1 year ago

New restaurant knows how to be Essential to Alabama diners

Kristen Hall and Victor King know what’s essential when it comes to a successful restaurant – it’s more than gracious, friendly service; interesting, delicious foods; a thoughtful wine list; and creative craft cocktails.

With their new eatery, The Essential, the two chefs have created a place that’s quickly becoming an everyday part of the lives around them. “It is something you can count on,” King says. “Something that is always there.”

He’s not exaggerating. The Essential is a refined and comfortable neighborhood café and bar in downtown Birmingham that is open seven days a week. (So, the next time someone asks about a nice dinner on a Monday night, this is your answer.)

Hall and King are co-owners of the restaurant, which is part of the Founders Stationredevelopment project; she is the executive pastry chef and he’s the executive chef. He runs the back of the house, and she does most of the marketing and social media. They collaborate closely on the food, which King describes as “new American” because it doesn’t make them “beholden to any one type of cuisine.” The foods, they say, are “Roman-inspired,” but there is a Southern accent here, and some things are classically French, too.

It’s a place where handmade bucatini is topped with Benton’s ham, and spaghetti with Gulf crab is finished with garlic, lemon and cream. Brioche doughnuts and sausage biscuits both have a place on the brunch menu. At The Essential, cheese straws or duck rillettes (made with New Amsterdam gin and sumac foraged by the bar manager) might start things off, and classic carrot cake or plum tart with chai pastry cream, pistachios and pâte sucrée will end the meal on a sweet note.

This is inventive food inspired by the larger world but drawing specifically from our own little corner of it. Some 90 percent of the things they serve come from Alabama or the surrounding states, King says. A fresh take on fritto misto features local squash and peppers, salsa macha, cumin yogurt and “peanuts from next door.” A seasonal punch starts with apple leaf tea from the trees at Petals From the Past.

Hall says the “Roman inspiration” is about more than the handmade pastas. It signifies a “utilitarian” way of approaching food that is simple and seasonally driven, relying on what’s on hand. For that, they turn to places like Belle Meadow Farm, Hillandale Farms, Jones Valley Teaching Farm and Smitherman Farms. The restaurant’s walk-in cooler is small, and King says it’s a challenge, logistically, to consistently source ingredients that are local and thoughtful. A lot of consideration goes into menu changes, but, he adds, it’s worth the work.

Hall says she and King manage relationships with multiple farmers because they offer quality products and because it’s important. Of course, they could “simply make one phone call and have everything delivered once or twice a week and not have to write 15 different checks to 15 different vendors,” she says. “We care enough about them that we’re willing to do that. That really just comes from us as business owners because it certainly is harder to do that, but it really matters.”

This bigger-picture mindset is essential to how they operate.

King began working in kitchens before he could even drive. Hall is a self-taught baker who started baking for fun with her daughters and dropping off those baked goods on the doorsteps of friends and family. Their ring-and-run largess earned them the name Baking Bandits.

Both Hall and King were told at various times to either follow their food dreams or move on with life; they took the dream route. King worked for Frank Stitt at Bottegaand Highlands Bar and Grill. Hall left her corporate job at UAB to bake for a living. Their paths crossed when she was delivering pastries to the former Bottle & Bone, where he was working as the chef. Their first collaboration was a quail and rabbit pie.

“One of the things that I say now – and I think this is very true in life professionally and personally – is that there’s no such thing as ‘ready,’” Hall says. “If you’re really taking the risk that you should be taking, you will still be terrified, but you will do it anyway. … Bravery is not being unafraid. It is being afraid and doing it anyway.”

They became business partners after Hall’s business concept won REV Birmingham’s Big Pitch $10,000 grand prize and the two opened Feast & Forest, quickly building a loyal customer base. King says The Essential is “the most natural evolution of what Feast & Forest was intended to be.” They now employ 54 people (most with regular schedules), and King says the café’s seven-day-a-week service fills a need in the city.

