The Chef's Table at Local: A Culinary Adventure

Note: This restaurant has since closed, but we leave this page posted as a favor and tribute to chef Anthony Marini and one of the most memorable meals we've ever had.

Local Restaurant & Cocktail Bar
Vestavia City Center
949-0886
www.LisLocal.com

 
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By Deborah Lockridge 

local-exterior.jpgResearching New York City restaurants in preparation for a whirlwind spring trip left us somewhat frustrated with Birmingham's offerings. Yes, we have some very good restaurants, but who could offer something that was a truly different dining experience?

We found our answer at Anthony Marini's Chef's Table at Local Restaurant and Cocktail Bar in Vestavia City Center. The Local website says the Chef's Table will "create a sensory overload for food enthusiasts," and that's about right. After discussing the guests' food preferences and any dietary restrictions, Marini creates an eight- to 10-course gustatory experience, most of which will not be found on the restaurant's regular menu.

We've been meaning to do the Chef's Table ever since we first ate at AMBA, Marini's critically acclaimed but poorly located (and now closed) restaurant near UAB. There the Chef's Table was actually located in the kitchen, where you could watch the food being prepared. Unfortunately, the layout of Local, formerly a Calypso Joe's Caribbean Grill, has a galley-type kitchen layout that prohibits this type of intimacy. Instead, the Chef's Table is set up in the narrow prep area where the servers pick up the food. It's a cozy spot; two of our four diners had their backs up against the wall that is the back of a grill, making it a bit warm, but not uncomfortably so. Our server, who coincidentally was also named Evan, was always attentive, and we also got personal attention from Marini himself, whose personality alone (more like in-your-face Anthony Bourdain than the reserved Frank Stitt) is a breath of fresh air -- much like his cooking.

We gave Marini very little guidelines, other than the fact that we had some protein-heavy eaters in our group of four. We have eaten with him many times, so he knows we are adventurous eaters, and our friends David and Margaret Adams of Metro Pictureworks are as well.

We started by ordering two of Local's new vodka infusion drinks. Marini has always had some of the most interesting and cleverly named martinis in town, and this is something new. Infusion #1 was vodka infused with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, Thai chili, and ginger, muddled with coconut milk and cilantro. This sounds like a stranger combination than it actually is, reminding us a bit of a cold, slightly sweet version of Thai coconut soup. Infusion #3 was our favorite – vodka infused with lavender and honey, muddled with mint and topped with prosecco. This has a lovely, subtle herb flavor and delightful aroma. Jumping the gun a bit, but a third infusion, #2, showed up as part of the menu later on in the evening, a vodka infused with pineapple, cinnamon, brown sugar, vanilla bean and thyme muddled with ginger ale and served up. This is the sweetest of the three, and also quite good.

Our first treat was an amuse-bouche, a one-bite treat, compliments of the chef, to "amuse the mouth." We have seen this done at many fine restaurants in other cities, but for some reason it has not been typical in the Birmingham area. For our meal, this was a fried Apalachicola oyster with wood-smoked mayonnaise. This dish is sometimes on the Local menu, and was devoured in great quantities at his grand opening last year. The oyster is perfectly tender on the inside and crispy on the outside, but what makes it stand out is the wood-smoked mayonnaise. These were presented on Chinese ceramic soup spoons.

localmarini200.jpgOur second course, we all agreed later, was one of our favorites. Called "Surf and Turf #1," it was a salad of organic buckwheat lettuce and Sea Beans with shallots and blood orange vinaigrette. We had never had Sea Beans, so we asked our waiter what it was – and where on earth they had gotten it. The answer came back after our waiter Evan consulted with Marini: a type of seaweed, which Marini had found at the recently opened Whole Foods. The Sea Beans did indeed look a bit like thin green beans, but had a tender-yet-crispy saltiness that was an appealing foil for the sweet citrus of the dressing.

Surf and Turf #2 was hangar steak tartare with Asian flavors and sea urchin with wasabi foam. This was a different take on steak tartare, with the Asian flavors and some cream mixed in. Sea urchin is a bit of an acquired taste; if you eat a lot of sushi, you may be familiar with it. Some of us loved the combination of the soft, briny urchin with the tender meat, while it was a bit too much for others.

