Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Chez Fonfon - Birmingham

It was purely by accident; I had no intention of eating at another Frank Stitt restaurant. As far I as I knew it was The Highlands Bar & Grill, Bottega and Bottega Cafe, that was sum total of the Stitt Birmingham empire. So imagine my surprise when the hostess told me about Chez Fonfon.

Let’s rewind and give a little background to this story. As usual, I was on the road to Atlanta and passing the time on I-20 by planning lunch. Of course, I had my list of new places to try but I wanted something that I was sure would deliver and in my brief experience with his restaurants, I knew that Stitt was up to the task. Knowing that data coverage was spotty, I called to make sure that Bottega was open past 2pm. The hostess confirmed that they and Chez Fonfon were open all afternoon. Chez Fonfon, I had never heard of such a place. The pleasantly loquacious hostess informed me that it was Chef Stitt’s take on the classic French bistro. Well, that’s all I needed to hear. I found the address, plugged it into google maps and made my way to the Five Points area of Birmingham.

Inside Chef Fonfon, it’s a fairly accurate representation of your picture perfect bistro. There may not be the darkened ceilings from decades of cigarette smoke and you’re more likely to hear Spanish from a waitress than French, a more Sur La Table French bistro than the lost generation but it’s still a pleasant place to be.

However, I didn’t take the long way around Birmingham to discuss architecture and appointments; I came for the food, the French food and that means starting with the most stereotypical French dish of all, escargot.
That may sound like I’m belittling the classic appetizer and that couldn’t be farther from the truth especially when the snails come with parsley and shallot butter.
Toasted rounds of bread do their best to soak up the butter, but there’s just too much richness for one piece of bread to contain.
It was initially upsetting to see garlic absent from this plate of escargot, but its fellow allium, the shallot, worked beautifully.
If only every meal began this well.

Despite the temptations of a crawfish gratin, steak tartare, and a charcuterie platter from the appetizer section and the trout, moules frites, and steak frites from the entrees, I stuck to my guns and tried Stitt’s version of chicken liver mousse.
Accompanied by a few torn pieces of bread and a small, side salad, this Madeira aspic topped mousse was even more satisfying than the escargot.
With each spoonful of mousse, it was a dizzying combination of rich chicken liver and the complimentary, almost caramelized depth of the Madeira aspic. Chalky, overcooked liver, the bane of every good pate, mousse, and mousseline was completely absent. The only real downside to the mousse was not enough bread, but that problem was quickly remedied by the waitress.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the escargot and mousse that I had ordered, I couldn’t help but notice the people around me. It seems as if everyone else in the restaurant had ordered the Hamburger Fonfon and they were loving it. By the time I departed, every burger was gone, not a scrap was left. Those clean plates were a solid endorsement and a few weeks later, when I was passing through Birmingham again, I stopped at Chez Fonfon to try the Hamburger Fonfon for myself.

However, before I settled down for a burger, I decided to see about another piece of charcuterie, the country pate with pork, ham, foie gras and pistachios.
Like the chicken liver mousse, this was an excellent piece of charcuterie. A dense mixture of ham, pork, foie gras, and pistachios meant every piece was as rich, moist, and meaty as you’d expect.
As well planned as any charcuterie plate, there was a full range of vinegar laced, tangy delectables to combat the richness of the pate.

Enough about the pate, it was time to see if the Hamburger Fonfon was up to par. Was it as good as everyone made it seem or were people fawning over dreck?
A hamburger topped with comte cheese, a small mountain of salted French fries, and a choice of ketchup or Dijon aioli, what more could you ask for?
Made from the kitchen’s steak trimmings, the Hamburger Fonfon was a stab at hamburger perfection. There was a well seasoned crust that concealed a river of greasy, beefy juices.
The first bite opened the floodgates for juiciness and each subsequent bite revealed a heavily seared crust with an amazing medium rare interior. House ground beef of high quality trimmings, simple salt and pepper seasoning, a toasted bun, and an ever so slightly strong slice of melted comte cheese, the Hamburger Fonfon was a slice of cheeseburger nirvana.

Not wanting to overshadow their bovine neighbor, the French fries at Chez Fonfon are superb in their own right.
Delightfully crunchy, perfectly salted, and well suited to both the ketchup and aioli, it was impossible to resist these French fries. When combined with the Hamburger Fonfon, it was a near indomitable combination. No wonder that the Hamburger Fonfon is such a popular dish.