In fact, everything about The Essential has been intentional, Hall says. From the carefully curated space itself (the site of Birmingham’s first drive-through bank) to the beautiful vintage plates to the creative foods served on those plates. There is a definite French vibe on the patio, which overlooks Morris Avenue’s wonderful, old cobblestones. A painting of a ballerina once hung in Hall’s grandparents’ home and now is a lovely, personal touch in the small dining room. There’s not much storage for a lot of wine, so they delight in offering limited bottles that customers might not find elsewhere in town.

It’s called a café for a reason, Hall says. “A cafe is really more than a restaurant. … It signifies an all-day sort of experience.”

You can get your morning coffee, your lunch sandwich, your after-work drinks as well as your dinner. “Whenever I travel, the places that I really love are the ones that are open all day,” she adds. “For me, the places that I always find the most comfortable and the ones that I want to go back to are always the ones that are open all day long. Cafés are where life happens.”

Hall says she wants customers to leave The Essential “feeling a certain way. So, obviously I want you to be well fed, and I want you to think that the food is beautiful and the service was amazing. But I want you to leave and tell your friends that you’ve just found your new home, your new favorite place.”

The Essential

2018 Morris Ave.

Birmingham, AL 35203




Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., brunch and dinner

Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., brunch

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and the current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 hours ago

Livingston, Whatley elected to lead Alabama Space Authority

The Alabama Space Authority this week held a meeting, respectively electing State Senators Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro) and Tom Whatley (R-Auburn) as chair and vice-chair of the body.

Both senators, who were appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) to the authority, plan to work diligently towards making Alabama a leader in the space industry, according to a joint release.

The Alabama Space Authority was created in 2017 to promote research and development of new space exploration and spaceport technology; to sponsor conference and business roundtables within the aerospace, aviation and related industries; and to promote activities and industries related to exploration.

The authority includes representatives of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), the Alabama Department of Commerce, the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, the Alabama Department of Transportation, the governor, the State legislature and other stakeholders and experts.


Livingston, who recently played a leading role in the creation of the legislature’s Aerospace and Defense Caucus and serves as its chair, stated that the Alabama Space Authority will be looking into how the Yellowhammer State can further improve this industry.

“We are looking into the possibility of the Dream Chaser being able to land in Huntsville,” Livingston said. “This is going to be a great opportunity to look into how the legislature can aide in supporting the aerospace and defense industry in Alabama.”

Whatley added that he was honored to be selected as vice-chair and that space is a growing industry in Alabama.

“I’m proud to be a member … because this is a big deal for our entire state, from Huntsville to Auburn’s aerospace programs and to the robust aircraft manufacturing on the coast. Aerospace is a $12 billion industry and a key component to Alabama’s economy,” Whatley commented.

Livingston concluded by advising he expects to receive an update from the U.S. Space Command and is looking forward to bringing more space industry projects to Alabama.

RELATED: Ainsworth in Huntsville: Alabama is ‘the aerospace capital of the world’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

Lewis touts McCutcheon; Brooks touts Trump, his record with space and defense

Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) this week endorsed Chris Lewis in the GOP primary race in the Fifth Congressional District.

The surprise endorsement by McCutcheon caught many in the state off-guard because this race has flown under the radar and polling shows this race, like all of U.S. Representative Mo Brooks’ (R-Huntsville) previous primaries, handily in the bag.

But McCutcheon’s endorsement rightly got the attention of multiple media outlets and observers of Alabama politics with many wondering what this was really all about.


So when Brooks saw the endorsement and a hostage-style video promoting it by McCutcheon, Brooks responded by highlighting the most coveted endorsement a Republican candidate for any office could get: President Donald Trump.

Brooks told Yellowhammer News:

I have the strong endorsement of President Trump, a man I worked hard with to CUT TAXES on American families and secure America’s borders! In contrast, Chris Lewis has the endorsement of legislator Mac McCutcheon, whose greatest expertise has been RAISING TAXES on struggling Alabama families!

While speaking to WVNN on Friday, Brooks noted that the endorsement on the bounds of support from the space and defense industry is laughable.

