Monday, June 10, 2013

Bright Star - Bessemer

Despite my frequent visits to the city, it’s rare that I get the opportunity to spend more than a few hours in the magic city known as Birmingham, Alabama. Late January proved to be on of those precious times as I was in town for a two day stint at a conference.  Flushed with time to spare, I decided that I should pay a visit to some Birmingham institutions, starting with the only Alabama recipient of the James Beard “America’s Classic” award, the Bright Star in Bessemer.

I’ll be quite frank, I was blissfully unaware of the Bright Star’s national accolades until I began researching this piece. My knowledge of this Alabama institution stems from John T. Edge and his book “Southern Belly” as well as his 100 Southern Foods list he penned for Garden and Gun Magazine. In the southern foods list, Edge tells the virtue of The Bright Star’s snapper throats. Now I’ve spent my fair share of time in Greek diners in the Southeast from comeback and crackers at the Mayflower in Jackson to the temptation of a gyro meat and tzaziki omelette at the White House in Atlanta but that was the first time I heard the idea of fried snapper throats. Knowing the succulent textures of a well cooked yellow tail throat with hamachi kama, I was interested to see how an oft discarded piece of the fish would take to a little deep frying.

But before getting to the raison d’etre of this lunch, it was time for a gumbo interlude and The Bright Star does a fair job with this Louisiana specialty.
Hot and thick, this gumbo was brimming with tomoatoes and okra not to mention a chili pepper tail to finish each bite. 
While there was a substantial amount of shredded chicken in this cup of gumbo, the time spent at a simmer left its mark on the white meat.

When it came to the snapper throats, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Would it be an entire throat, dipped in batter and fried to a hearty crisp? Would it be chopped bones with tiny nuggets of meat?
The snapper throats were nothing of the sort. With nary a bone in sight, these snapper throats were remarkably easy to eat.  For each “throat” a nugget of sweet and incredibly juicy meat was wrapped in a thick but surprisingly crispy batter.
Beautifully paired with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper, this was a unique cut of gulf fish prepared remarkably well.
After eating, there was a sizeable pool of grease left on the plate, but it was a necessary evil like the thick batter. It may have been a bit clumpy and unwieldy but the succulent fish inside was worth it.

The rest of the meal was much of your standard southern fare, butter beans, black eyed peas, etc, nothing particularly remarkable apart from the cornbread.
Tiny, crusty and crisp on the edges, and a bit salty, it was crumbly and sublime when paired with the vegetables.

Initially I was skeptical of the Bright Star’s age and status. It seems that with many storied and established restaurants, the kitchen is fueled by memories and tradition rather than the current quality of their food. Thankfully, The Bright Star escapes that trend and offers a unique, well crafted dish in a setting with charm and atmosphere to spare. In my mind, their award and mentions in John T’s writing are well deserved; I just hope that The Bright Star keeps earning that James Beard award.

Bright Star Address & Information
304 19th Street North, Bessemer, AL 35020 // 205.426.1861 // Bright Star Website // Bright Star Menu
Bright Star on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The General Muir - Atlanta

It’s been a few years since my last post on a deli and in that time I’ve been pacifying myself with half hearted Sysco sourced Reubens and the occasional slice of pepperless, insipid pastrami. Recently, my pining for the true deli experience was  worsened by a shipment of sublime bagels, blintzes, pastrami, brisket, and spreads from my friend Merry and her family’s Florida deli. Fortunately, there have been signs of promise in the Deep South, namely the opening of The General Muir in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta. With promises of glistening matzo ball soup, homemade bagels, and pastrami poutine, it didn’t take much convincing from Jennifer for me to make the drive from Brookhaven to The General Muir.

Typically late March is full of pleasant, sunny skies and the not so distant promise of blistering hot summers, but this March was an exception. With flurries filling the sky, it was still the weather for scarves and overcoats not to mention a steaming bowl of matzo ball soup.
Often times I’ll find that matzo ball soups are either a single matzo ball floating alone in a bowl of broth or a matzo ball lost in a sea of chunky vegetables and dry shredded breast meat, The General Muir aims for a comfortable middle ground.
By itself the broth is thin but the glistening globules of fat give a delightful lip smacking texture. Adding interest and body is a medley of celery, onion, carrot, and dill, the result is a soup that is nicely seasoned and a bit vegetal.
As for the matzo ball, this was a airy and fluffy specimen and far from the heavy as a stone examples that some delis offer.
Perfect for a cold, light in texture, and well suited to the broth, this matzo ball soup didn’t feel too substantial but it offered plenty of comfort for the chilly spring day.

With pastrami on rye on the way, the side of fries arrived first.
Sadly, the pastrami poutine would have to wait for another day but this order of fries gave an inkling of my next visit to The General Muir.
Grains of salt aside, there were a few crispy ends on these fries and a fair amount of textural contrast but I couldn’t help but wonder if they were hearty enough to hold gravy, cheese, and pastrami?

So just how does the featured pastrami stack up?
From the beginning, this is sandwich simplicity: meat, mustard, and rye bread.
While the pastrami doesn’t look too heavily peppered, each bite begins with a salty beefiness that gives way to a definitive peppercorn punch.
If there is a weakness to this sandwich, the rye is a bit listless compared to my favorite hearty rye breads of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor but it makes an excellent vehicle for grainy mustard and the exceedingly tender, fatty, and bristling with salinity pastrami. On the whole, this is a fine example of the breed and I can only imagine how it works on top of poutine.

Maybe after my next trip to Atlanta I can attest to the quality of The General Muir’s breakfast, pastrami poutine, or if the burger that chef Todd Gingsberg popularized at Bocado survived the trip. However, based on this first look at The General Muir, I’m pretty sure that Goldberg’s is no longer my go to deli in Atlanta.

The General Muir Address & Information
The General Muir on Urbanspoon