In addition to the previously mentioned four dishes, I had the opportunity to try a bite of the trout with brown butter and I’m happy to say it stands shoulder to shoulder with the rest. As is the case with non-local restaurants, I may have just scratched the surface of what Chez Fonfon has to offer, but I have yet to be disappointed in a Frank Stitt restaurant. With its simple, seasonal menu, welcoming atmosphere, and extremely helpful wait staff, Chez Fonfon plays the role of French bistro to a t. Is it authentic? If the food is this good,I don’t really care, authenticity be damned.
Chez Fonfon Address & Information
2007 11th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205 // 205.939.3221 // Chez Fonfon Website // Chez Fonfon Menu
Chez Fonfon on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cooking the Book – The Seventh Daughter – Mu-Shu Pork with a Hat

It’s time to discuss another one of my favorite Chinese dishes, mu-shu pork. In comparison to the legions of chili laced Sichuan and Hunan dishes I’ve made in the past few years, mu-shu pork is rather mundane, but that is part of its charm. For me, mu-shu pork sparks memories of trips to Houston and San Francisco, family vacations that inevitably resulted in visits to local Chinese restaurants. Since Mu-shu pork is relatively nonexistent in the Jackson area when it did pop up on a menu, it was almost certain that an order of mu-shu wrappers, filling, and hoisin sauce would arrive at our table.

Fond memories aside, why should I go to a restaurant to enjoy an order of Chinese burritos? So, as many times before, I began searching for recipes to recreate the experience at home. I did find a few recipes online but while searching the indexes of my cookbooks, I came across a recipe for “Mu-Shu Pork with a Hat” or He Cai Dai Mao. Situated in the “Famous Recipes from the Mandarin” section of The Seventh Daughter, this recipe for mu-shu pork comes from none other than Cecilia Chang. In The Seventh Daughter, Chang explains the origins of her success with The Mandarin restaurant in San Francisco and Beverly Hills. She also shares many of the recipes that made a star. It’s a captivating look at The Mandarin’s history but I was more interested in her recipe for mu-shu pork.


8 ounces pork loin (I used tenderloin, it’s what I had in the freezer)

2 tbs cornstarch

4 tbs shaoxing wine

4 tbs plus 2 tsp peanut oil

1 ounce dried lily buds

½ ounce dried tree ear mushrooms

2 1/2 tbs hoisin sauce

¼ tsp sugar

5 large eggs

mu shu wrappers

1/8 tsp kosher salt

1 lb mung bean sprouts

2 tbs soy sauce

1 ½ tsp Asian sesame oil

6 green onions

I had most of the ingredients on hand, but a few, the bean sprouts, lily buds, and wrappers required a visit to the Van Hung Asian grocery. A short trip later, I had everything together and I could start work on my mu-shu pork.

The first step to the recipe is cutting the pork. Following the recipe, I got as close as I could to diagonal, against the grain slices in ¼ by ¼ by 2 inch strips.

The resulting strips are combined with the cornstarch, two tbs of shaoxing wine, and one tsp of the peanut oil. I set that to the side to marinate and moved onto the next step, rehydration.

After placing the dried lily buds and mushrooms in two separate bowls, I covered them with hot water and left them for 30 minutes to rehydrate. In the meantime, I started making the sauce.

It started with heating one tsp of the peanut oil over high heat and then adding the hoisin sauce, 1 tbs of shaoxing wine, and the ¼ tsp of sugar. The idea is just to combine the ingredients and heat them through.


The results were oddly oily.

Now, I was ready to start on the rest of the recipe beginning with the eggs. After lightly beating the eggs with a pinch of salt, I used another teaspoon of peanut oil to cook them into one large omelet. With the omelet set, I began steaming the mu shu wrappers and preparing the mise-en-place.

Obviously, the mushrooms and lily buds had been drained.

With my favorite wok over high heat, I added two tbs of the peanut oil and a pinch of salt and began the next step, cooking the pork.

The idea is to toss the pork in the oil until it looks “glossy and slippery”.

I suppose that fits the description.

