Johnny’s Greek-and-Three and Much More

Johnny’s restaurant in Homewood is more than a meat-and-three. It’s more than a Greek-and-three, too. It is, in fact, one of the best places in the entire country to get this type of homegrown cuisine, and chef-owner Timothy Hontzas has three consecutive James Beard Foundation nominations to back that up.

The restaurant specializes in local Southern ingredients with Greek influences, and it just celebrated its seventh anniversary. Hontzas’s fresh, inventive approach to familiar foods is one reason for the lines out the door every day.

I sat down with Tim Hontzas recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

The menu at Johnny’s is written in chalk for a reason. It changes seasonally, of course, but it also changes weekly and even daily, depending upon what’s absolutely fresh. There are two of these chalk menus, and you’ll want to make note of both. The first one you’ll see on the wall that faces the door is “Tim’s menu.” It’s the one that lets this classically trained chef shine with dishes like fried chicken thighs drizzled with chipotle- and coriander-spiked Eastaboga honey.

The menu above the registers showcases typical Southern favorites like squash casserole, lady peas, turnips, fried catfish, the ever-popular chicken potpie and the Parmesan grit cake. (Do not pass up that grit cake.) There’s usually a daily special, too, and it is always special:  This chef’s take on a tuna stack features sashimi-grade ahi tuna marinated in Creole spices and served with seaweed salad, chipotle sticky rice (from the Mississippi Delta), pickled shrimp from Bayou La Batre and a smoked sungold tomato compote with a ponzu-Dijon vinaigrette.

The vegetables Hontzas serves come from his farm partner, Dwight Hamm, who has farms in Cullman and Hanceville. “He dictates the chalkboard for us,” Hontzas says. Sometimes Hamm brings in ingredients Hontzas didn’t order (like those sungold tomatoes), and Hontzas says, “That pushes me to be better and to create.”

Hontzas has been loyal to Hamm since the beginning.

“He’s old school,” Hontzas says. “He’s not (growing) micro arugula and horseradish frisee; he’s growing collards, turnips, cantaloupes and okra and watermelons. I had one of his watermelons last week, and it was one of the sweetest watermelons I’ve ever eaten. No irrigation system, (he) depends upon God for the rain, and he just does an unbelievable job.”

Johnny’s is named for Hontzas’s grandfather Johnny Hontzopolous,who, at age 19, traveled to the U.S. on a cattle boat in 1921 with $17 in his pocket. Hontzopolous(the family’s last name was shortened to Hontzas in the 1950s), like many of the immigrants from the tiny Greek village of Tsitalia in the Peloponnese, found a job in the restaurant industry.  He worked hard and made a name for himself and a living for his family with a series of successful eateries in Mississippi, the last one being a 325-seat restaurant in Jackson called Johnny’s. Interestingly, this same Hontzopolousfamily made their mark on Greek-influenced meat-and-threes in Birmingham, too, with Niki’s West being one of the most famous and beloved.

And so Tim Hontzas cooks what he grew up eating:  spanakopita, souvlaki, rolo kima (Greek meatloaf with lamb), and tzatziki and cheesecake made with homemade yiaourti (Greek yogurt). Born and raised in Mississippi, he also grew up eating Southern foods like field peas (which they grew and shelled themselves), cornbread and turnips, so he cooks that, too, but in ways that are healthy and fresh. “We just treat that product with respect,” he says, “and try to let the product itself shine.” Instead of relying upon ham hocks for flavoring his peas, Hontzas uses bay leaves he grows in his backyard from a tree that originated in his Papou’s village. Instead of adding sugar to temper the bitterness of turnips, he caramelizes onions to sweeten them naturally. The okra, available only during its season in the summer, is never any bigger than your pinky and it’s fried whole in a light and crispy panko breading. There is a 15-hour pot roast.

And because this is his place and he can do what he wants, Hontzas also cooks with the fine-dining methods he learned while working with James Beard Award-winner John Currence at City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.

For the past three years, Hontzas has been a James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef South. He says the recognition never gets old, and it’s also not all about him.

“I was proud for myself, but I was proud for my staff. They deserve just as much of the recognition.”

These James Beard nods, stories in Food & Wine and Garden & Gun and a Southern Foodways Alliance video have brought Johnny’s national recognition, but what happens here every day at lunch is much more personal. The restaurant’s mantra— written on the wall for all to see—was Hontzas’s Papou’s mantra, too:  “We prepare food for the body, but good food to feed the soul.”

