I first heard of chef Chris Hastings one day when we were having lunch at the Farmhouse at Serenbe. Marie Nygren, the owner, was telling another table about the next chef to be featured in their weekend chef series. She was raving about the food at Hot and Hot Fish Club and chef Hastings, who had recently (2012) won a James Beard award as the Best Chef of the South. I then saw one of their dishes referenced in Garden & Gun’s food issue and kept the restaurant on the radar.
But here’s the thing – we just don’t get to Birmingham that often. Even though it’s only a 90 minute ride (on the odd day that they are not doing construction on I-20), there needs to be a reason to spend three hours in the car, other than dinner. Not that I haven’t thought about making a reservation and heading over one Saturday evening. Or that I haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time making my way to dinner somewhere else. But this trip home from the West put us right through Birmingham and I made a reservation for Friday night.
We were started with an amuse bouche, which was a bite of toast, goat cheese (which was so sweet and creamy that it tasted like ice cream), fig jam, bacon and mint. Whenever one of these gifts arrives, executed as well as this one was, I’m reminded of that cooking show from a few years back where, in the final round, the competing chefs prepared one spoon for the judges, to determine who won the money. This bite would have brought home the bacon.
We started with their namesake tomato salad. Garden and Gun magazine named the Hot and Hot Tomato Salad as one of the 100 Dishes You have Absolutely, Positively, Must Eat Before You Die a couple of years back. This dish, comprised of heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, field peas, fried okra, smoked bacon and a chive aoli, although comprised of simple ingredients, was fabulous. I imagine that, a little later in the summer, when tomatoes hit their peak of ripeness, this dish would completely over shadow anything else on the menu.
The name Hot and Hot Fish Club comes from a 19th century gentlemen’s social club from South Carolina, which was dedicated to the pursuit of gourmet foods, strong drink and festive times. Chef Hastings great-great-great-great grandfather was a member of the club and the restaurant was named based upon that. We refrained from the strong drink, but we definitely partook of the gourmet food.
“Aaaaahhh. Real food!”, was the declaration from across the table at the first bite of the scallops she ordered. The scallops were pan seared and served with Snow’s Bend beets, oyster mushrooms, baby fennel, Anson Mills farro and chive oil and were seared perfectly. I passed on most of the sides, but took every bite of the scallops that I was offered. I ordered the pork, cooked three ways:
leg, belly and crepinette (I had to Google that one – a crepinette is a small flattened sausage of ground pork, wrapped in caul fat). Th pork was served with blistered okra, bacon lardons (like croutons of bacon – holy pig, these things were full of flavor), creamed field peas and a summer squash casserole. The creamed field peas were something that I wouldn’t have expected and they perfectly complemented the pork. The peas and the belly were the favorite elements of my plate. This was one excellently prepared meal.
I wish I’d spent the three hours in the car two years ago.