The pork set aside, I added the last two tbs of peanut oil and another pinch of salt to the wok and started stir-frying the lily buds and bean sprouts.
Once they were coated with the oil, it was time for the next round of ingredients.

1 tbs of shaoxing wine, the soy sauce, the sesame oil, and the tree ear mushrooms were all introduced to the wok and vigorously stir-fried for a minute or so. To finish, the pork was dumped back in the wok, everything was stirred to combine, and then transferred to a platter.

Now it’s time for the fun part, the assembly line.

With the pork stuffing, the egg, the hoisin based sauce, and mu shu wrappers, I was ready to make mu-shu pork with a hat.

According to Chang, the idea is to smear a little sauce on a mu-shu wrapper, add a helping of filling, top with torn pieces of the omelet, and finish with more sauce and a few sliced green onions.

Something like this, give or take a few layering issues.

Fold the pancake like your favorite burrito and there you have Mu-Shu Pork with a Hat.

I’ll admit that I didn’t finish the recipe according to Chang’s instructions . I forgot to place the omelet on top of the pork filling thus leaving out the hat portion of the recipe. Oh well, it was no great loss as this was still a spectacular example of mu-shu pork. Once the fillings were in place, the sauce smeared on, and the wrapper folded, each bite was a textural delight. Going into this recipe, I wasn’t sure about the lily buds and after the fact, I’m still not sure if I would notice their absence. That being said, it was satisfying preparing this recipe correctly, mostly. In the end, I may not stop ordering mu-shu pork in my favorite Chinese restaurants, but I do know that I can recreate the experience at home. I can only hope that every other recipe from The Seventh Daughter is this much of a success.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sophia's Restaurant - Jackson

Picture this scenario: you’re new in town and you don’t know the landscape of Jackson. Naturally, you’ll look for the necessities, grocery stores, mechanics, doctors, a new favorite bar etc, but sooner or later, you’ll be looking for fine dining. It may be a once a year event; maybe the parents are in town or it’s your anniversary, but the topic of best/finest restaurant in Jackson will rear its head. Of course there are a few predictable answers, Derek Emerson’s Walker’s Drive Inn is an expected candidate as is Bravo, Nick’s, and even Char. However, I’ve noticed that one restaurant in particular is usually absent from these discussions, Sophia’s Restaurant in the Fairview Inn.

One reason Sophia’s may not frequently enter the discussion is location. Half a block off State Street, nestled in a shady drive on Fairview Street, you could drive past The Fairview Inn & Sophia’s a hundred times and never know they’re there. However, that seclusion is also part of Sophia’s charm. It’s a relatively small restaurant with an elegant dining room that provides a level of intimacy and classic sophistication that is in short supply.

Of course, intimacy, sophistication, and elegance, while all well and good, are superfluous if a restaurant doesn’t serve a product that’s of the same standard. It was only a matter of where to start. As with many meals across Jackson, the state, and the region, it began with a cup of gumbo.


To be exact, it was a cup of creole gumbo.

Swimming with flecks of crab meat and other delights, this cup of gumbo was promising.

Unfortunately there was more rice than anything else, including flavor. There was no real depth of a roux, no buttery tomato richness you’d expect in a creole gumbo, just a bowl of relatively bland rice porridge.

Fortunately, not all of Sophia’s soups were as disappointing as their gumbo. One example was a daily special of crab & asparagus soup.

With a creaminess more akin to a bisque, this was a rich bowl bursting with the flavors of crab and asparagus.

There may not have been much in the way of lump crab meat, just a few errant pieces, but there was enough crab flavor to match the tender asparagus spears that were bobbing in the cup.

After soups, the important section of the lunch menu is the sandwich section. While some may be drawn to the muffaletta or chicken salad sandwich, I had my eyes on Simon’s burger.
A half pound of Kobe beef topped with Havarti cheese on a sesame seed bun with sweet potato fries, it was picture perfect.


There may not have been a particularly bold beefiness to the burger, but the juicy mix of beef, salty cheese, pickles, and lettuce was sublime.
I had asked for medium rare and I was pretty pleased with the result, not too bad for packaged pre-ground beef.

As for the sweet potato fries

It was a pleasant mix of crunchy edges and pillow soft interiors. Well salted and well cooked, these fries were a solid side to the Kobe burger.

