Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Pickled Grapes? Thanks Ollie Irene!


One of my sister's friends, Angie, asked me a while back if Three Friends and a Fork had been to Ollie Irene in Mountain Brook. We had not and Angie urged us to check it out when we got a chance. Well, we had a chance this past weekend. Scott had a dental meeting in Birmingham, so I planned to meet him for dinner. When he asked where I wanted to go, I quickly said, Ollie Irene! Hey, Angie...we loved it!

First, do not depend on google to get you to Ollie Irene. Google cannot do it. So, listen to me when I tell you, take Cahaba Road to the Mountain Brook Shopping Center, which is just before Cahaba Road takes you to the entrance to the Birmingham Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Mountain Brook Shopping Center is where you will also find the fabulous Western Supermarket and the equally fabulous Smith's Variety store. Ever since I moved from Birmingham, one of the things I missed most was buying my groceries at Western. It is an old timey grocery store with a wonderful meat market. I haven't been in years, but I assume they are still just as wonderful. Smith's Variety is like an old fashioned five and dime and you will find everything there. It is a treasure hunt every time you darken the doors of Smith's. When my boys were small, they always had a blast when we took them shopping at the old variety store. Anyway, tucked right in between the Rite Aid Pharmacy and Smith's is Ollie Irene's. It is a tiny little snippet of a restaurant, relaxed and natural with framed botanicals and objects found in nature, and seating for no more than eighty including the bar seats (I'm guessing here). The name Ollie Irene was the name of owner/chef Chris Newsome's grandmother. Chef Newsome has an impressive resume having worked with both Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings. His talent was obvious. We had a wonderful meal at Ollie Irene's. Hint: Get there early or make reservations. The place filled up pretty quickly around 6:00 pm. After that folks were waiting.

We started with an appetizer of Stone Hollow goat cheese topped with a red pepper relish and accompanied by homemade crackers, pickled okra and pickled grapes. Wait, did I just say pickled grapes? Yes, I did and they were wonderful, especially with the goat cheese. In fact, we were so intrigued we asked our waiter how on earth one would pickle grapes and have them retain their structural integrity. These grapes were still firm and crunchy. Our waiter was precious and had one of the cooks come out and explain how the grapes at Ollie Irene are pickled. We were told that the pickling brine had only three ingredients: red wine vinegar, star anise and cloves.  You just know I was going to go home and try my hand at pickling. More about that later.

Along with the cheese and crackers, I also had a refreshing little drink called Buck Up, Buttercup. This little libation was made with Sailor Jerry rum, fresh grapefruit juice, lime and ginger-infused vanilla bean syrup. It was light and refreshing. Ollie Irene also makes a drink called a Pickled Rickey which is made with the pickled grapes. I would have tried it, but it was made with gin, which is not a favorite of mine. 

Our dinner selections were, unsurprisingly, both fish. I enjoyed a beautiful piece of red snapper, which happens to be one of my favorite kinds of fish. It was perched on top of a bed of celery root puree and served with a citrusy salad of frisee and fruit. The fish was perfectly cooked and delicious and the cool, tart, crisp salad was a wonderful counter point to the warm, savory fish.

Scott chose the cornmeal dusted and sautéed catfish served with sweet potatoes, cajun ham, lemon butter and scallions. That rich, hammy sauce was amazing and the fish was superbly cooked.

We shouldn't have, but since everything else we had chosen was so wonderful, we jumped right into dessert. I was intrigued with a bacon brownie sundae, which consisted of a bittersweet fudge bar sitting on a bed of pecan caramel and topped with candied bacon ice cream and a citrus cookie. The fudge bar was dense and rich...almost too rich, but the ice cream, the pecan caramel and the citrus cookie were, well, let's just say, GONE! I loved it.

Scott finished up with a very English dessert of sticky toffee pudding made with dates, rum toffee sauce, pecan tuile and cap of mascarpone cream. It was sticky, sweet and rich. The mascarpone cream was just the right finishing touch.

All in it was a very fine meal and we will definitely be back to Ollie Irene, but until we do, I just had to come home and try my hand at pickling grapes. Mine weren't exactly like Ollie Irene's, but I was very pleased at how they turned out. Here's what I did. 

I started with large black grapes and a mix of three vinegars: red wine, red wine pomegranate, and apple cider. Since I couldn't find star anise at my grocery store, I decided to use Chinese five spice powder, cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger, a bay leaf and coriander. It seemed a little tart, so I added a little brown sugar to mellow things out. I threw all the ingredients into a saucepan and brought it to a boil, just to dissolve the sugar. The washed grapes went into a glass jar.Then I poured the vinegar mixture over them and put the jar into the refrigerator to marinate overnight. Here they are. They look like black olives!

I served them with tangy goat cheese and crunchy toasted crostini. It was a hit...even with my teenage son! So what are you waiting for?

Go visit Ollie Irene and, in between visits, go pickle some grapes! Here's my version of the recipe.

Ollie Irene Inspired Pickled Grapes

1 quart of black beauty grapes
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup pomegranate infused red wine vinegar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar (Depending on the sweetness of your grapes, you may need to adjust the amount of brown sugar. More sweet grapes might need less sugar.)
1/4 t. Chinese Five Spice powder
2 sticks cinnamon
1/4 t. coriander
1 bay leaf
1 inch chunk of peeled ginger root

Place the grapes in a glass jar with a lid. Put all remaining ingredients into a medium saucepan, while stirring bring to a boil, making sure sugar is dissolved.  Pour over grapes, put the lid on it and put the covered jar into the refrigerator for 24 hours. Serve with cheese and crackers or crostini. 

 Three Friends and a Fork is proud of the homegrown chefs who are helping to make Alabama a food lover's destination and we proudly give Ollie Irene three perfectly pickled Yums UP!
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