A true Cahaba Heights treasure, Fig Tree Café sits quietly nestled behind a salon off Cahaba Heights Road. One might wonder what the truly unbelievable smell that overtakes the quaint area behind The Summit. Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The goings on within the four walls of Fig Tree Café are unlike anything I’ve experienced here in Birmingham, as of yet. Chef JP – John Holland – has a story and a passion worth screaming from the rooftops.
JP was destined to be a chef. You know, one of those stars lined up perfectly kinds of things? His father grew up in Thailand while his mother, a true Southerner was raised in New Orleans. At a very early age, he was surrounded by a rich food heritage that shaped him, undeniably. As a child, he remembers spreading out on the floor to read Calvin and Hobbs and cookbooks galore. Piecing together recipes, by referencing the cookbooks he flipped through regularly, he felt like he was using “a potion book borrowed from a wizard”.
At the young age of 16, JP officially decided to become a chef. He imagined himself delicately creating, what he refers to as “upper level food” – the type of food for which people paid thousands of dollars. As he grew and matured, both individually and as a chef, he realized cooking was an art of celebrating ordinary folks and learning to give them a dining experience they have never witnessed. He uses this “upper level” fantasy as a driving force to keep him reaching for that “thing” he dreamed about. He prides himself on starting with the basics, then adding his personal flair that takes his art to the next level. For instance, his Mexican Mole Ham with Arugula and Cumin Vinaigrette takes a classic ham dish to a foreign territory, adds a few spices from here and there and establishes a unique flavor fit for any hungry visitor with a curious palate.
Over the years, JP has realized the people who visit are lacking expectation, mainly due to the location and lack of defined guidelines. Because there are zero assumptions, JP keeps his menu constantly evolving so to keep up with his ever-changing mood. He takes time to greet and get to know each guest, then he explains his story, how every detail is immaculately established and paired together. This creates a trust and a unique chef to customer relationship, one you won’t find at most eateries in the area. Fig Tree Cafe is a true Farm to Table experience, as they grow their on vegetables and raise their on protein. JP says he is constantly aiming to create a textbook for chefs that has not yet been established.
JP has a staff that visibly adores his mission. He explains that the soul of Fig Tree Café is formed by the people that work there – and those individuals are filled with passion and loyalty. Brandon, who’s territory is behind the bar, takes simple southern ingredients and generates fresh and flavorful cocktails that pair perfectly with the seasonal menus. Last week, my friend Abby and I visited Fig Tree Café and tasted a few cocktails that are on the May Cocktail Menu – he even let us taste a few he is hoping will make an appearance on the June menu.
Brandon has a unique story. A few years ago, he suffered a head injury that placed his body into a comatose state. Upon his miraculous revival, Brandon’s senses were crossed. When he walked into a room, instead of smelling garlic, he would taste birthday cake, or instead of tasting steak, he would smell cinnamon. What makes Brandon’s mixologist position so unique, is the complete reliance he has on his customers. When mixing cocktails for upcoming menus, he will create a taste-testing environment with those that sit at the bar, so to concoct the most divine rendition – and he truly does have a magical touch! He served Abby and myself a fresh watermelon martini that he garnished with a sprig of rosemary, after realizing it was missing a “touch”. We quickly fell in love with the Summery drink, but, to keep us on our toes and to work his magic, he tried adding a different ingredient. After asking our honest thoughts, we came to a group conclusion that the cocktail will remain as before, although the second rendition could be making an appearance on a later menu 😉 . Not many other restaurants genuinely value feedback to the point of altering their menu based solely on what the customer wants. It was amazing! In addition to the watermelon martini, we had the April Showers drink – a mix of Absolut, Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc, lime, lavender bitters and soda and the Blood Orange Whiskey Sour – Jack Daniel’s, fresh squeezed lemon and blood orange juice, Agave nectar, and blood orange bitters. All incredibly refreshing, but something about the watermelon stole the show.
Below, you’ll see a few of the dishes we tried. We started with a two appetizers that accompanied our drinks (Fried Green Tomatoes with Crawfish Succotash and Summer Salad with Pancetta). After these, we were served the Mexican Mole Ham and Arugula with Cumin Vinaigrette and a Filet with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes. The filet was quite possibly the most decadent I’ve ever tasted. We finished off the night with a lemon square, just like grandma made it, but better.