While burgers may be a menu staple across the country, po-boys are certainly a regional specialty.
In New Orleans, Leidenheimer bread is de rigeur for po-boys, in Jackson most use Gambino’s, but Sophia’s take another route by using a toasted baguette.

Fried oyster, lettuce, tomato, remoulade and a baguette may not be the standard, but there’s room for interpretation.

There may have been only six oysters to this po-boy but they packed just the right amount of salty, crisp breading and brininess to make an excellent po-boy filling.

While a baguette may not pack the crunch of Leidenheimer bread, the filling's combination of well-fried osyters, remoulade and a touch of hot sauce made for a fine po-boy.

After focusing on soups and sandwiches, it would be unfair to skip the entrée section of the lunch mention.


Braised short ribs over grits may seem like an oddly heavy item for a lunch menu, but tasting these ribs erased any doubts.

While these ribs were achingly tender and full of rich, beefy flavor they were under seasoned.

A quick addition of salt and pepper remedied that shortcoming, but lack of salt plagued the grits as well. However, the unctuous gravy was there to bring everything together to make a fine dish. Still, it’s disappointing to see that something as basic as salt & pepper on the ribs and salt for the grits could have made this good dish great.

Up until this point, everything has been on the lunch menu and normally I would be fine with that. However, the dinner menu at Sophia’s is so drastically different that I knew I would have to try it. So, six months after my first lunch at Sophia’s, I was finally able to take a crack at what Sophia’s dinner menu had to offer.

In a throwback to the oyster po-boy, the first dinner dish was the cornmeal fried gulf oysters appetizer.
Drizzled with a barbeque vinaigrette, these were simple, well-fried oysters.


The barbeque vinaigrette was an interesting addition to the oysters. While it didn’t elevate the oysters to new levels, it certainly didn’t hurt them either.

One major difference between the lunch and the dinner menu was the appearance of a pork belly appetizer.

Sure, Fudge Farms Berkshire pork belly may be overplayed as a dish, but when it’s crispy and served with grits, a bourbon glaze and a fig jam, you just stop caring about overexposure.

Thankfully, the pork belly lives up to expectations. The skin offers a satisfying crunch while the silky layers of fat and substantial layers of meat lie beneath.


With the dish, the grits offer a welcome balance to the richness of the pork and the sweet jam and glaze. Pork belly is by no means an everyday dish but when you do find the occasion to enjoy it; this is a stellar way to do so.

In a sure sign of overdoing it, a plate of fried frog’s legs also made it to the table.
Rarely seen in the Jackson area, these frog legs were a little on the greasy side but still quite juicy. The sauce did seem eerily similar to the one used on the fried oysters, but it played well with the legs.

Although unintentional, I had been ignoring the ample selection of fish at Sophia’s. In an effort to remedy that fault, I ordered the pistachio crusted black grouper for my entrée.

Take my advice and pay more attention to the fish at Sophia’s.

A thick, lightly salted crust was the perfect foil to the expertly cooked fish. With every bite it was an excellent balance of fish, pistachios, and creamy starch.

In contrast to the delicate textures of the grouper was the Fudge Farms porterhouse.

While this dish should have been a celebration of glorious, juicy pork, the porterhouse was surprisingly dry. It was still a fine cut of meat, but it suffered the pitfalls of many large cuts, juicy in the middle with a border near well done. One distracting portion of the dish was the Abita root beer glaze; instead of being complimentary, it simply overpowered the pork.

Like many restaurants, Sophia’s has its fair share of faults. From under seasoning in the short ribs to overly aggressive additions in the pork porterhouse, there do seem to be a few problems with finding a suitable middle ground for seasoning. Sadly, I’ve experienced this problem before with one of their Culinary World Tour dinners. However these are minor inconveniences in terms of the overall quality of the restaurant. There were simply too many well-planned & well-executed dishes to dwell on the negatives. In the end, I don’t know if I would enter Sophia’s into the discussion for best restaurant in Jackson, but it certainly deserves consideration.

Sophia’s Restaurant Address & Information

734 Fairview Street, Jackson, MS 39202 // 601.948.3429 // Sophia’s Restaurant Website // Sophia’s Restaurant Menu // Sophia’s Restaurant Reservations

Sophia's Restaurant on Urbanspoon