The entire country knows that Birmingham is a destination for dining. And young, local chefs like Abhishek Sainju, the Nepalese chef-owner of Abhi Eatery + Bar in Mountain Brook Village, are an important part of the reason why.
Abhi (as he’s known to everyone) is one of several restaurateurs who have made the Magic City their home—by choice, not birth. They are sharing not just their foods but also their cultures in big, bold ways, and they are changing the ways we eat and gather and celebrate at the table—with a positive and exciting impact on our local food scene.
The self-trained Chef Abhi opened his namesake restaurant in Mountain Brook Village in November 2019. (For five years, and until recently, there was another popular Abhi location at The Summit. He’s planning to relocate it.) He serves sushi and Asian fusion dishes. All of Asia is his inspiration—including Japan; Korea; the Philippines; Thailand; India; China; and, of course, Nepal.
His concept has been popular from the very beginning.
Birmingham is a place, Abhi says, where “people accept you and accept your culture and accept what you do. … There are so many good things happening in Birmingham. So many good restaurants. So many good chefs. I love it. I love to be a part of all these things going on.”
Abhi, the restaurant, is a beautiful place, decorated with meaningful things—from the orange accents (in Japan, orange is associated with prosperity, Abhi says) to large, colorful paintings of Bhairav and Ganesh to artifacts from Nepal to his first guitar hanging on the wall by the bar. (This rockstar chef likes to rock.) The elevator door looks like an ancient temple door. The staircase, festooned with prayer flags that have been blessed and flutter in any breeze, is painted to look like the approach to Swayambhunath, an ancient religious complex in the Kathmandu Valley. The local artist who created this mural, Andy Jordan, has never been to this 1,500-year-old site—he painted from Google Earth photos—but customers who have been there immediately recognize it.
Climb those stairs and be transported because Abhi’s attention to detail—his unexpected touches—extends to the food.
“I’m proud of my food,” Abhi says. “It’s well thought out, and we use all local ingredients. … I think we are the only Asian restaurant in town that’s doing that.”
He relies on some 21 local farmers for everything from a variety of fresh mushrooms to heirloom tomatoes to Thai basil. He gets his meats, including organic chicken, from Evan’s Meats & Seafood. A friend’s retired father grows his kaffir lime leaves and a variety of hot peppers (from seeds Abhi gives him).
Authenticity is important, but taste is key. What started as a hobby was honed into a career by passion and a desire to learn. Abhi has spent decades perfecting a single sauce. “I’m learning every day. I always want to learn. Traveling helps,” he says.
“Food has got to be flavorful. I don’t want the glitter and gimmicks or the glamour,” You can fool the eyes and ears and smell, he says, but not the palate. “When I design food … it has to taste good. If it’s not flavorful, it’s wasted. I focus on the palate. You see the food, you can smell it and then you eat it—and then wow! I’ve seen so many of my friends, the first bite they eat, they are dancing. That’s a very good sign.”
Popular dishes include Nepalese lamb curry (which people sometimes call ahead to reserve) and the momo, a beloved and important dish in Tibetan and Nepalese cultures. This signature dish, Abhi says, with homemade steamed Nepalese turkey dumplings in an Alabama tomato vinaigrette is a tasty combination of his past and present. It was a huge hit at the recent Food + Culture rollout at Pepper Place.
Sharable items include steamed buns with pork belly and peppers; udon noodles with peanut or ginger-scallion sauce; and tako (pronounced taco) salad, which is a Japanese dish of steamed octopus over mixed greens with a sesame-ginger vinaigrette.
You’ll find sekuwa (grilled skewers) of lemongrass chicken, garlic shrimp, turmeric-marinated lamb chops and Shanghai pork belly. There are a variety of bowls at Abhi including a Bangkok panang curry bowl, a Balinese beef rendang bowl and a bunless burger bowl with a seasoned turkey patty on mixed greens. (There’s also a turkey burger; Abhi aims to please.) Noodle bowls range from the traditional Tibetan thukpa to Japanese ramen to khao soi curry from Northern Thailand. They come with your choice of protein.
“I want to tell you something about the new ramen dish that I have,” Abhi says. “It’s been here since April, and it’s getting so popular. It’s called ‘Hangover Ramen’ and it has this shredded pork belly and ground pork, bamboo shoots. And the chili oil differentiates it from other ramen.” A beautiful pickled egg also stars in this dish.
