Fun Fun at Fonfon
Frank Stitt III, James Beard Award Winner, and restaurant chef and and owner is my Alabama food hero. I was working with a few people in Birmingham, AL. We had a little break between work and dinner time everyday, so I went out jogging from my hotel everyday I was there. I jogged for about 10 blocks in 3 directions (the 4th, the security guards said it was a bad idea) and found nothing more than a chain sandwich shop, a chain burger shop, a hospital, a lot of abandoned buildings, and then the hotel complex restaurants (which were not that good). I was also with 2 vegetarians and one omnivore, so I didn't know what we were going to do to find food for them. Then a small area in downtown Birmingham, AL called 5-points showed up about 15 blocks south of my hotel. There they were Frank Stitt's restaurants. They seemed to have sunbeams focused right on them, while other areas where I had jogged were a little more gray. Frank Stitt's restaurants are a haven in the food desert of Alabama.
I have had the pleasure of working in Alabama a lot, from Huntsville all they way down to the Gulf Coast in Gulf Shores, and everywhere in between. To name a few places where I have been repeatedly are Huntsville, Selma, Montgomery, Florence, Anniston, Guntersville, Oxford, Gadsden, Mobile, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Birmingham. The unfortunate part about much of Alabama is that it is a food desert. It is hard to eat right, and find nutritious healthy foods in restaurants. It is hard to find a salad made with salad greens that are not iceberg lettuce. On some occasions it is hard to find a fresh vegetable. It seems that Alabama is inundated with chains that serve manufactured food. That is what sets Stitt apart from all others.
So, we looked at our Stitt options and walked into Chez Fonfon. Chez Fonfon is Stitt's casual bistro option, with his other 2 being Highlands Grill and Bottega. The price point at Chez Fonfon is no different than any sitdown chain (like those with Apple, Tuesday or Friday as part of the name), so the cost fits into my travel budget easily. Highlands and Bottega classically need reservations because they are so popular, but Chez Fonfon is designed so you can just walk in off the street, and have a nice meal. The menu at Chez Fonfon was definitely French Burgundy inspired. Offerings include mussels, country pate, cheese, charcuterie, fresh vegetables, soup, salads, steak frites, and other entrees. I was so excited. Since I like smaller tasting plates, dim sum, I ordered off the leftside of the menu from the starters and salads. I ordered a salad, steamed mussels and a charcuterie plate. Fresh green salad! Ah fiber from a non-canned source of vegetable! Wheeee! The steamed mussels were (do I dare say) better than any mussels I had in Brussels, Belgium - a city known for mussels. The steaming broth made up of herbs, garlic wine were delicious. I wanted to eat up the steaming liquid like a soup, but I did not. We did get a couple baskets of bread, and I did take liberties with bread to dip and eat, dip and eat the broth. The charcuterie plate included homemade pork sausage links, dried salami, pickled beets, pickled baby pickles, olives, sliced egg and potatoes with a side of coarse grain mustard. I just let bites of the housemade salami sit on my tongue to take in the flavor. Also, for my vegan co-worker, and almost vegan co-worker, they were not disappointed either. There wasn't a vegan or vegetarian option available, but we told our waiter the situation. The vegan co-worker, for health reasons, could not eat meat, and the waiter said that the chef would be happy to create a special vegetable dinner plate for them. Their plate included a lovely green, tomato and fennel salad, grilled asparagus, beets, fresh Frenched green beans and shoe string french fries. It was just lovely. My vegetarian co-workers were happy with their meals because it wasn't just another iceberg lettuce, mealy tomato, mustard sandwich on white bread.
Just note, if you are ever in Birmingham without a car, there is an inexpensive bus (that looks like a street car), I believe we paid $0.50 per ride from our hotel to 5-points. This bus runs expressly to take hotel guests to 5-points and back. It was a 15 block walk from my particular hotel in summer in the deep south, so that was not going to work out for us (too hot) so the bus was a great option. There few taxis this city, so getting around this way is not always an option. Ask the front desk for the route map for this bus, or get a business card of a cabbie and call the cabbie to take you back and forth the cost of the ride and a big tip.