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Dinner Rush

September 1, 2009

It has been exciting to see Za Za turn into such a popular restaurant. I’ve been able to witness firsthand the way in which word-of-mouth marketing works when a restaurant is doing good food. The place has buzz and it could not happen to a better group of people. My internship, thus far, has been an incredible learning experience. The learning curve is quite steep and you pick up so many facets of the business quickly…mostly because you have to. The place gets slammed and you’ve got to function at a rapid pace or risk putting the other employees behind. Unlike the corporate world where a slacker can skate by unnoticed for some time, a well run restaurant needs all the team members working in unison. The guy doing the dishes has to keep up or the chefs can’t plate their food. The bussers, waiters and money changer must constantly be flowing or the whole system will backup. It means constant work for everyone involved and you can see your input effecting change every moment. My other life in an office doesn’t have these same outcomes. My input isn’t as impactful and certainly isn’t recognized as much. But there are tradeoffs in the restaurant industry and money is certainly one of them.

After taking two weeks off from the restaurant, one weekend to celebrate my birthday and the next to visit Cleveland, I returned on Friday night to do a shift in the kitchen. Most of the night was spent trying to maintain our dish supply but I found myself at various points, busing tables, running food, pouring drinks, doing prep work, just about everything but actually cooking. As with any restaurant, we had our fair share of complete fuck-ups but I never saw a dish returned or an angry customer unsatisfied. Pretty impressive for the amount of turnover in tables that evening.

Sunday morning I arrived around 8:45, I had been up the night before cooking, drinking and bar hopping so my early morning rise was delayed. Anyway…I showed up with a small hang-over, but cheerful demeanor, and began my routine of chopping fruit and vegetables, cleaning roasted chicken of skin and bones and preparing the accoutrements for our brunch menu. The menu is something special.


1. Biscuits with chicken gravy with scallions and corn. This is a twist on the standard sausage gravy using roasted chicken breasts.

2. Pork medallions over a plating of grits

3. Shrimp Panzanella

4. Frittata with olives, tomatoes and goat cheese.

5. Breakfast Za with a fried egg on top. (Breakfast pizza)

The brunch went as dinner had on Sunday…slammed. People were flowing in from all over the city it seemed. Rain curtailed the rush around 1:00 but it was packed for about 2 hours as we scrambled to meet the onslaught. My day ended around 2:30 and I left exhausted. The life of a restaurant employee is such a different experience from my daily routine. It is a great contrast.


Lola Review – 7/10

August 29, 2009

Cleveland 013










My singular visit to Lola does not give me an exact picture for what Michael Symon does on a regular basis but this is my observation nonetheless.  In many ways, Lola personifies the Cleveland food scene.  Cleveland is a meat-centric city with heavy influence from German, Polish and Italian immigrants.  The Polish bring pierogi’s and sausages, Germans their bratwurst and cured meats and Italians have their own version of the sausage as well as heavy pork use.  Thus the menu at Lola features Michael Symon’s take on some of the cities ethnic foods, typically using French techniques.  Our dinner started with the veal sweetbreads and a charcuterie platter.  The sweetbreads were fried and piled atop a tomatillo sauce.  The charcuterie was a little disappointing as I was expecting the usual pate/mousse fare and instead it had all cured and smoked meats.  I believe all were done in-house and while most were good, a few left much to be desired. 

For the entrée, I chose the duck breast which of the three we ordered that evening was probably the least liked.  My companions had the pork and scallops entrée.  Both were excellent with the scallops in particular featuring a unique melon sauce.  The wine list was reasonable and featured a good selection of wines from various regions.  Overall, I thought Lola was a good restaurant but it reminded me that Birmingham still has one of the best per-capita restaurant scenes.  I think Highlands Bar and Grill and Café DuPont put out a better food product, although, the atmosphere and design of Lola leaves the other two playing catch-up. 









The duck breast above was the most dissapointing entree in the group but was still a well cooked duck breast.   The picture is quite fuzzy but you should be able to make out the look of the dish.

Westside Market

August 26, 2009

Here are pics from the Westside Market. One of the stalls at the market had a wonderous display of encassed-meats. Cleveland has a great assortment of sausages and cured products. The market was a highlight of the trip. Certainly worth exploring if you enjoy food in all forms.

You have to give the gyro a try in a stall towards the back of the market. The regular is plenty big. Best…Gryo…Ever….Ever.

Maintanence Problems

August 20, 2009

Stuck in Nashville on a plane. Engine had a dent in it and they are measuring the dent to see if it’s problematic. Been on the ground for an hour, so far. I don’t know how I feel about the diagnosis of meauring a dent in the engine to determine if it’s an issue. Doesn’t sound very scientific. Or at least precise.