“Our food has a story to tell,” Hontzas says. “I want you to taste that. I want you to taste our history. I want you to taste our past, our culture because it’s very similar to Southern hospitality. Greek-Southern cuisine,” he says, “it’s family. It’s breaking bread together. It’s community.” There are very few differences, he adds, that can’t be put aside for collard greens and cornbread.

Johnny’s

2902 18thStreet South, Suite 200

Homewood, AL 35209

205-802-2711

http://www.johnnyshomewood.com

Lunch Hours:  Sunday through Friday 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Private parties available in the evenings.
Closed on Saturday.

Lady Pea Hummus by Dinner.

Carey Thommason of Dinner. in Crestline Village did the chef demo today at The Market at Pepper Place. Carey made Lady Pea Hummus, which I missed tasting because I was sweating next door at Ignite Cycle. However, I know Carey’s food is great, and I couldn’t resist making a batch for my family’s Sunday dinner. I used pink-eyed peas that I got from Knights Farm.

Here’s how you can do it, too.

Lady Pea Hummus by Dinner.

Ingredients

4 cups lady peas

15 basil leaves

4 cloves garlic

1 tsp slat

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¾ cup olive oil

Instructions

Pick over lady peas. Rinse the peas in fresh cold water and drain. Fill a large pot with cold water and add the peas. Bring to a boil. Lower temperature and cook for about 45 minutes or until very tender. Drain and cool completely.

In a food processor, add the cooked peas, basil, garlic and salt. Puree, and, with the motor running, slowly add lemon juice and olive oil.

Serve with raw vegetables and pretzels.

Fox 6 Books: August

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on August 6, and there’s truly something for everyone–a memoir (with recipes and a link to much more), a surprisingly awesome book about grammar, mesmerizing short stories and a romp of a novel. Enjoy!

From Scratch is a memoir from actress Tembi Locke. It’s also a love story with recipes. Tembi married a man from Sicily (it was love at first sight when Tembi met Saro, who was an apprentice chef, in Florence, Italy). But his family was not happy with their son marrying a black woman from America. When Saro died of cancer, Tembi and their adopted daughter sought solace in Sicily … at her mother-in-law’s kitchen table. The close-knit community; the simple, fresh food at the table; and her memories of a great love gave Locke the strength to heal her heart. Now she’s paying that forward. Read the book, and also check out www.thekitchenwidow.com.

“This is a modern take on the age-old kitchen table conversation—an inspirational online platform dedicated to raising awareness about how we can support each other through times of illness and grief,” Locke says. “Here we reclaim the lost art of comforting the soul. We do it around delicious food.” You’ll find advice on dealing with grief, information for caregivers and healthy recipes.

Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson, is brand-new nonfiction, and it’s creating a buzz. This book about “The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark” is both funny and informative. It’s about language rules, sure, but it’s also about the love of language and a celebration of creativity. The semicolon was invented in the 15thcentury; by the 1800s, it was “downright trendy,” Watson writes. Today, some people love the punctuation mark; others loathe it. It was designed to create clarity; misused, it creates confusion. Watson considers how the semicolon has impacted society and law as well as literature. She says it can do more, too. When she finished researching and writing this book, Watson says:  “Not only did I become a better and more sensitive reader and a more capable teacher, I also became a better person. Perhaps that sounds like a fancifully hyperbolic claim—can changing our relationship with grammar really make us better human beings? … I hope to persuade you that reconsidering grammar rules will do exactly that, by refocusing us on the deepest, most primary value and purpose of language:  true communication and openness to others.”

Orange World is the newest collection of short stories from Karen Russell, the bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist Swamplandia! (which I’ve talked about before; also, I brought Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove to Fox 6 last time). I just love this writer, who never ceases to amaze me with her imagination and her way with words. This is her most recent collection of short stories, and, as expected, they are cleverly funny and a little bit creepy. In “Bog Girl:  A Romance,” a young man falls in love with a 2000-year-old girl he unearthed in a northern European peat bog. In “The Prospectors,” two young, idealistic, Depression-era girls head out West in search of a new life and find themselves fighting for their lives when they end up at the wrong party. In “The Bad Graft,” a Joshua tree makes a “Leap” into the consciousness of a woman. August is busy; find an hour or so for yourself to spend with these stories.

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke is a delightful novel. Calvin Bledsoe is an ordinary man destined for an extraordinary adventure. After his mother, a theologian and bestselling author, dies in an explosion, Calvin’s world is changed forever. At the funeral, a mysterious woman, claiming to be Calvin’s aunt, shows up and insists he accompany her to Europe. Right now. For Calvin, who has never ventured far from his small hometown in Maine, this is not easy. Then danger ensues:  Calvin encounters antiquities thieves, spies, religious fanatics and his ex-wife who is stalking him. By the time Calvin realizes he’s been kidnapped, he has to figure out how to escape and how to live the life he’s meant to live. (This book goes on sale August 27.)

