It was three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in mid January when I was handed the charge; I had to be at the Atlanta aquarium at 9 am the next morning to pick up a dog. Ignoring the fact that this was a rather ridiculous situation to be in, I had a choice to make. Do I head for Atlanta that night and try to find something decent for dinner around midnight, get up at the crack of “Oh Christ” o’clock and storm the interstate on Friday morning, or do I break the trip into two pieces with an overnight stay in Birmingham? For the sake of my sanity, I went with the last option if only because it would finally give me a chance to stop by Hot and Hot Fish Club.
Like Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill, I’ve been meaning to pay a visit to Chris Hasting’s Hot and Hot Fish Club for years, but I rarely find myself looking for dinner in the Pittsburgh of the South. Typically, I’ll be cruising east to Atlanta and the most I’ll devote to Birmingham is a late lunch. Since neither Highlands nor Hot & Hot are open for lunch, I’ve made do with enjoying lunches at Chez Fon Fon and Bottega while perusing the Stitt and H & H cookbooks at home. Now, more than two years after first hearing of the Birmingham institution, I had reservations for the last dinner seating at Hot and Hot and it would all be thanks to a little dog that would be called Kip.
With the temperature hovering in the high 20s, as I pulled up to the restaurant, I was happy to see a valet run to my door. Even though it was a 15 yard walk to the front door, I still bundled up in an effort to keep warm. However, once I was inside, it was a whole separate world. A mostly full restaurant and a lively tempo made for a welcoming respite from the cold. I had gotten a reservation at the chef’s table, but I was surprised to find that meant saddling up to the bar that surrounded the open to the public kitchen. Decked out in their whites and long-brim fly fishing hats, each chef was hard at work in their own world. I was seated in front of the dessert station, the perfect spot to see skilled hands at work on frying doughnuts and apple dumplings in a small, tabletop fryer and forming countless quenelles of ice cream.
But before dessert, I had to make a choice from the appetizer section of the menu. Reading through the 10 or so options, I couldn’t help but notice the surprising lack of seafood. Save for oysters on the half shell, there wasn’t a hint of fish in the section. However, that peculiarity was quickly forgotten once I settled into indecision between sweetbreads and the charcuterie plate. Although the waiter promised that everything on the charcuterie plate, head cheese, duck prosciutto, veal tongue, pork rilettes, foie gras torchon, lardo, and housemade pickles, was made in house, he praised the sweetbreads as a better choice. Swayed by the promise of well seared glands, I went with the sweetbreads.
Oven roasted and served with McEwan and Sons grits, rainbow chard, and rich jus, the sweetbread was a picture of lightly charred decadence.
True to the waiter’s word, the sweetbread was beautifully roasted, buttery and juicy. As good as the sweetbread was on its own, the combination of creamy grits and a sweet and meaty jus only amplified the richness. Thankfully the rainbow chard provided just enough bitterness to rein in the excesses of the first three dish ingredients. Well balanced and sublime, my only qualms related to the quantity. As good as the sweetbread was, one to an order seemed a little stingy and with the charcuterie plate costing a dollar more, I couldn’t help but wonder if that appetizer and its plethora of components carried a better bang for the buck.
A touch dry on the edges, this thick and meaty portion of hickory grilled fish was perfection in the middle.
Despite being seated in front of the dessert station, I decided to pass on a third course, but the manager had a different idea. Before I could voice an objection, an order of the espresso ice cream was placed in front of me.
In addition to the espresso ice cream, the plate featured lemon granite, citrus marmalade, and chocolate sorbet.
Well made and rich, this espresso ice cream was full of potent ground espresso.
Besting the espresso, the chocolate sorbet was dark and almost sinfully decadent. Carrying over the well balanced features of the previous two dishes, the lemon granite and pomegranate arils provided tart punctuations to bring me down from my chocolate and sugar high.
Savoring the last few bites of dessert, I couldn’t help but notice the kitchen was winding down for the night. Ingredients were packed into plastic containers, stations were cleared and a massive stockpot emerged from the back. Looking to be 100 quarts if it was a cup, that pot was filled with water and set on a low heat where I can only suppose it would be left to simmer overnight. It’s that sort of groundwork that has garnered Hot & Hot Fish Club awards such as Bon Appetit’s “Top Neighborhood Restaurant”, features in Food and Wine Magazine, and multiple James Beard nominations for Chris Smith as Best Chef Southeast. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner at H & H. The flavors were excellent, the food well prepared, and the service nigh on impeccable. I can only hope that I won’t need another dog centered mission to get me back through the front door.
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