Kristian Denis created her own domain, and she has downtown Huntsville covered.
This restaurant owner grew a tiny wine shop (400 square feet in a former lumberyard switching house building) into two different dining destinations. The complementary restaurant concepts, just a stone’s throw from each other near the Madison County Courthouse, offer French-inspired fine dining; craft cocktails; simple, delicious sandwiches and bistro fare; gourmet grab-and-go; breakfast; and wine. Lots of wine.
Wine, in fact, was the starting point of all this.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to open a little wine bar, and people are going to come in and have a cheese board and have some charcuterie,’” Denis says of the businesses she owns with her husband. She grew up in Germany where her father was an officer in the U.S. Army. Her parents, she says, loved good food and wine so they took her and her sister to multiple European countries – each with unique food traditions and cuisines – in search of it. “There were always these fantastic little neighborhood restaurants,” she says. “I wanted something that felt like that. And I didn’t think that we had anything like that here. So, I created it.”
Domaine South and Le Petit Bijou offer a special food and wine experience in Alabama from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.
After working as a wine rep and at a local wine retailer, Denis entered the hospitality business in 2015 when she opened a small retail shop with two racks of wines, some cards and handmade gifts. A year later, she moved her business to a slightly bigger space nearby where she could focus on wine and cheese. Zoning and beverage laws allowed her a two-hour window each day for wine tastings.
It was not enough; Denis didn’t think so and neither did her customers.
She expanded to a location on the north side of Courthouse Square and styled the new space like a “cave à manger,” part wine shop, part restaurant typical of those found in Paris. She offered wines by the glass, small plates and charcuterie. Today, Le Petit Bijou Sandwich & Wine Bar is still a cozy place for a glass of wine, lunch or breakfast (just added). There are gourmet sandwiches like a simple French-style baguette filled with ham, herbed butter and cheese, or a chicken salad bright with tarragon, or a chef’s choice of charcuterie. There are specialty items to go, too. And, of course, there’s plenty of wine at this bottle shop. The small place beckons with a handful of tables inside surrounded by local art and prime patio seating for people-watching on the square.
But Denis realized there still was room for more. She wanted more room in the kitchen for creativity and more room for her dining guests who had, by now, become regulars.
In October 2021, she opened Domaine South, an establishment with a beautiful, green view of Huntsville’s Water Trail. This larger restaurant, like its smaller sister across the square, offers fresh, seasonal dishes from a menu that changes frequently. It’s casual fine dining with dishes that have Southern roots but French accents, a robust craft cocktail program and a wine list that is 12 pages long.
Showcasing foods grown locally and regionally and supporting local and regional businesses is the idea behind the name Domaine South. Denis says it’s the kind of food she “grew up loving,” and it’s created with ingredients straight from Southern growers and purveyors. “We go to the Madison County Farmers Market. We work with a lot of independent farmers and then we find beautiful cheeses from all over the world. And we’re finding these great creameries that are in Georgia and Tennessee. They’re producing world-class products, and we just want to make that shine and bring it to people.”
From the first little wine-and-cheese shop to the two restaurants, the charcuterie boards have been a constant menu item. “We are still very well-known for our beautiful boards and for sourcing those really fine ingredients that you can’t make in a commercial kitchen – the beautiful cheeses, beautiful charcuterie. It’s still a large part of our program,” Denis says. “People love to come in and break bread and share something with their friends.”
Cheese choices include an Alp Blossom cow’s milk cheese coated with rose petals, lavender and chervil from Germany; Paški Sir, sheep’s milk cheese from Croatia; and Central Coast Creamery’s “Seascape” (a cow- and goat-milk blend) from California. The meats range from The Spotted Trotter’s “Cecina” Spanish-style air-dried beef to Molinari & Sons Calabrese (spicy dry salami with red wine and peppercorns) to a rabbit and pork terrine with nutmeg, parsley and white pepper from Smoking Goose Meatery. These boards come with housemade crostini, grapes and toasted almonds. Add homemade hot pepper jam, dried cherries, deviled eggs, caramelized onion jam, Spanish candied walnuts or other things. It’s a lot. You can create your own board, or the kitchen can help you decide.
