My friends Sandy and Ben took us. We drove through Avondale on 41st Street. We passed Melt, Saws, Post Office Pies, and Avondale Brewery. Then we crossed the tracks. We drove another half mile into a quiet residential neighborhood filled with neat mid century modern homes on tree-lined streets. Then we pulled over.
A quiet man greeted us warmly at the door, then disappeared into the kitchen. He looked to be in his early-to-mid 20s, although I later learned he was 33. The place smelled like the best restaurant in France. We entered the man’s living room, took off our coats, and looked around. This was someone’s home. It felt extremely intimate, even intrusive. I felt butterflies in my stomach. I had no idea what to expect.
Sandy and Ben had done this several times before. We followed their lead and took a seat at the generously sized dining table. Another couple, friends of ours, also joined us. They were first timers too and were as awkward as we were. We sat staring at each other, anticipating… something.
And then things stated happening. First, a wine course, with an amuse bouche: liver pate on a crostini. Smooth, earthy, savory, and delicious.
The tension in the room evaporated. We talked and ate, and a glow settled over us. We learned the chef had recently moved back home to Birmingham and bought this house, which was on the same street as his grandmother lived when he was a child.
The food continued to arrive in an almost rhythmic pattern. Each food course was accompanied by a perfectly paired wine course.
An oyster with pickled mustard seeds served atop a bed of sea salt. Fresh and refreshing.
A pan-seared scallop over grits and sweet potatoes with crunchy croutons and frisée. The scallop was buttery, and the grits were velvety smooth.
Pasta course. Handmade cheese-filled ravioli in a light red sauce with the most tender oxtail you could ever imagine:
Main course. Perfectly-seared steak with carrot purée and root vegetables:
And then dessert. Apples three ways: apple cobbler, apple jack ice cream, served with a sparkling apple cider and homemade whipped cream. The cobbler was hearty and a little crunchy, and the ice cream had little pieces of apple jacks in it. Perfect for a fall evening.
Everything was served by the chef, who explained what we were eating very briefly and quietly then disappeared back into the kitchen. Any expressions of “this is amazing” were met with a genuinely appreciative though reserved nod and a modest smile. When we inquired about the food, the chef told us he drew inspiration from restaurants where he used to work.
And so we ate, course after course, each better than the next. After all that incredible food and wine, we couldn’t help but feel content.
The chef lingered in the dining room after dessert, and so we chatted just a little. His name was John. He went to school in Charlotte, and spent time studying abroad. He’s thinking of re-doing his kitchen cabinets. And he worked at a restaurant in New York called Momofuku.
Waaaaaaitt a minute. This seemingly ordinary, quiet guy living in a quiet house and serving food that blew our minds was anything but ordinary. Momofuku was the tip off. That’s one of the top restaurants in Manhattan. You only work there if you are at the very top of your field. A few other restaurant names were mentioned including Grammercy Tavern, another US institution. And now, back in Birmingham, he co-owns Post Office Pies, a fantastic place we’ve blogged about before. I would need to ask him for an interview to get the full story-I knew it had to be an incredible one.
These dinners, which John (last name Hall) hosts at his home, are best for groups of 6-8 people. And they are an exceptionally unique experience, especially if you consider the absurd fact that one of America’s top up-and-coming chefs is basically cooking and serving a private meal, with wine pairings, for you and your friends.
If you are as intrigued by this as we were, stay tuned for next week’s post. John was kind enough to sit down with Sandy and I for an in depth interview about his life, cooking philosophy, reflections on the Birmingham food scene, and his plans to open a restaurant that will the the first of its kind in our city.
If you are interested in learning more about John Hall’s dinners, email Caitlin.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Very special thanks to my foodie friend Sandy, who made this post possible in every way.