Monday, July 22, 2013

Seoul - Birmingham

Kimchi, that polarizing combination of napa cabbage, gochujaru, ginger, garlic, gochujang, and fish sauce, though one of my current Korean favorites, was not always on my radar. While there may have been an odd mention of it here and there during trips to Houston, New York, or San Francisco, the cabbage based dish truly came into my world a little less than a decade ago when I was reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s excellent book “The Man WhoAte Everything”. In his book, Steingarten aimed to broaden his already well cultured culinary horizons and began this quest by creating a list of food phobias. Second on the list was the aforementioned kimchi. Although I highly suggest reading the book on your own, I’ll spoil the surprise by saying that Steingarten came to love kimchi by means of exposure and repetition. On the other hand, I was, for the most part, rather ambivalent towards the national pickle of Korea. I’d give it a try, say that’s not bad, and move along, but the past few years of venturing into Korean restaurants across the south have given me a new appreciation for the dish which brings me to the balmy January morning in Birmingham when I decided to cross the threshold of Seoul Restaurant.

I had hoped that when I walked inside Seoul that I would be hit with the smell of ashy charcoal, sizzling meat, and the sound of chopsticks clicking on bowls of banchan. Sadly, Seoul doesn’t offer Korean bbq, but at least there’s still bulgogi on the menu. But before the beef would arrive, an order of deep fried mandu would get the meal started.
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Well fried, crispy, and not at all oily, these pork mandu were a fine beginning.
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Despite missing any kimchi or glass noodles, the simple filling of pork and greenery was still quite satisfying.
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Missing kimchi aside, these were well fried dumplings that were balanced by the rice vinegar tartness of the dipping sauce.

At this point, my table began to swell with bulgogi, japchae, and the full assortment of banchan.
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There may not be any grilling involved, but it had the look of a damn good substitution.

Dumplings done, the bulgogi was up next.
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Served in a crackling hot cast iron plate, this serving of bulgogi was still faintly sizzling 10 minutes later.
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Thinly sliced and slightly chewy, it was brimming with beef flavor that was only augmented by the addition of sesame seeds and sesame oil.
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 Erring on the side of being a bit too sugary, it was still hard to leave this bulgogi alone.

The nuttiness of the sesame carried over to the sweet potato noodles but this time was mated with caramelized carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and a little more beef for good measure.
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Juicy, nutty, beefy, this was homestyle japchae.
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Much like the bulgogi, these noodles were inundated with sauce and each piece of vermicelli was literally dripping with flavor.

Of course, I can’t forget the banchan.
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It’s the usual array of side dishes with a few standouts
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 The crunch of bean sprouts with the heat of chili paste never gets old.
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I don’t often see kombu as the focus of the dish, but the combination of sweet and spicy with the kelp worked quite well here.
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What would a visit to a Korean restaurant be without kimchi? Seoul’s kimchi was lightly fermented and a bit watery at first with just a hint of a chili pepper powder on the tail.

Despite numerous complaints about speed of service on Urbanspoon and Yelp, after my meal I had none of my own. Even though time and appetite forced me to leave the stews, seafood, and rice bowls section completely untouched, I still feel that the bulgogi, japchae, and mandu left quite an impression. While Seoul is far from pushing the boundaries of Korean cuisine, there’s a menu of familiar favorites that are prepared simply and well. Sometimes that and a little kimchi are all you need.

Seoul Restaurant Address & Information
430 Green Springs Highway #8, Birmingham, AL 35209 // 205.945.8007
Seoul on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Highlands Bar and Grill - Birmingham

Having spent the earlier part of the day enjoying a few snapper throats at the Bright Star and a little time at a bookstore, it was soon time for my next stop at a Birmingham institution, Frank Stitt’s original restaurant, the Highlands Bar and Grill.

Opened in 1982, Highlands Bar and Grill is Stitt’s combination of southern flavors and ingredients with his background in French cuisine. But for me, Highlands is more than a stalwart of the Birmingham restaurant scene, it’s been a goal that has been taunting me for years. Much like Hot and Hot FishClub, another renowned Birmingham restaurant, Highlands has been just out of my reach, largely due to its hours of operation. Try as I might, dinner in Birmingham is a rare proposition. Now, with this opportunity at hand, I planned to take full advantage of my first meal at Highlands Bar and Grill.

