Highland Baked Grits-100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama Before You Die
Tasty Tuesday-Baked Grits ar Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham. This is my #59 dish and/or 42 on the countdown.
As a transplant to Alabama, I knew little of Highlands Bar and Grill and famous Chef Frank Stitt. My expectations were humble; I just knew that I was going to be eating some grits. In this case, ignorance was definitely bliss.
If you follow my Alabama quest, you may remember that I do not like to read about the restaurants before I chow down. Before I begin to tell you about how I kissed grits, I must tell you that I was blown away by “finding” this restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama. In an effort to keep this tidbit short, let me put it to you this way. In 2016, this restaurant was nominated for James Beards Awards. Not in one category, but in two; Outstanding Restaurant and Outstanding Pastry Chef.
Nominated with restaurants from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, it’s kind of a big deal in the restaurant world. This is the eighth time that this restaurant has been nominated. Does that happen ever? Pretty much no, I recently read that only one other restaurant has had this many nominations, and that was in the big city of San Francisco.  I visited the week that the awards came out and although they did not win, this fan was pulling for them.
The restaurant motto reads: “Ever-changing seasonal menu of French-inspired, regional Southern fare served in an elegant setting. “With no reservation, (rookie) I was able to secure a spot along this gorgeous white marble oyster bar. This was my stroke of luck, not only because I was able to get a coveted seat, I was also able to get a humble look at one exceptionally well run restaurant.
The Stone Ground Baked Grits on the appetizer menu are rock stars, just like their father Chef Frank Stitt. With a quick Google, I note that this recipe is shared by; The New York times, The Cooking Channel, Epicurious, You-Tube, Esquire Magazine, and the list goes on. Said to be a customer favorite for 30 years, this Mick Jagger of Grits has been on the menu at Highland’s Bar and Grill. Why? This Chef took a simple Native American staple of local, coarse, stone-ground yellow corn, and married them with his French cuisine expertise. This rock star baby is simmered in white pepper, Parmigiano and egg, turned into a ramekin, and baked in a gentle water bath, browning the top during the last 30 minutes of baking.
After baking, this baby is turned out of the ramekin with the brown side up, in a soufflé like presentation. Gently ladled with a decadent sauce made of white wine, vinegar, hot sauce, lemon, herbs butter, fresh cream, Parmesan-Reggiano, country ham, fitting for a rock star, crowned with thyme and the most beautiful mushrooms that are known to this earth. Of course, the ham is not just any old country ham, It is Benton’s Smoked Shoulder. Said to be “ country ham, the cured pig product that is America’s answer to prosciutto.”  Benton’s sell their cured ham to some of the best chef’s in the country. They have sought out the best pigs and take great care in making their product. I loved the story of this business. If you are interested in why this ham product is far beyond superior follow this link. Benton’s Country Ham Business by The Lucky Peach.
MEGastars 5 ***** This dish and restaurant epitomizes this talented Alabama son gone big-city, French country who returned home to Birmingham with the book of food knowledge in his pocket. Local, fresh foods taken up a notch or two, or three…Thank you to chef Stitt for this simply fantastic experience. Inspired to make this dish? See link in MEGatips.
Want to know more about why this was the best restaurant experience of my life thus far? Read on. Let me begin by telling you about my oysters. I was sitting at the oyster bar and when in Rome…. As James Beard once said, they were simply “one of the supreme delights that nature has bestowed on man.” Since moving to Alabama, I am becoming an oyster freak, I noticed several oysters listed on the menu of the day. I asked the bartender/server for a suggestion, and he chose the ever so safe Beau Soleil New Brunswick Oysters. Often recommended to beginners for the mild buttery flavor and not as strong of a briny quality, they are one of my favorites. A great read by this server. Served with crackers, fresh-ground horseradish, cocktail sauce, and champagne vinaigrette, I liked them naked but just had to try the condiments. When I asked the waiter what the vinaigrette sauce was he replied “a champagne vinaigrette.” I am pretty sure in retrospect, it was a champagne mignonette and he answered my question in a way that was not offensive. And this behavior my readers is what separates a puppy from the big dog.
The French poet Léon-Paul Fargue, wrote that eating an oyster was “like kissing the sea on the lips.” Well, Leon-Paul, I made out with them, slipped some tongue and ordered another ½ dozen. Outstanding!
I also tasted the Fresh Large Apalachicola Shrimp cooked to order. When I requested to have them cooked without salt, without hesitation the staff said that I could order them any way that I wanted. The shrimp were as fresh as if I was sitting at the seaside in Apalachicola. Dang, they were yummy.
Grilled Jumbo Asparagus-Farm Egg Vinaigrette, Tarragon, Chervil, Sherry VinegarI was in the mood for asparagus with my shrimp. These starters were a perfect dinner for me. When this dish arrived, I was struck by the fact that each spear cost approximately $4.66 per spear; albeit, they were large spears. Was it worth this price I think so, the egg vinaigrette was unique! And, for an appetizer the portion size does match up to the price point. Chalk it up to a really fun try. I would order this dish again.
So why was this the best restaurant that I have ever visited? I don’t know about you but overall, I balk at going to award winning restaurants. Stuffy, pretentious, rude, high priced with small portions come to my mind. This restaurant was the exception. Here are six reasons that I absoutley loved Highlands Bar and Grill. Perfection.
- Yes, the walls were loaded with articles, accolades, and awards. James Beard, Bon-Appetit, Julia Childs and so on. The story is very interesting and inspiring.
- I found the atmosphere to be upscale yet welcome. The impeccable dress and manners of the staff begin at the front door with the maître de in suits and the table staff in freshly ironed white shirts, aprons, and ties. As the protocol fitting royalty, the staff motions you forward first and they step aside clearly suggesting you are the honored guest. After my visit, I later read that Chef Stitt’s wife, Paradis Stitt, takes care of the dining room or front of the house, and instructs people to be a matador or a ballerina. Watching the staff pour drinks and serve the tables, I totally understood this reference. We should all be taught this type of humility and politeness towards each other.
- This restaurant has been around for 30 years and yet the décor is fresh, current and interesting. It is as if a new Chef came to town with the intention of gaining the top spot. It echoes cool, Restoration Hardware -esque style, with French lithographs that hang on the walls painted with the perfect color of the year. The customers sit at rustic style wood tables upon either leather banquette seating or chairs. Check out this fantastic sink in the women’s bathroom. I want this for my future home.
- More recently, I have been increasingly interested in the “changing of the Chefs,” so to speak. I love the leadership of great Chefs in regards to a movement towards a simple, nutritious and regional foods prepared in an interesting manner. Oh, and in a more relaxed setting. This restaurant and dish exemplify these shift changes. Oh, and they did it before farm-to-table was in vogue.
- Dress-Although the patrons are clearly dressed in casual, business-casual attire, one does not feel the formality of a place that quite frankly, makes me feel less comfortable. After my visit, I did notice that their website states no shorts and suggests men wear jackets. To me, this was more of a nod to what one might expect and help the future patron make choices for their attire.
- DO make a reservation well ahead of your request. Reservations are accepted one month in advance. There is a link on their website to Open Table for reservations. *Take note, this restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays.
- Recipe for Highland Baked Grits from The New York times. Highlands Baked Grits Recipe
- Highlands Bar and Grill website.
4:00 pm | Tuesday – Friday
5:00 pm | Saturday
5:30 pm – 10:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday
*Closed on Sunday and Monday
 Mr. Bob Carlton, AL.com Eight time nomination source.
 Lucky Peach with link provided in above blog.
This MEGabites and MEGastars description is found at the bottom of each post. If you are new to my 100 Dishes in Alabama escapade, this may be helpful information.
ABOUT: *100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama Before You Die,” is a compilation of food to chow down on “Bama style.” Thanks to Tourism Alabama, www.alabama.travel my Alabama bucket list just became a little easier. I am going to have some food fun while making my way like Ms. Pacman, in yet another state that I call home. From the little old diner to the white cloth setting, this journey is an opportunity for me to explore my new state and experience pride in food from restaurateurs who are dedicated to local food, with some Alabama style. From the local BBQ smoker to James Beard recipients, you too will take a culinary trip across scenic and historical Alabama. From this list, I select stops based upon convenience of location and they are in no particular order (but I already have a few favorites.) Perhaps when I finish this list, I will rank my favorite dishes. You too may pick up the brochure at Alabama Tourism stops or download the alphabetical brochure that begins in Abbeville and ends in York.
I use a 5 MEGastar system. For the most part, I am traveling a distance to try these dishes and these places get one shot at how I view the food and experience. I will not be taking an average of three visit experiences and I factor this in when I give my star rating. That said, I’m very easy to please, I can overlook quite a bit and have worked in the food service industry. I am not a paid food critic, just Meg, a curious traveler, with an interest in trying different foods and sharing my two cents on the experience. I try to follow my own star system so that I may be fair to the wonderful dishes on this list.
- *meh food. Just wasn’t good. Maybe the food came from a can? or, the place was not one that I would want to send someone to show pride in Alabama. This has happened to me a few times and is a difficult write.
- ** passable – the food was “ok” but the place was not “ok” or vice versa.
- *** good but not outstanding or unique.
- **** Very tasty dish AND meets one of the definitions set forth by Alabama Foods/Tourism, of local food and/OR truly highlights Alabama Pride.
- ***** I actually died, went to heaven and came back when I ate the dish. And/Or, something is very unique, something you cannot get anywhere else.