“If Mac McCutcheon is saying that Chris Lewis has more support in Research Park, that is categorically false. We have received more support from the state and defense community, vastly, vastly, vastly, vastly more support from the state and defense community than Chris Lewis has,” he told “The Dale Jackson Show.”

Brooks also touted his seniority, and how that plays into serving his district in Washington, D.C.

“The people who engage in space and defense know that my growing seniority on science, space, and technology and on House Armed Services, coupled with more than a hundred occasions in which I’ve been able to get favorable language into legislation that they’ve wanted me to get for the benefit of our country and what we do in the Tennessee Valley,” he added. “They’re my primary support base in Congress: space and defense.”​

My takeaway:

This is all pretty interesting, but the idea that a McCutcheon endorsement on these grounds can overcome the booming North Alabama economy that Brooks has been a part of since being part of the Tea Party-wave in 2010 is false.

The Trump endorsement might make better television and radio spots, and it will definitely help Brooks, but the real issue is that Lewis and McCutcheon can’t point to how Brooks hasn’t served his district well — because he has.

Barring some massive bombshell to follow up this endorsement, a battle of endorsements between Trump and McCutcheon seems like a fight that was over before it started, much like the Brooks/Lewis race.


Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

11 hours ago

Human clinical study begins at UAB for groundbreaking brain tumor treatment

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) continues to evolve as a worldwide leader in biomedicine, research and innovation.

Incysus Therapeutics, Inc., a Birmingham-based biopharmaceutical company, has now announced the initiation of a Phase 1 clinical study of a novel Drug Resistant Immunotherapy (DRI) technology for the treatment of patients with newly-diagnosed glioblastoma.

This trial is being conducted at UAB and is now active and open for enrollment.

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM or glioblastoma) is a devastating and fast-growing brain tumor that typically results in death within the first 15 months after diagnosis. GBM is inherently resistant to conventional therapy and accounts for approximately 52% of all primary brain tumors.


A release from the company outlined Incysus’ innovative DRI approach, which seeks to combine conventional chemotherapies with a γδ T cell-based immunotherapy to modify the tumor microenvironment and drive the immune system. By using alkylating agents such as temozolomide, chemotherapy can activate immunity through the upregulation of the DNA damage response (DDR) pathway. A significant challenge is that such chemotherapies also kill the white blood cells needed to drive an immune response. Incysus’ technology “chemo-protects” immune cells to allow them to remain functional while DDR activation creates an immune signal that allows directed killing activity against cancer cells.

Incysus is the first company to use this type of therapy in patients, and the research marks a landmark moment for Incysus, the overall biotech industry in Birmingham and anti-cancer research across the globe.

Dr. L. Burt Nabors, MD, the co-head of neuro-oncology at UAB and the study’s principal investigator, stated, “The initiation of this clinical trial represents a significant milestone towards developing effective immune-based therapies for the treatment of GBM. We are pleased to work with … the team at Incysus to bring this innovative therapy to patients for the first time.”

Further information on the clinical trial is available here.

Incysus is a UAB spinoff company. Its success in the Magic City — and this kind of potentially revolutionary research spearheaded by UAB — is a prime example of why many legislative and industry leaders in the state, especially in the Birmingham area, are calling on Governor Kay Ivey to fund a world-class genomics facility at the university. They argue that the project could make Birmingham the “Silicon Valley of Biomedicine.”

RELATED: Planned UAB genomics project could make Birmingham the ‘Silicon Valley of Biomedicine’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

11 hours ago

Amendment One puts kids first, politicians last

When Alabamians take the to the polls on Super Tuesday, they will either be concerned with the Democratic nominee for President of the United States or the Republican nominee for the United States Senate. More important to the future of Alabama is a constitutional amendment that would end our current model of a popularly elected state school board in favor of one appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

Supporters of Amendment 1 argue that this would be a major step in improving Alabama’s permanent residence at the bottom of the education barrel. As it is currently designed and managed, the state board of education is doing very little to improve the quality of education in the state. Board members are trying, but clearly nothing is working very well. Supporters of the amendment argue a shake up is the best hope for improving education in Alabama. In some respects the argument does not go far enough. That is because the current process creates negative incentives for board members; because they hold their office at the behest of voters, there is every incentive for them to avoid upsetting their constituents.