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fresh, Bright Flavors at the Wildflower Cafe

Over the years, Wildflower Café has become a dining destination in Mentone, which is, of course, its own awesome destination atop Lookout Mountain.

I traveled to Mentone recently for Alabama NewsCenter to spotlight this unique restaurant. You can read the entire story here.

Café owner Laura Catherine Moon (just “Moon” to everyone she knows and meets) is as much of a draw as the regionally famous tomato pie or the carefully curated small general store with handmade art and crafts or the eclectically furnished, hippy-chic dining rooms or the colorful, peaceful wildflower garden surrounding the 1800s log cabin that houses the café and store.

Moon has owned Wildflower Café for more than a decade, but she never really intended to go into the restaurant business.

“It’s true,” she says. “I didn’t mean to.” She had owned several shops in and around Mentone throughout the years. One of them was a natural health food store called Mountain Life. “I sold organic produce and natural foods,” she says. “I sold herbs and my herbal blends. It was a store for wellness. It was sort of a convenience health food store up on the mountain.” Whenever the produce would start to wilt, she would think to herself:  “Well, if I could just cook it, then people could know just how good this food is.”

About this time, the Wildflower Café became available for purchase after being open for about a year. Moon first wanted to team up with the café’s chef, thinking he could run the restaurant and she would run her store. When he left three months later, she stepped up.

“I never even worked in a restaurant before I owned this one,” she says. “So it was a huge challenge to learn the ins and outs and the ropes and how to do it. And it just turned out that I’m really good at it.”

People come up from Birmingham and Montgomery to visit the café; they drive down from Nashville and Chattanooga. They travel over from Douglasville and Atlanta.

They come to Wildflower Café for the grilled or blackened wild-caught salmon and trout; the gourmet chicken salad with grapes and almonds; the big Canyon Burger made with freshly ground sirloin and filet; grilled chicken smothered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, honey-mustard sauce and cheeses; the prime rib with its crust of cracked peppercorns and spices (all these meats are hormone-free); angel hair pasta with a flavorful strawberry-balsamic sauce (there’s a vegan version of this dish, too); and signature shrimp and grits made with polenta. They come for hummingbird cake and old-fashioned chess pie and homemade crepes filled with sweet cream cheese and topped with house-fresh strawberry puree. And a great many of them come for the savory, cheesy tomato pie, which is so popular that Moon also offers a tomato pie wrap, a tomato pie salad, a tomato pie burger and a loaded tomato pie entrée (vegetarian and not).

A few words about this famous tomato pie:  It is worth any drive. Ripe, roma tomatoes are cooked down to sweetness and marinated in balsamic vinaigrette. Some cheddar and mozzarella and a beautifully flaky crust make it completely delicious.

Moon relies on area farmers for lots of her fresh ingredients like the humanely raised pork and poultry from Mildred’s Meadows Farm or fresh tomatoes, squash, corn, herbs and lettuces from The Farm at Windy Hill, Mountain Sun Farm and Feel Good Farm. “Nena’s (Produce and General Store), in the valley down here, carries some of the local farmers’ stuff,” she says. “So I’ll go down and buy from her as well.”

She brings local musicians to Wildflower on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and sometimes Thursdays. The country store is a gallery of local and regional arts and crafts:  clothing, wood crafts, jewelry, soaps, pottery, paintings, candles, music, books, foods like honey and jams and organic chocolates and Moon’s own natural lip balms and skincare (when she has the time to harvest the ingredients).

Moon says she’d like for customers to tell other people that “they came here and had an amazing experience and that the staff was friendly, the food was great and they just felt good when they were here. That’s what I want them to say,” she says. “And that the Wildflower is a great complement to Mentone. That would be a huge compliment to me, because Mentone is one of my favorite places on the planet. No matter where I’ve ever traveled, Mentone is the best.”

Wildflower Café

6007 Alabama Highway 117

Mentone, AL 35984

256-634-0066

http://www.mentonewildflower.com

Reservations are highly suggested for dinner and must be made by phone at 256-634-0066 or in person.  The café does not take reservations for lunch or Sunday brunch.

Hours:  Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday
Lunch  11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner 4 to 8 p.m.
General Store open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Sunday
Brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. General Store open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(On holiday weekends, the restaurant closes at 6 p.m.; call and check before you visit.)