Automatic Hit

It’s easy to think of Automatic Seafood & Oysters as a singular kind of place:  It looks and feels like nothing else in Birmingham, and the menu is filled with adventurous approaches to familiar (and perhaps unfamiliar) foods. But what really makes it special are a few important partnerships:  between local and regional suppliers and the kitchen, between the servers and the customers who have crowded into the dining rooms since the place opened and between the husband and wife team who put it all together.

Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side—he with his acclaimed kitchen skills and her with her design expertise and warm hospitality—to celebrate clean, fresh flavors with friendly, gracious service in a space that is hip and modern and respectful of the past.

I wrote about Automatic for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story and see a cool video here.

Automatic Seafood & Oysters opened in April in a 1940s warehouse that once was the home of the Automatic Sprinkler Company. But the buzz about its chef-owner began long before that.

Adam spent time in the kitchens of some of America’s most celebrated restaurants, from La Petite Grocery in New Orleans to Craft in New York City. Before moving back to his home state, Adam was the executive chef at Ford Fry’s The Optimist in Atlanta when the restaurant was named Esquire’s Restaurant of the Year and made Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants. He then helped Jonathan Waxman open Brezza Cucina, also in Atlanta.

The shell- and finfish at Automatic are sourced primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, but Adam pulls from other coastlines, too. Most of what’s on the menu is familiar, but the combinations or preparation might be a surprise. Consider roasted scallops with oxtail marmalade or snapper crudo with pickled ginger, crispy skin and lime or duck fat-poached swordfish with sunchokes and pancetta vinaigrette. Some of the fishes are unusual—things like fresh-caught sardines and seasonal bycatch like hake, which Adam prepares blackened with blue crab, watercress, potato puree and green garlic butter.

“What the Gulf of Mexico has to offer is way beyond snapper and grouper,” Adam says. “There are a lot of different species that aren’t maybe common to see but are equally as delicious. It’s especially important for me to try and utilize the bycatch products, the things that they’re not targeting when they’re fishing for snapper and grouper (but) that they’re pulling in. … It’s a great opportunity for me to highlight different species from the Gulf that you don’t normally see on restaurant menus.

“There’s a local guy in Birmingham who is a commercial spear fisherman. So he’s been going to the Gulf for years. … I just recently received some fish that he harvested, and it’s really interesting to see the quality that he’s bringing. It’s unlike the other fish that I get because of … the way he’s harvesting it. You really see the difference.”

These fish – snapper and grouper; triggerfish and amberjack; cobia; and the invasive, nonnative lionfish – are listed as “spear-caught” on the menu and often are used in a raw preparation “so people can get a sense of the quality that they’re eating,” Adam says.

The long, sleek oyster bar at Automatic is a focal point in the restaurant; as many as eight different kinds of oysters are piled high on ice. You’ll likely find Mo Boykins there. He started at Automatic as a dishwasher but told Adam he wanted to do more. Now he’s the restaurant’s main oyster shucker, as entertaining and engaging as Jose Medina Camacho and his team of friendly bartenders nearby who are creating craft cocktails like Springtime in Mexico with Lunazul blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Herbsaint, cucumber, mint and lime.

Automatic’s team is not just in the restaurant. Adam is committed to supporting farmers of all kinds – from oyster farmers in the Gulf to traditional growers closer to home. He says he’s delighted with the product he’s getting from regional oyster farms like Alabama’s Murder Point and Point aux Pins and with local farmers markets like the one at Pepper Place.

The 39-year-old chef has wanted to own a restaurant in Birmingham since he read Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook.

“I remember reading Frank’s book and thinking, ‘This guy’s from Cullman. He’s a great chef; he’s been around. I want to do the same thing.’ I’ve always thought about coming here and doing this, and it just became time.

Suzanne, co-owner and project designer of the restaurant, is in the dining room most every night. It’s a different kind of role for her, but she says it’s the best job she’s ever had:  “And I wouldn’t even call it a ‘job.’  “It’s really a pleasure every night to have a restaurant full of friends and family and a lot of folks that we’ve never met before.”

She was introduced to Adam one evening when she was dining at The Optimist and he was the executive chef there.

As far as the restaurant’s design, she says, “We took a lot of cues from the structure itself and the timeframe in which it was built. We took the 1950 Americana aesthetic and applied it as well. We wanted to create a space that felt classic but not in a re-creation … just maybe like it had been here for a while.”

