Review: Hazel, Ravines and Downtown brings raw power to Birmingham

Oysters. Tom Perkins

Hazel, Ravines and Downtown

34977 Woodward Ave., Birmingham
Wheelchair accessible
11 a.m-12 a.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-12 a.m. Saturday and Sunday
Entrees $17-$30, sandwiches $12-$15, a dozen oysters $36, wine $8-$32/glass

What's wrong with trying to be all things to all people? Well, because most people fail at it, that's why. You know, as they say: Jack of all trades, master of none.

Hazel, Ravines and Downtown shatters that saying. It's an oyster bar, it offers nostalgia, it borrows from eclectic foreign cuisines, it's trendy — and it does all those things well. Owners Emmele Herrold and Beth Hussey say, "The atmosphere is casual, but the food is so fine."

The atmosphere is indeed casual and loud, with bare blond tables and lots of seating at the bar and on high stools, and I am here to testify that the tastes are mighty fine, though perhaps more robust or hearty than you might associate with the hoary phrase "fine dining." Herrold, who is executive chef, goes for big and bold flavors, swinging for the bleachers in every dish.

The menus, both food and drinks, are divided into Familiar, Well-Traveled, and Trending. Familiar food includes a wedge salad and a Caesar, pot roast, wings, chicken noodle soup, a pork chop, and a hunk of salmon. Dessert is cake and ice cream.

Well-Traveled is actually pretty familiar, too; it goes mostly to Europe and Latin America for a Scandinavian smorgasbord, a Greek salad, brats, and fish and chips, but also tries out on us Peruvian chicken (which happens to be trending, too), Oaxacan shrimp, an Argentine grilled-meat feast ($60 for two), and Yemeni foul.

The Trending column is largely vegan or vegetarian, with a grain burger, cauliflower steak, and a vegetables-and-couscous bowl. It includes a beefy Moroccan pasty and bone broth with marrow. You can get Kale Joy, which should be listed with an asterisk: "*Trending in 2012."

But let's start with the oysters, which are so lovely in their varicolored shells and are HRD's point of pride. The owners buy directly from oyster farms on both coasts rather than from a distributor, for maximum freshness. Each variety — Mookie Blue, Henderson Inlet — had its own distinctive flavor, they said, with the West Coast varieties meatier but the East Coast ones more complex. They come with four sauces: cocktail, Cholula, horseradish, and the traditional mignonette.

I took along a couple of osyter mavens, who went nuts, repeatedly exclaiming "freshest!," "best in my life," and the like. They highly recommend HRD to raw bar aficionados. It just added sea urchins, too, and there's a "Raw Barge" platter with clams, crabs, and more. And during happy hour, every day from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., oysters are half-price.

My oysterish friends were just as enthusiastic about the rest of the menu, as was I. Herrold especially has a way with shrimp: Dishes inluude the Trampi Scampi appetizer, seven juicy shrimp with a delectable sauce that includes garlic, butter, and bourbon rather than the classic white wine, and the smoky Oaxacan shrimp entrée, served with authentic black bean purée and aji verde, a grassy green sauce from Peru that uses yogurt, cilantro, jalapeño, lemon, and lime.

Aji verde appears again with Peruvian chicken, and the summery sauce adds freshness to a very rich dish that comes with a big heap of smashed fingerlings under Huancaina, a spicy cheese sauce.

I'm so glad that marrow is trending, fattier than fat, here served in the bone with a tiny fork; you don't want a big glob of this at a time. Less rich but not by a lot is peach-colored seafood bisque, piquant with recognizable bits of shrimp, crab, and fish.

Pintxos, the Basque name for tapas, change regularly; we got beef patties with a good sauce containing ginger and sriracha and a whole lot more. Cha Cha Espinaca is perfectly done spinach with peanuts, ginger, and dill. The peanuts soften in both texture and flavor.

Vegan cauliflower steak is roasted and comes with three terrific sauces that take a lot of work: cashew "cheese," smoky walnut "chorizo," and walnut pesto. Processing the walnuts is tricky, a cook told me, to leave some rawer, and some more cooked. This is one of the more popular dishes.

A little less adventuresome, though toothsome, were two big "French Tacos from Morocco," really pasties in a thin, flaky, toasted crust — more Cornwall than Morocco, I would say. Our beef version included a three-cheese blend and French fries inside. Likewise, the super-tender pot roast is a traditional taste, and a vertiginously tall pork chop from a local farm was smoked to taste like ham.

Portions are very large. You will want to try more than one dish, but should you not be able to finish them, mine all did very well on a second heating.

There is not space to describe well the trifurcated and high-priced drinks menu. Familiar beers are from Bell's, well-traveled cocktails are familiar (Moscow Mule, Singapore Sling), trending drinks include peach kombucha and Pimm's Cup, invented in 1823. I enjoyed Sauza Agua Fuerte (strong water) from a can — sparkling water spiked with tequila. When my companions quizzed the knowledgeable waiter, they were offered wine samples.

The restaurant's odd name comes from the intersection of three Birmingham neighborhoods; a huge map in the entranceway, which is on Peabody Street, shows how. The owners are partial to Bham; they offer to pay the Uber or Lyft fare of anyone who arrives from a city address.

On weekends brunch is served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a slew of additional dishes like Breakfast in Berlin and Liquid Lunch, which involves Bloody Marys... and oysters.

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