The surf and turf courses were followed by the most unusual course of the evening: shellfish-coffee latte with orange vanilla froth. This was, as it sounds like, a latte combined with a shellfish broth, served in a coffee cup topped with a sweet froth. The flavors were a daring and intense combination, and like the urchin, some of us liked it more than others. The consensus was that this was a dish best served in small doses; perhaps a demitasse cup's worth would have been more appropriate.

Our next course was hands-down the favorite entrée: a 10-hour braised Texas pork belly with ragout of cauliflower, wood ear mushroom and English peas and fondue broth. The pork belly was decadently rich, in taste and texture reminiscent of bacon and the tenderest pot roast you can imagine.

By now we were starting to get full, so we were glad the next course was on the lighter side – banana-leaf steamed Nova Scotia halibut with Tokyo Town Vegetables and Sauce Tom Kuy Guy. Everything this evening was beautifully presented (without being fussy or stacked in perilously vertical towers), but this dish was especially so, with the fish wrapped in banana leaves and the lovely Thai-influenced aromas wafting from it. Halibut is a very firm, mild white fish that we don't see that often on menus in this area, as it comes from the North Pacific and the North Atlantic oceans. The sauce was so wonderful we were spooning it up like soup after finishing the fish.

The next course was onglet (French for hangar steak) with laratte potatoes, spicy corn emulsion and truffle barbecue sauce. Hangar steak has long been popular in Europe, but is enjoying new popularity in this country. It is prized for its tenderness and intense flavor; in fact, it was sometimes called a "butcher's steak" because butchers would often keep it for themselves. This was cooked a perfect medium-rare, and we each had different opinions as to which sauce we preferred with it, the spicy corn or the truffled barbecue. The Laratte potatoes were perfectly tender fingerlings cut in half lengthwise, and if we hadn't been so full we would have wanted more. (Further research after dinner revealed that a "Laratte" potato is a particular variety of fingerling with yellow, finely netted skin and deep-yellow, waxy, nutty flesh.)

At this point, we enjoyed the pineapple vodka infusion, then moved on to a cheese plate with quince, tiny eggplants, and country bread. We didn't make much of a dent, but managed to save a little room to share two desserts: poached Bosc pears with Merlot ice cream and Stephanie's Banana French Toast. It wasn't on the menu, but Stephanie Bedford, the chef de cuisine, also brought over a bowl of her creation, basil ice cream, because we had raved about it to our friends. All were delicious.

We also enjoyed several bottles of wine throughout the evening. Since the upcoming courses were a surprise, we relied on Anthony and his wine steward, Jim Smith, to provide wines that would complement the menu, and they did an excellent job. Smith has done a wonderful job with Local's wine list, offering a variety of delicious wines from around the world that aren't the typical mass-market, big-name labels you see at many restaurants – and they are also very affordable. The most expensive bottle on the list the night we went was $80 (A Russian River Valley chardonnay from California), and they started as low as $20 for a French chardonnay from the Loire region.

After dinner, we each got an autographed copy of the menu, and had the chance to autograph the chef's table board on the wall next to the area where we ate. By this time, it was after 11, and we were the only customers left in the restaurant, so we had a good time cutting up a bit while the shorter of us borrowed a stepladder to sign in the emptier area at the top.

Anthony Marini is a talented chef who brings new flavors to the Birmingham dining scene. If you're feeling adventurous and want a truly memorable evening for a special occasion, we highly recommend the Chef's Table for a culinary adventure.

But you don't have to wait for a special occasion to enjoy Marini's talents. The regular menu is not extensive but changes frequently. For instance, at the time of our visit, among the appetizer choices were spicy charred corn soup with barbecue-truffle sauce, salmon and hangar steak tartars with Asian flavors and wasabi foam, and cornmeal fried Apalachicola oysters with wood smoke mayonnaise. Entrees started at $17 for "Any Given Sunday," (a dish of ziti with veal meatballs, tomato gravy and hot pepper), to $25 for a hangar steak with Parmesan fries, red wine sauce and blue cheese butter. (At a time when you'll pay upwards of $30 for a steak at most fine dining establishments in town, this is a deal.) Other entrees included North Coast sea scallops with Marini's signature black truffle risotto, and miso-glazed Hawaiian Mahi Mahi.

So whether you're looking for a culinary adventure or just want to take that dinner-and-movie date to the next level (Rave theaters are just up the escalator from the restaurant), try Local, which offers a fun approach to fine food.

Published May 2007