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Savoring southern cooking in north Alabama

BY JOHN BLANCHETTE Modified: October 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm •  Published: October 15, 2012

Like the old song, I was "Alabama bound." Rather than taking the train, however, I flew into Huntsville to start my tour. The state is celebrating its food heritage this year, and I tried as many of the culinary delights of Southern cooking as I possibly could.

I was traveling between Huntsville, the largest city by area, and Birmingham, 100 miles south and the largest city by population, to explore the region's rich history and culinary heritage. This is the end of the Appalachian Mountain range, and the area is hilly, unlike the southern delta region.

I was looking forward to sampling traditional Southern cooking — fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, fried fish, hush puppies, shrimp and grits, sweet tea and pork in all its forms, so I was surprised to learn how sophisticated the region's palates had become. Japanese, Mexican, German, French, Italian, fusion and multi-ethnic restaurants proliferate, and there are farm-to-table menus, great produce and exceptional cuisine produced by bold young chefs and seasoned professionals.

In Huntsville I enjoyed some of the best sushi appetizers I've ever tasted at Scene inside the Monaco Movie Theater, which offers adults-only dining and drinking while watching first-run films in luxury seats. Across the street is Goodwin Clark's Watercress restaurant, so named because Huntsville is the watercress capital of the United States. This is just part of the Bridge Street Town Center, a huge mall complex built around a landscaped lake.

Dinner was at Chris McDonald's Grille 29 in the nearby village of Providence, a popular steak and seafood restaurant.

The motto for Huntsville is "Rocket City," and the slogan "We've got space" is everywhere. Following World War II, most of the German rocket scientists were brought to Huntsville to develop rocket technology and begin the U.S. Space and Rocket Center under Werner von Braun. The popular Space Camp here is a major attraction with several full- size rockets that can be explored.

My introduction to fried green tomatoes and biscuits and gravy came at the Blue Plate Special the next morning. Then it was on to the botanical garden, 120 acres of plantings and waterways. I particularly liked the butterfly house, which has more than 2,000 flitting about and dining on their favorite flowers, the largest collection in the United States.

Another fun exploration is Constitutional Village, where period buildings are fitted with furnishings of the day, from print to woodworking shops, and gardens are planted with the vegetables that would have been available. This is where the state constitution was signed in 1819. Nearby is the Harrison Bros. hardware store, another preserved shop owned and operated by the Historic Huntsville Foundation.

The 100-year-old A.M. Booth's Lumberyard is Doug Smith's eclectic mix of old buildings, a hip saloon, abandoned locomotive, concert venue and art gallery in a funky and fun outdoor space. It's close to Huntsville Depot, where classic electric-powered streetcars are displayed.

Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment Center, an artists' cooperative, was built inside an old cotton mill. The shops feature crafts created by the members, and theater and music performances are held throughout the year.

One of the city's most famous denizens, Tallulah Bankhead, was reared in the historic district across the street from Chef James Boyce's Commerce Kitchen. He led me on a walk through the district between his restaurants, Pane E Vino and Cotton Row. The food is seasonal, locally sourced and reflects the chef's French training. The wine list is superb.

Steven Bunner, the chef at 1892 East, sources his foods from local farmers using sustainable methods. He batters his shrimp with grits for a new take on an old combination.

The next day I had a pint at Below the Radar brewpub in the historic Times Building. Steve Below (hence the name) is the brewmaster. He offers a seven-glass tasting tray to try the full line.

I got fortified at Another Broken Egg before the brewpub. This is a local chain with a cottage atmosphere that serves an upscale breakfast at down-home prices. Lunch was at the massive, brightly decorated and popular Rosie's Mexican Cantina. I recommend trying the margaritas and purchasing a bottle of the chef's Spicy Taco Sauce.

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