That kitchen is led by chef Jay Hendricks, who turns out beautiful, inventive dishes, which the servers describe knowledgeably, having tasted them already.
Entrees include a popular Farmer’s Market Plate of fresh vegetables “from Polly at Bronze Star Farm.” The colorful assortment on a recent fall weekday included haricots violets, roasted peppers, grilled squash and zucchini, Amish heirloom tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, pickled okra, carrot puree and red tomato coulis. “I don’t know that there’s another restaurant that’s not a vegan restaurant that’s really focusing heavily on making produce the star of the plate,” Denis says, “but we love it.”
On a recent visit, the seasonal menu also featured Joyce Farms chicken confit with white bean cassoulet, butternut squash and Conecuh sausage. A tomato tian was a beautiful stack of fried and grilled Whited Farm green tomatoes topped with crisp arugula and served on a green tomato coulis. There’s a burger with charred onion and smoked aioli. The duck fat frites with homemade herbed aioli and curry ketchup are a must-have.
The wines here – some 18 to 20 by the glass and 400 bottles are mostly Old World selections, especially French and Italian, but there are lots of choice wines from Oregon and California on this long list, too. “We really focus on small, family-owned wineries, low-intervention wines,” she says, “things that are artisanal and that are made with care – not in a factory.”
There’s a full bar at this West Side location (with a television cleverly hidden from the main dining room). Taps flow with imported beers like Bitburger pilsner from Germany and regional craft brews like an amber from Main Channel Brewing in Guntersville. Shannon Pease and her team mix craft cocktails like the trendy Paper Plane, and they serve unexpected boozy slushies like a blood orange whisky sour. Happy hour is from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The dining room is a welcoming mix of curated and collected pieces – pub tables surrounded by a variety of upholstered dining room chairs. (One round, wooden table was where Denis and her family ate breakfast when she was a child.) There are cool light fixtures, handmade by a carpenter from Lithuania; pretty hanging plants; and lots of colorful, kilim-covered pillows on the banquettes along the walls. These walls feature antique mirrors, paintings and a collection of charcoal portraits drawn by Hazel Sikorski, who happens to be the wine director for Denis’ restaurants. The restaurant’s patio opens directly onto Big Spring Park. This area is an entertainment district, so diners can enjoy a glass of wine in this lovely public space while waiting for a table.
The feeling at Domaine South is lively and comfortable – a place you want to return to – and that’s exactly what Denis was going for.
“I think we make people feel at home,” she says. “I think we make people feel joy when they come in here and, you know, everything is made with that. We care about the plates that come out, and we care about the music that we’re playing, and we want everything to feel like you’re at your best friend’s house having a dinner party.”
With wine as a constant to what she has done for years, it’s fitting that both Domaine South and Le Petit Bijou have received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, and Denis is proud of that. But she’s also proud of the impact she’s having on the local food community – employing a staff of 40 people between the two restaurants, sourcing from businesses in her city like Mason Dixon Bakery, The Kaffeeklatsch and Canadian Bakin and simply continuing to serve the customers who have been with her from the beginning. All this has happened, she says, because she listened to those customers and responded to what they wanted.
“I think about memories that I have of food and wine and … time that I spent with family and friends in restaurants. The feeling stays with me, still to this day, and to be able to translate that and let other people make memories like that, I think is what’s so special about this place. Our tagline is ‘Life should be delicious,’ and … it’s truly the way I feel about things – especially after the last few years. You’ve just got to dig in and find joy. It’s not always easy, but I would hope when people come in here that they leave feeling like they’ve satisfied some part of themselves and … it’s not just a meal, it’s an experience.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)
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