According to the James Beard Awards, the prestigious annual celebration of America's culinary excellence, the US's best restaurant is not in the gourmet capitals of New York, Chicago or LA, it is in – are you ready? – Birmingham, Alabama.
In May, the awards declared Highlands Bar & Grill to be America's most Outstanding Restaurant of 2018. It named the restaurant's pastry chef, Dolester Miles, the best in the country, too.
If you're tempted to dismiss this as a fluke, think again. Highlands has been a finalist an astonishing nine times. Clearly, they're doing a lot of things right.
Located near Birmingham's historic Five Points South district, Highlands occupies an elegant, ivy-clad stone building. Inside, there are two dining rooms separated by a large horseshoe-shaped marble bar, which, surprisingly, has a TV showing an NFL game. The only reservation we could secure is at 5.30pm but even at this time the bar is already full. The decor is reminiscent of a high-end steakhouse, with dark wood panelling, white tablecloths and framed vintage posters.
Our server, Justin, arrives and immediately swaps our white napkins – which would clearly clash with our dark outfits – for black ones. He then embarks on the most thorough menu run-through I've ever experienced. Each dish is explained in intricate detail, including how it's cooked and presented. By the end I'm convinced he must also work in the kitchen.
The one-page menu has nine appetisers and eight mains. The cuisine is French-inspired Southern comfort food and Justin says about 70 per cent of the ingredients are locally sourced.
We kick off with the citrusy red snapper ceviche, which is so good my dining companion declares: "I could eat this for the rest of my life." Next is the stone-ground baked grits, which arrives as a cloud-like souffle of cheesy, mushroomy, prosciutto-ey perfection.
For mains, we try the triggerfish with ragout and rattlesnake beans (meaty and flavoursome) and the pork with creamed corn and red peppers (marbled and juicy). The only dud note is a few underdone fries.
We let Justin recommend the wines and, predictably, the Austrian gruner and Spanish rioja he suggests are perfect accompaniments.
For dessert, the acclaimed coconut cake is as light and lovely as reviewers rave ("It's the superstar," says Justin). However, I prefer the buttermilk pie, whose crisp pastry and rich buttery filling shows off Miles' delicate touch.
Although expertly cooked and beautifully presented, the food here isn't treated with the hushed-tone reverence so often displayed in fine-dining establishments. In fact, the atmosphere is relaxed and light-hearted, with a background of contemporary music and a clientele of well-dressed couples and exuberant families.
While the restaurant is coy about its achievements (there's nothing on the menu), word has clearly got out. Justin tells us the night after winning the award, there were 23 people waiting outside. The following weekend a couple drove 1730 kilometres from Minneapolis.
"People definitely come here with high expectations," he says, "but we enjoy trying to meet them."
Rob McFarland was a guest of Alabama Tourism, Delta Air Lines and Brand USA.
Delta Air Lines flies daily to Birmingham, Alabama, via Los Angeles. See delta.com
Elyton Hotel combines heritage features with contemporary design and rooms start from $US165. See elytonhotel.com
Highlands Bar & Grill, reservations accepted 30 days in advance. See highlandsbarandgrill.com