Highlands Restaurant Review – A Birmingham Top Pick for Farm -to-Table Feast

Photo courtesy of Highlands Bar and Grill


It seems that whenever you ask someone from Birmingham what makes the city special, the emerging foodie scene and Birmingham’s award-winning cuisine makes it to his or her short list, and is often mentioned as #1.


If there is one chef and one restaurant that can be credited with sparking this culinary explosion in Birmingham, it is Chef Frank Stitt and his flagship restaurant Highlands Bar and Grill, which was nominated for the seventh consecutive year by the James Beard Foundation for the Outstanding Restaurant Award in 2015.   Industry accolades aside, the greater recommendation came when we overheard conversations about a 23rd wedding anniversary in which it seemed assumed that a dinner at Highlands would be part of the celebration.


Looking around the room, Goren Avery estimated that about 40% of the crowd on that Saturday night were regulars


At once French and Southern, Highlands’ farm-to-table cuisine is fresh, tasty and above all, expertly prepared. 


Cheerful French posters decorate the walls giving the dining room a touch of a Paris bistro feel, except far more spacious and lacking in either claustrophobia or suffocating cigarette smoke


The first impression is very good and downright soothing.  If you’ve logged time in smoky Paris bistros you will automatically feel how comfy the Highlands environment is.  You see the same sort of cheerful French-inspired poster art perking up the room, but unlike their bistro cousins in high-density cities like New York, Chicago or San Francisco, you enjoy space around your table and room to breathe. 


Soon after we began settling into our seats an aromatic plate of veal sweetbreads came floating by. 


Chef Frank Stitt. Photo courtesy of HIghlands Bar and Grill


This turned out to be Chef Stitt, giving us a friendly and quick glimpse of his kitchen’s achievements as he darted to deliver it to someone’s table.  How refreshing!  Highlands may have opened in 1982 and Frank Stitt may have several other restaurants in his roster, but this was the same sort of enthusiasm you’d imagine was there on opening day. 


Our waiter Goren Avery first met Chef Stitt in 1977 when they both were working at the Hyatt. He has been at the Highlands since its beginning and was recently awarded the Southern Foodways Alliance Ruth Fertile Keeper of the Flame Award. He often cooks in Highlands-style at home and is able to brief you in fine detail on how your food is prepared and how this preparation translates into superior tastes and textures


Frank Stitt’s compatriot in the Highlands venture from the beginning, Goren Avery, who had befriended Stitt when they both worked at the Hyatt in the 70’s, was not only our waiter but also our expert guide on how the food at Highlands is prepared and what makes it special. 


Don't miss the crunchy cornbread on the bread plate, even if you are on a low-carb diet.


A cook in his own right, Goren ---a.k.a. “Red Dog”, a nickname dating back to his younger days with Chef Stitt in a shared tale that somehow involved the ladies and a dumb waiter, or “Go-Go”, a nickname his family gave him when he was the fast scooting child who would later blossom as a tennis player—could explain what it was in each dish’s preparation that made it superior. 


Beef Carpaccio: shaved parmesan, arugula, horseradish cream and beef


For example, the soft sensuality of the shrimp was due to a careful eye on the temperature at which it was poached “for six minutes in bouillon” and then chilled in time to eat but never over-refrigerated. 


Gulf shrimp cocktail


No stranger to slow cooking, Goren gave us a step-by-step recipe –from first carmelizing of onion and garlic in a skillet before adding merlot, etc.--- on how the  scrumptious “Daube à la Provençale” was prepared.  


Top pick: Daube a la Provencale -- slow cooked beef cheek with mushrooms, pearl onions, lardons, Castelvetrao olives, and orange zest


Scouring our memory banks, we can’t think of a waiter who outshines Goren Avery in being able to share intimate kitchen details in a way that makes the dining experience even more special.  This is a man on top of his game.


For vegetarians-- "Fall Vegetable Plate": beet and toasted pecan relish; greens gratin, autumn vegetables puree, sea island peas


Goren Avery’s friend Chef Stitt makes quite the strong impression too.  Scanning the long list of his awards and the high regard by which you hear him referred to throughout town, you too might have been bracing to meet yet another rock star with an outsized ego who somehow thinks he makes the sun rise and set.   Quite the contrary!  When I mentioned how his reputation preceded him during our brief stay in Birmingham the Chef seemed to reflexively point to the contributions of others, and especially the many purveyors who supply Highlands with top quality foods.  


An author of several cookbooks, Chef Stitt also shared the most recent book he helped with, "Know Thy Farmer", a sumptous picture book with photography by D Paul Jones III that profiles the many local farmers who participate in the local farmers' market that Stitt helped launch and who also provide the top quality ingredients that Highlands uses in its preparations


While chatting with us, Frank Stitt chose not his own cookbooks from the shelf, but rather the recently published “Know thy Farmer” by Tanner Latham showcasing very engaging photos by D. Paul Jones III showing the many participants in Birmingham’s Pepper Place Farmers’ Market that Frank Stitt had helped to organize. 


Black Grouper: Put Up Lady Pea pirlau; ham hock; and butternut squash


The proof is in the pudding. 


Creamy satsuma sorbet with cookies


Everything we sampled had subtle touches that transformed these very good ingredients into excellent fare.   Our only regret is that Goren Avery wouldn’t order for us.   Maybe next time…


For more information visit the Highlands Bar and Grill website or call 205 933 1400.


Highlands Bar & Grill

2011 11th Avenue, South





Photos:   Peter Kachergis, unless otherwise indicated


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