by Lisa McNair, whose sister Denise was one of four little girls murdered when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Lisa had not yet been born. Spike Lee did a documentary on the bombing called Four Little Girls, which I recommend highly. Her platform is Speak Lisa, and she is writing a book that will be released in 2022 called Dear Denise: Letters To The Sister I Never Knew. Her mother is 93 years old and is still living, and used to wake up screaming. Before the bombing, the church had a congregation of about 800 people. After the church was rebuilt, it dropped to about half that number. Her family didn’t want to talk about the bombing for a long time. When she approached her younger sister Kimberly Brock, who’s a chef and nutritional coach about her plans for the book, she said “You go ahead, Lisa.”
We were however at a restaurant and I don’t for a moment want to minimize what lay ahead for us. Chefs Chris and Ida Hastings own this gem. Chris is the 2012 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the South. It’s no wonder why. His family emigrated from Edinburgh pre World War I. He spent some time in San Francisco where he discovered the importance of Farmers Markets. When people taste his food he says, he wants them to feel “I’m in Alabama!” After 9/11, he started collecting addresses from customers and began sending them personal notes. He intended to “provide a slice of joy that seems so fleeting. Let’s meet our customers where they are.” He’s passionate about personifying Southern Hospitality.
Our small group was trying to decide what to order when Chef Chris announced we would have one of everything on the menu, from appetizers to dessert. The food at Hot and Hot Fish Club is complex and divinely tasty. We sampled delights like assorted Southern cheeses and Charcuterie tray, rabbit and pork tamales, and Fish In A Fish In A Fish from the Opening Act section of the menu. The course was spectacular in its presentation with cold smoked salmon, grouper, and tuna. Entrées included a duo of duck, braised short ribs, with wild mushrooms and root vegetables, and Hot and Hot’s Asian Noodle Bowl with frog legs and soft shell crab. We each tried to sample at least a bite of everything presented and each bite was a taste of heaven. We weren’t done however. He insisted we have dessert, so in keeping with the theme of the evening, one of each was presented. My favorites were the white chocolate and raspberry bread pudding, and the sweet potato fried pie. If you don’t think it’s possible to get an exquisite meal in the south, I would like to challenge that notion.
All of the dishes were elegantly presented on Earthborn Pottery. This was merely the beginning of an enlightening visit to Birmingham. The Magic City, indeed.