That is the chief problem with the board as it is currently construed. Board members are not uncaring or ignorant or irresponsible. Instead, they respond to the whims and wishes of voters or other powerful political interests. No matter what politicians say, they are inevitably swayed by the whispers of voters and donors. Not because they are corrupt, but because they are human. All people are prone to this, which is why the framers of the Constitution created a system that checked and balanced one human tendency against another. It’s true that voters can provide a check on board members, but that argument does not account for an additional problem.

The second problem with the current system is that voters have limits to their knowledge about education in our state. Committed parents and citizens can often learn a lot about their own schools and school districts, but rarely does even the most passionate citizen have the time and mental energy to devote beyond that. Should Amendment 1 pass, the state Senate would have a direct responsibility to ensure that the governor appoints quality people to the board, but also to make certain that the Board is making progress in evaluating and improving the quality of education in our state.

Critics argue that an appointed board would lend itself to cronyism. That’s possible, but the executive and legislative branch often have competing interests, even when they share the same partisan and ideological commitments. Those competing concerns would help smooth over concerns about patronage and cronyism. Still, the amendment will not be an easy transition given the natural tendency of politicians towards vanity and self-promotion. The current system is of a worse nature, however, as it leaves the governor and senate almost powerless to impact education policy, which is instead run by another group of politicians with little incentive to do anything that might upset the voters who put them there.

But shouldn’t voters have a say in these matters? No, at least not directly. This is because education policy is a difficult matter, and it is hard for voters to adjudicate the success or failures of these policies beyond the very narrow window of their own experience. It’s fine that we elect local school boards; they are indeed local, and voters often see those board members at church or line at Piggly Wiggly. Only the most politically involved voters are likely to have any encounter with their board members, who are busy juggling very difficult conflicts within their own districts. Each district contains such a variety of constituents that it is almost impossible for board members to adequately address those concerns, instead pandering to the one or two constituencies most likely to keep the member in office.

There is a final reason to support Amendment 1. A central feature of modern politics is the tendency of politicians to see themselves as mouthpieces instead of statesmen. Some of that is natural but other parts of it are due to the incentive structure within our own government. This is as true in Montgomery as it is in Washington D.C., and Alabamians should care far more about the goings-on in our state capital than in our nation’s capital. Since our legislature is stripped of any real influence in state education policy and therefore little accountability to voters, it leaves them free to demagogue and pander on the issue without really having to stand before the voters and take account for their time in office. The same is true for the governor. By making the governor and the state senate responsible for staffing the state school board as part of an ongoing process of appointment and confirmation, these branches of our government would finally have real skin in the game. The success of our schools would be their success, and the failure of our schools would be theirs, also.

Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

12 hours ago

Gary Palmer honors the late NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson on House floor

U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) honored Katherine Johnson with a speech in the House chamber on Thursday.

Johnson, who passed away recently at the age of 101, was one of America’s most important mathematicians in the space race. She pioneered a place for African-American women at NASA and was portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures.

“Despite intense discrimination throughout her years at NASA she remained committed to advancing America’s space program,” said Palmer during his speech in her honor.


“She hand-calculated the flight path for America’s first crewed space mission in 1961, and also helped calculate the trajectory for the famed 1969 moon landing,” continued Palmer.

Palmer also recounted the famous anecdote when astronaut John Glenn was about to become the first American to orbit Earth and he demanded that Johnson do the calculations for his mission. Glenn trusted Johnson more than he trusted NASA’s new computer system.


“I stand with my colleagues in the House and with countless other Americans in gratitude for Mrs. Johnson’s hard work and pioneering spirit that have undoubtedly made our country a better place,” Palmer concluded.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.