Cleveland’s food scene

August 20, 2009

On my way to visit Cleveland for the first time. Normally, this rust-belt city is not on my radar for places to see, however, I have family living there and, most importantly, they have a budding reputation as a food town. I will report back on my dinner at Lola and the West Side Market. Hopefully, I’ll try a few other spots that will be worthy of writing about.

Birthday weekend

August 16, 2009

I’m taking the weekend off from Za Za to celebrate my birthday in proper fashion.  The weekend was filled with a series of really good meals.  Friday night was spent at Za as friends and family had insisted on trying the food that I am always raving about.  Dinner started with mussels cooked in a tomato and fennel broth that was outstanding.  I then tried the flank steak with pasta for the main course.  Both highlighted what I enjoy about the chefs at Za and there ability to take simple dishes but use superior ingredients and create really good food. 

Saturday night I visited Chez Fon Fon, a traditional French bistro, with some good friends.  I started with the charcuterie platter as the restaurant does a great job on pates and mousses.  Despite the previous nights endeavor with steak, I decided on the steak frittes for dinner.  I was a little disappointed with the cut of the meat.  It was a flank steak, as best I could tell, and it was a little undercooked with tough sinew still intact.  The salsa verde and salad that accompanied the steak were excellent and despite the cut of steak, it was a great experience.  The wine list, I will add, is far superior to most other restaurants in the city.  Great selection of mostly French wines.  One of the few places that I can find a Sancerre. 

Today, I had to go back to Za for a follow up brunch.  I decided to take the day off knowing Saturday night would probably end late, with me being intoxicated.  So, I staggered over to Za around 11 and, after catching up with the guys working, enjoyed biscuits and gravy.  The twist on this traditional brunch meal is that the chefs roasted chicken thighs and substituted those for the sausage.  A great substitute that worked really well with the gravy.  It was a great way to close out a fun weekend. 

Next weekend I will be traveling to Cleveland to visit a friend and try Michael Symons restaurant Lola and a few other local spots.  Cleveland, thanks to shows like No Reservations, is getting some good praise on their local cuisine.  Looking forward to reporting the experience.

Highland’s Bar & Grill Review – 8/10

August 15, 2009
Beef Carpaccio

Beef Carpaccio

If you were to ask a casual passerby in Birmingham, “What is the best restaurant in the city?”, I can say with a high level of confidence that most answers would be Highland’s Bar & Grill.  I would venture to guess that a number of those people haven’t actually been to Highlands but are basing their answer on reputation alone.  Highland’s has been a staple for fine dining in Birmingham since the 80’s.  It’s hard to believe that a restaurant that has been around the better part of two decades is still cranking out innovative food and challenging the next generation of chef’s in this city to keep up. 

Frank Stitt’s flagship restaurant, currently up for a James Beard award for top restaurant in the country, is without a doubt one of, if not the, top restaurant in Birmingham.  Frank has created a well rounded restaurant which leaves little room for criticism.  His staff is well trained, educated and enthusiastic about the place in which they work.  The restaurant’s wine list is far and away the most thoughtful and interesting in the city.  The most important variable, the food, will (for the most part) live up to the reputation this kitchen has developed.  Highland’s is a French-influenced, high-end dining restaurant which will at times feature southern ingredients cooked using, largely, French techniques.    

On my most recent visit, I started the night with the popular appetizer, beef carpaccio.  This is raw beef sliced very thinly, sitting over a horseradish sauce, with fresh arugula and indescribably good parmesan shavings over the top.  This is a simple but flawlessly executed dish.  I’d also recommend giving the charcuterie platter a try.  Charcterie platters will typically include a country pate, assorted meats, radishes and pickled beets.  For my entrée, I had the veal tenderloin and sweetbreads (thymus glands).  Both were sautéed and although the veal was slightly overcooked, both were tasty.  The waiter, an Italian immigrant named Marco, was one of the more knowledgeable and well-trained restaurant staff members I’ve had the luxury of interacting with.  He was pushing me towards an off-menu beef cheek dish that the kitchen had prepared and while I would have loved to have tried that, my date was less than excited about the idea.  My date had the Alaskan Halibut over smashed peas and new potatoes.  She exclaimed the dish to be the one of the best she’s had in her lifetime.  I can’t give mine quite that much praise but it was a rewarding dining experience overall.  With 5 glasses of wine, an appetizer, 2 entrée’s and a dessert the tab came to $140 which I found to be very reasonable given the quality of product served at Highland’s.  Frank, and the staff at Highland’s, are worthy of the top 5 ranking from James Beard and I’m hoping they receive even more praise in the future.