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Frank Stitt

Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, AL

The first bite delivers a gentle surge of corn, familiar yet ardent. I can pick up the barely perceptible trace of nutty parmesan in the second mouthful. The texture is stout but also silkier than expected. It tastes nothing like the instant goop I vigorously sidestepped as a kid. The richness of the dish seems to actually come from the quality and depth of the main ingredient. Of course, a swipe through lemony butter sauce augmented by the salty nip of country ham doesn't hurt, either.

This is Frank Stitt's chivalrous way with grits — and so many other foods.

Stitt's tale of culinary ascension is prototypical for his generation of pioneering chefs: An Alabama native, Stitt set off for Berkeley, CA, to study philosophy in the 70s. His love for food led him to the rebelliously innovative Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters would ultimately change the course of American cooking. With introductions arranged by Waters and her chef, Jeremiah Tower, Stitt traveled to France. There, his ideas about true integrity toward food and wine began to percolate.

He came home to Alabama after a peripatetic spell and opened Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham in 1982. In its October 2001 ranking of the best 50 restaurants in the country, Gourmet magazine ranked Stitt's accessibly elegant restaurant No. 5 on the list, right after Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Beverly Hills.

And after the day we've had, we're in need of some accessible elegance.

The hotel we booked near Stitt's restaurant in Birmingham's Five Points neighborhood tells us they don't have room for us. The manager on duty sends us halfway across the city to another hotel. Nice room, but why is it so stuffy in here? Turns out the air conditioner is on the fritz. We take cold showers, iron our good clothes and head back to Five Points, determined not to be grumpy.

It isn't difficult. The moment you walk from the tree-lined street into Highlands' bar, you're doused in viscous, caramel light that flatters even the ill tempered. We drink Lillet Blanc, a French aperitif that fluently adapts to Southern gentility, and gaze at oversized vintage French posters. The customers are noticeably relaxed. People can be who they want to be at Highlands.

I watch Stitt chatting with a regular across the room. With his straight back and shocks of distinguished gray in otherwise brown hair, he has the look of a gentleman farmer. You can tell he possesses both warmth and staunch resolve.

The importance of superior, locally sourced ingredients has only increased for Stitt since Highlands opened 23 years ago. I know as I eat his sweetbread gratin that the asparagus and morel mushrooms suspended in svelte velouté didn't come from halfway around the world. A bed of crushed, brightly verdant sweet peas under grilled rabbit taste like something out of a neighbor's garden — which it probably is.

Much of the food at Highlands has a French lilt, but you can easily identify the homegrown inspiration for pork cheeks and belly in ham hock broth, or the grilled quail served with bacon, spoonbread and ramps.

And it's such a rare pleasure to enjoy honestly ripe, in-season strawberries for dessert, especially when they've been prepared three wholly satisfying ways: churned into a milkshake, folded into a jam-laced crepe, and sliced raw, slicked with boozy sabayon.

Despite our muggy hotel room, we sleep very well that night.

Highlands Bar & Grill, 2011 11th Ave., Birmingham, AL. 205-939-1400. Dinner: Tues.-Sat., 5:30-10:30pm. Entree range: $26-$30. Major credit cards. Street parking.

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