There’s all manner of sushi and nigiri and sashimi here. Consider Abhi’s beer-battered roll with tuna, cream cheese and smoked salmon flash fried and served with aioli, siracha and eel sauce or the simple Everest roll with salmon, cucumber, avocado and tuna or the yuca roll with yuca, avocado, cucumber and carrots on a soy wrap.
For dessert, get the ube ice cream (or cake, if you’re lucky; it’s made locally by a Filipino woman). The beautiful vibrant color in these sweets comes from purple yams.
There’s a strong cocktail program at Abhi. The friendly, knowledgeable bartenders can mix up a Saketini with Tito’s, St-Germain and cucumber sake or a Famous Warrior (a margarita with Champagne), and they can make solid recommendations of sake, beer, or wines by the glass or bottle to pair with the various cuisines here. You’ll also find a variety of bourbons on the shelf, including, sometimes, some rare ones.
This is not Abhi’s first venture into the food business; he chose years ago to become a part of Birmingham’s culinary scene.
He first started cooking as a college student in the late 1990s. He missed the food from his youth in Kathmandu, so he began cooking for himself. He experimented with ramen; he recreated foods that his mother and aunt cooked when he was growing up; he fed his friends. (He still runs new dishes past them, and his wife, Ainah, who is from the Philippines and has traveled all over Southeast Asia, is his most-trusted taste tester and his partner in running this restaurant.) After he got his degree from UAB in management information systems (and made his mom happy), he decided to make food his career.
He started with sushi.
Abhi says he took some sushi-making lessons and three days later decided he was proficient. Other people thought so, too, and lined up for the sushi he sold out of a cooler at Southside bars like The Blue Monkey and World of Beer. In 2013, he started his own sushi catering business and named it Everest Sushi. It quickly gained a cult following.
Sushi, he says, gave him a way into the food business without a lot of overhead. “I was testing the market. … The sushi menu I have is the first menu I made. I had room for changes, and everybody said, ‘Please, do not change it.’ The good thing is, I knew the palate in Birmingham because I studied it. My friends used to tell me, ‘It’s very, very tough.’ But I like challenges.”
Before opening his namesake restaurant, Abhi was involved in other Birmingham restaurants such as Bamboo on 2nd and MO:MO at The Pizitz Food Hall. (When he was in the kitchen at Bamboo, the restaurant was recognized internationally as one of “5 Restaurants That Have the Best Ramen in the World.” (Two of the other restaurants are in Japan, another is in London, and one is in Los Angeles.)
These days, Abhi, who employs some 35 people, comes to his restaurant as early as 5 a.m. to make his signature sauces. He mixes spices himself, so they taste like those he remembers from his childhood. Just the fact that he can get these spices here is testament to how our city has changed. Twenty years ago, he says, he had to source these ingredients from New York or Atlanta.
Because of zoning regulations, the restaurant in Mountain Brook Village is only open for dinner (except Sunday), and because he values his guests’ dining comfort, Abhi doesn’t do Uber Eats or DoorDash or other delivery services. So, he’s planning a sister restaurant nearby in the Lane Parke development where he can serve lunch and better accommodate to-go orders. “We’re definitely going to have dumplings,” he says. “People don’t want to wait until 5 for their dumplings.” He’s also looking to open another Abhi in Cahaba Heights to cater to his loyal customers who miss The Summit location.
Like his menu, Abhi’s business is about adaptation—taking good things and making them better and making them approachable. And that comes from following his passion and listening to his customers, some of whom first got to know him with his sushi at the bars and now bring their own kids to his restaurant.
Their willingness to try new things and his confidence in offering new things are part of what makes our local food scene dynamic and more interesting every day. Abhi is happy to be a part of that.
“I’m proud to be in Birmingham. It’s my city. I’m so proud to see it grow. And it’s going to keep on growing. And the food scene, like from the past 20 years, it has skyrocketed. All these great chefs put us on the map, and we are nationwide now. I feel very proud of that.”
Being a part of it, he says, is “priceless.”
2721 Cahaba Road
Mountain Brook, AL 35223
Monday to Thursday 5 to 8:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 5 to 9 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8:30 p.m.