She worked with local artisan Grant Trick, of Design Industry, on the restaurant’s custom booths and barstools with sleek, reflective channel upholstery. “We looked at antique wooden speedboats. We looked at classic cars. We looked at advertisements of fishing and boating and leisure from that time period” for the channeling and color combinations, she says.

Adam and Suzanne will celebrate their first anniversary soon, and Automatic has been a huge part of the whole of their married life. They’ve worked on the restaurant for the past two years, and they share an immense appreciation for each other.

Suzanne has never worked in restaurants, Adam points out. “And she has stepped up and has been there for every service and been there for every guest. … It’s amazing to have her out there (while) I’m in the kitchen. It’s really comforting for me. … It’s been great.”

Suzanne puts it this way:  “I’m proud of him. I’m proud that we are able to do this every day, that he gets to do what he loves. I know it’s really his story and I’m lucky enough to be a part of it. … He’s so talented, but he’s so humble; that’s a wonderful combination in a human being. And so if I can help to … tell that story and share it, then I’m happy to.”

Automatic Seafood & Oysters

2824 5thAve. S.

Birmingham, AL 35233 (in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood)

205-580-1600

Open every day for dinner

Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.

www.automaticseafood.com

Fox 6 Books: June

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6  on June 5. These beach-ready reads include some inventive historical fiction and all will inform and entertain and take you places you didn’t expect—from the marshes of the North Carolina coast to the Oklahoma prairie, from Victorian-era London to frontier Illinois in the 1800s.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is what just about every bookgroup I know is reading right now. The library wait list is long, long, long, and it is, at this moment, #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

Kya is only six when her family begins abandoning her one by one—beginning with her mother. She ends up raising herself in the marshes off the North Carolina coast, befriending gulls and living off the land and sea. But she longs for friendship and love. Two young men from the nearby town are intrigued by her, and slowly, she lets herself dream of a different life. But then something terrible happens. The story goes back and forth in time—from Kya’s days as a child surviving on the mussels she collects and sells to people in the black community (who are exceedingly kind to her) to the possible murder of the local town’s favorite son 17 years later. If you liked Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, you’ll love this one.

Prairie Fever by Michael Parker is a literary novel that is as lovely as it is intriguing. The book is set in the unforgiving landscape of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The Stewart sisters couldn’t be more different—Lorena is practical, Elise often gets lost in her own imaginations of adventure. But they share an intense emotional bond that supersedes everything else. Then Gus McQueen arrives in Lone Wolf as a first-time teacher, and the dynamic between the sisters shifts. When a rash decision traps Elise and her horse in a devastating blizzard on the prairie, McQueen helps Lorena find and rescue her sister, and everything changes forever between the young women. Parker describes Prairie Fever as “about the sacrifices and settlements we make with ourselves and others as we attempt to navigate romantic and familial relationships.”

This is great brand-new fiction from the author of The Watery Part of the World, which I also loved.

The Darwin Affair by award-winning playwright Tim Mason is highly visual and makes Victorian-era London come alive. The inventive literary thriller is centered on the real-life events that followed the controversial publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is tasked with protecting the royal family. This becomes complicated after an attempted assassination of Queen Victoria and the discovery of a murder nearby. Field knows that these two violent acts are somehow connected to the Queen’s nomination of Darwin for knighthood. He ends up chasing a serial killer through England, and his investigation uncovers secrets and conspiracies that threaten some very powerful people.

When writing this novel, Mason relied upon Queen Victoria’s journal entries, which were put online and open to the public for the first time in 2012 during Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee year. The mix of historical and fictional characters makes this a wild ride of a read.

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard is a look at Abraham Lincoln’s early life, before he realized his potential. When Mary Todd first met Lincoln, he was a country lawyer living above a dry-goods store. Mary was a clever, self-possessed debutante with an interest in politics. Lincoln had no manners or money but he did possess an amazing gift for oratory.  Mary is intrigued and tells Lincoln’s roommate, Joshua Speed, “I can only hope that his waters being so very still, they also run deep.” This historical novel, told in the alternating voices of Mary and Speed, is many things:  a wonderful portrait of Mary (perhaps the most telling to date), a moving story of the complex and deep connection between Lincoln and Speed and a look at the unformed man who would become one of our nation’s most beloved presidents.

Bayard knows how to write compelling historical fiction:  He has been shortlisted for both the Edgar and Dagger awards for his historical thrillers, which include The Pale Blue Eye and Mr. Timothy.