A spirited choice

Why Birmingham's Tallulah may be the area's best wine bar



At first glance, it appears that classic Hollywood spitfire Tallulah Bankhead would not have had much fun at the wine bar in Birmingham that bears her name. On Bates just south of Maple, Tallulah, which opened in February, is as laid-back and temperate as the actress was flamboyant and hard-drinking. But the name actually comes from owner Mindy Vanhellemont's grandfather, who used to call her Tallulah because she was a "hellion."

Vanhellemont, who learned about the grape at her small vineyard in California as well as at the Culinary Institute of America, has created the best wine bar in our area. From its cool cream walls and ceilings, whose main decoration is a large mature grape vine from her vineyard, to the first-rate open kitchen to the knowledgeable and efficient servers, such as Ann Mari, to the exciting collection of 150 varietals, this is all one could ask for in the increasingly competitive genre.

Vanhellemont and her chef Jake Abraham, who worked with the Matt Prentice group as well as at Seldom Blues, pay as much attention to the kitchen as they do the cellar, with a creative menu of about a dozen appetizers averaging around $10 and eight or so mains, most of which are in the $15-$20 range. They are oriented around not only fresh produce but a locavore approach that leads them, for example, to an Amish farm in Indiana for their chicken, to Yoder farms in Michigan for their pork and to our justly celebrated Avalon Bakery for their crusty mini-baguettes. In addition, they eschew heavy sauces and oils for cleaner and simpler preparations.

You see this at once in their firsts, which include a tasting plate with breadsticks, Serrano ham, aged pecorino cheese, olives and sweet almonds. Some nights Abraham features ceviche artistically nestled in a large celery stalk. A little more complex is the mustard and garlic chenin-blanc sauce that accompanies mussels — not especially locavore, of course, as they're from Prince Edward Island. Soup du jour, four salads, grilled prawns and an artisan cheese plate are among the other starters.

But what single glass or bottle of wine goes well with prawns, the piquant mustard sauce, beets and a house green salad highlighted by a warm goat cheese round, a likely small-plates sampling? Vanhellemont resolves that problem by providing a list of "classic" or "avant-garde" two-ounce tastes ($5) matched with each appetizer. Thus she recommends a Spanish verdejo or a Greek Santorini for the mussels and, a bit wilder, sherry or sake for the sampler platter.

She presents her recommendations for entrées as well, which include three pastas, pappardelle Bolognese with ricotta cheese, sweet potato gnocchi with squash, and chicken linguini with spinach in a Chablis sauce. However, it is not necessary to stick to her choices, since almost half of her bottles can be purchased by the glass or by the pichet — which holds two-and-a-half glasses.

Aside from a seasonal vegetarian main and one or two specials, the rest of the entrée roster is brief. The most expensive dish on the menu at $24 is an especially moist whole broiled trout, garnished with pancetta, watercress, and, innovatively, red grapefruit pieces. Another knockout is the simple roasted half chicken, with baby sweet potatoes, and another unusual and welcome comes-with, grilled savoy cabbage.

While oenophiles most likely will opt for the traditional cheese platter to end their gastronomic adventure at Tallulah, the cheesecake and key lime pie, made in house, are sublime.

The wines themselves are grouped according to their character from "refreshingly off dry — some may say slightly sweet" like a Tempe Riesling ($36) from Alsace to "full bodied and rich" such as a Domaine Seguinot Bordet Chablis ($30) from France. The reds range from "bright red fruit" like a Bodegas Borsao Garnacha ($24) from Spain to "sumptuous dark fruit" like a Felino Malbec ($30) from Argentina to the most expensive category "profound and complex" where you can score a Bocchini Nebbiola ($90) from Italy.

Most of the cellar comes from vineyards that will be unfamiliar to all but those who read Wine Spectator line by line. And a good number, in line with Tallulah's philosophy, are organically or sustainably farmed.

The bottles on the wine list are available at the wine shop next door at around $10 less than in the wine bar.

Sundays are devoted exclusively to a special prix-fixe dinner. Given the immediately trendy Tallulah's size (capacity of 65), not only are reservations advised, but unlike many local restaurants, Vanhellemont is pleased to take them for lunch Wednesday through Saturday and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday.

Now that I think about it, perhaps even the over-the-top theatrical and sometimes uncouth Bankhead would have enjoyed Tallulah, considering her lifelong devotion to the grain and the grape and her legendary hedonism. And she could have ordered Scotch from the full bar to wash down her beloved Champagne.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]

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