Friday night in late January and Highlands was bustling with activity as every table was filled to capacity. Despite having made reservations earlier in the week, I had time to enjoy a cocktail at the bar before my table was ready. Once seated, I was stuck with the typical dilemma of far too many attractive choices and general indecisiveness. Jokingly complaining to my waitress that they were in dire need of a tasting menu, she quickly scampered off to the kitchen. Returning just moments later, she was happy to inform me that a tasting menu could be made from any five dishes of my choosing.

However, before any of my choices had a chance to arrive at the table, it was time for a little taste of cornbread.
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Appearing in the bottom left of the picture, this small piece of cornbread struck an ideal balance between salty and savory. Of course, it never hurts when cornbread is made sublime by the addition of a little butter.

Diving headfirst into the southern heart of the menu, things started with the stone ground baked grits.
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Exceedingly creamy, this grit cake seemed to defy gravity.
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If this dish confirms anything, it’s that country ham and grits are a salty match made in heaven.
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Rounding out the dish were mushrooms and parmesan which while well paired on their own, I wasn’t quite sure what the mushrooms brought to the dish. However the only thing this dish truly needed was a good shot of black pepper, once applied this was a truly precocious start to the meal.

Apalachicola gigged flounder was the next dish in the tasting menu and it came with a Provençal sauce with roasted fennel, Niçoise olive, fingerling potatoes, and marjoram.
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Crispy on the edges, moist in the middle, the flounder paired well with the bright and well rounded sauce.
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The Provençal sauce was deceptively simple with a clean tomato flavor that finished with a bite of olive tartness.

Third in my tasting menu was the rabbit -  two ways.
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First of the duo was a Tuscan kale stuffed loin and while the kale added a slightly bitter and green dimension to the loin, I was surprised at the grainy texture.
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In stark contrast, the braised leg was achingly tender and sublime with the sherry reduction. At this point, I noticed that Highlands preferred their vegetables to have a toothsome texture. I won’t say they were undercooked but I like my potatoes to not crunch when I bite them.

Proving the allure of pork wrapped in caul fat, the pork crépinette and grilled rabbit liver was the fourth dish on my menu.
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With plenty of give from the caul fat, the highlight of the crépinette was the combination of the pork and vinegar flavors of the honey crisp apples and frisee salad.
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 In contrast, the grilled liver began with a crunch of finishing salt and fruit but quickly soured with the addition of overdone liver.  Letting my waitress know about the state of the liver, I was expecting an apology at the most but I wasn’t prepared for a new piece of liver to be brought from the kitchen.
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Skewered with a sprig of rosemary, this liver still had the big salty introduction but in lieu of the apples, the woody flavor of rosemary and citrus highlights of fresh peppercorns took its place.

For the last course, I decided to switch gears and try a little fowl with the stuffed South Carolina quail.
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Sticking to bold flavors, this quail was mated with a cornbread and foie gras stuffing, green lentils, and a sorghum gastrique.
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With the lentils baring a stronger resemblance to a piece of chalk than any edible legume, I was relying on the cornbread and foie stuffing to support the quail. Unfortunately, the stuffing completely dominated the bird with a mealy sweetness and none of the rich foie gras flavor I was expecting. This quail was far and away the weakest part of the meal.

At this point, I expected the meal to be finished and an after dinner drink would be that all that stood between me and my drive back to the hotel, but that was not the case. Chalk it up to either voicing my complaints or having a productive dialogue with my server, a complimentary order of the braised pork cheeks and potato dumplings was brought to my table.
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Like many of the vegetables in this meal, including the hedgehog and yellow foot mushrooms in this dish, the pork wasn’t fall apart tender but the dense flavor of the cheeks was ample reward.
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When this dish was first brought, I was expecting the potato dumplings to create a starchy mess but each flavor in this dish was distinguishable and played off the others quite well.
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One particularly nice touch was how each potato dumpling was pan seared, the contrast of dense dumpling with crisp seared exterior was delightful.

If I took away anything from this long awaited meal at Highland Bar and Grill, it’s that while the flavors and the subsequent combinations are supremely important, the addition of excellent service can make a good meal a great one. Even taking the liver and quail into account, the dishes at Highlands were prime examples of Stitt and his kitchens taking full advantage of the bounty of the South. I can see why Highlands Bar and Grill has been open for more than 30 years.

Highlands Bar and Grill Address & Information
2011 11th Avenue Birmingham, AL 35205 // 205.939.1400 // Highlands Bar and Grill Website // Highlands Bar and Grill Menu
Highlands Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon