The daddy of today’s Southern restaurants: Highlands Bar and Grill [classic article]

No matter which of Baltimore’s fine dining Southern restaurants you enjoy, they were all influenced directly or indirectly by Chef Frank Stitt, whose original project is Highlands Bar and Grill. If you want to see and taste where much of today’s modern cuisine got its start, hop a quick direct flight to Birmingham.

No doubt, if you love sitting in your Baltimore armchair and reading fine Southern magazines, such as Southern Living, Oxford American and Garden & Gun, you’ve read about Frank Stitt.

I’m glad I got to try it! Before going, I ordered Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, to get an idea of his cooking philosophy. I learned that he trained in France, gathered his ideas of fine dining there, as well as a desire to only work with the freshest ingredients possible. This influenced what I tried in the restaurant, such as fresh produce.

Highlands Bar and Grill is a very popular destination in Birmingham, naturally, so reservations are definitely suggested. I’d describe the dress as fairly dressy and the night I was there, there wasn’t any music that played in the background. Menu items can best be described as classic with a house-made Frank Stitt twist.

The house-made Tonic drink is mixed with your choice of vodka or gin for a very snappy drink with citrus notes, but a citrus you can’t quite put your flavor on. It’s clearly not out of a commerical bottle.

Since Chef Stitt was one of the pioneers for using local, fine produce, I ordered the Sweet Gem and mixed young lettuces, with Stone Hollow goat cheese, Chioggia (a type of beet) and golden beets and watermelon radish with grenache vinaigrette. It was crisp and fresh, with smaller lettuce pieces nestled into larger leaves. The watermelon radish was mildly peppery and cute, complimented by a very rich, creamy and mild goat cheese.

Chef Stitt wrote heartily in his book about how much he loves eating crab claws. I ordered the crab claws with ginger sauce. They were mini claws – many – and it was fun to eat crab without a Maryland-Old Bay treatment. The claws were flavorful and fresh.

The stone baked grits with country ham, mushrooms, fresh thyme and Parmesan had a pleasantly baked outside while still creamy inside. This was not an expected, tried-and-true Southern dish. The stone ground grits had good texture and were fairly finely ground.

Highlands doesn’t pay short shrift to desserts, either: I tried the Chocolate Pecan Tart, with salted caramel and dark chocolate ganache with chocolate-Jack Daniels ice cream. The ice cream definitely had a kick to it, complementing the chocolate and caramel flavors — a nice, sharper counterpoint to richness. The tart had a dark chocolate shell, a true study in chocolate.

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