When Tom Sheffer and his team opened the doors to AVO in 2009, he knew the approachable California-influenced cuisine would be a hit with his fellow Mountain Brook residents. Situated in the very heart of Mountain Brook Village, AVO benefits from some seriously high profile real estate, so anything less than becoming an instant mainstay would have been very conspicuous. Fortunately, Tom’s Green Apple Restaurant Group had already earned its chops with successful concepts in Nashville and Homewood (Rumba and Jackson’s Bar & Bistro).
Offering unfussy food from what Tom calls ”The Upper South” of Alabama, Tennessee and his home state of Kentucky, AVO has built a steady fan base. Two years ago, he brought in a new chef, Joseph Rozario, a change that infused the restaurant with a more casual vibe as well as a spicy kick. “I became chef de cuisine of Rumba at the age of 23,” Joseph says. “It was there that I developed my voice exploring Indonesian, Spanish and Asian—Singaporean, specifically, because that is where my father and his family are from—cuisines. So, I bring a worldly approach to Alabama’s ‘hot weather food’ as I call it, as cuisine is most largely influenced by climate.”
The chef and Tom often collaborate on menus, always focusing on what is fresh, seasonal and what diners have come to expect in a neighborhood gem. “I like to come up with some of the menu concepts, but he develops the recipes,” Tom says. “Joseph tends to like bold flavors. He has a predilection for spice.” When discussing how the menu has evolved, Tom notes they kept some classics like their steaks and crab cakes. “But Joseph definitely puts his spin on dishes like fish which changes seasonally,” Tom says. “I would never change something without first consulting with him, and I think he feels the same way.”
Opening prior to the development of Lane Parke could have been dicey, but Tom was betting on that old adage of the rising tide lifting all boats. “Even when we did not know exactly what [Lane Parke] would be like, we were still for it,” he says. “We just had the idea that the more, the merrier. I think our whole [Mountain Brook Village] area gets noticed more because of Lane Parke.”
On any given night, the AVO dining room will be filled with mostly locals and more than a few guests from the nearby Grand Bohemian Hotel. “Part of that is location, part of that is the nature of Mountain Brook and part of that is just how we pitch ourselves to the community we serve,” Tom says. Sundays are especially popular as AVO serves a killer brunch. “We do a Hangtown fry, which is an old California Gold Rush dish with oysters, country ham, scrambled eggs,” Tom says. “We think that [Sunday brunch] is a time when we can feature a lot of the ingredients we use downstairs at Dram during the week—Benton’s bacon, sausage smoked in Kentucky, grits.”
The décor of AVO has been updated subtly over the years, keeping things fresh with new paint and adding carpet to portions of the dining room. But it is the tweaking of the menu that might get the most notice. “I think we have gotten a little more casual under Joseph’s lead,” Tom says. “He has been cooking since he was 14 years old, and his take on food is to make something delicious that is approachable, not fussy.”
Not upsetting the locals though can be kind of tricky. “When we first opened, some of the staff kind of laughed and thought I would be changing up the menu a lot, but I told them, people like to be able to come in and consistently order what they like,” Tom says. “Sometimes we do take things off but it is like a fine dance—you want to stay fresh for regulars, but you don’t want to frustrate them.”
It is this approach that keeps the regulars coming back while surprising new guests to AVO. As Tom puts it, “We’re not a flashy brand. That is one thing that has not changed since we opened, by design. We always knew we had a good thing going.”
MEET CHEF ROZARIO
Music in the Kitchen:
Well, my father is a pianist/composer/arranger and my stepfather owns recording studios. I listen to everything. My brother and I grew up dancing, which goes hand-in-hand with cooking, so there is usually some obscure dance-music playing. The last album I bought is by an artist who goes by the stage name “Flume”.
Transition from Nashville to Birmingham:
It has been a seamless adventure. I live next to AVO and feel like the area is much the same as the Nashville area where I grew up. Birmingham possesses many of the charming attributes that are slowly being lost in Nashville’s growth with the influx of so many non-natives. I should add that I did not expect the bounty of Alabama’s produce when I arrived. It is varied and inspiring. There is a tomato hobbyist who will remain anonymous that I adore. I wish readers could see pictures of the jewels he produces!
One Ingredient People Might be Surprised You Don’t Have on Hand:
Salt! I replace it with soy sauce, miso, nutritional yeast, or fish sauce. The soy products are inherited from my Singaporean father. The yeast is inherited from my health-nut mother. The fish sauce is a taught-and-learned expression from my early Italian training. The earliest fish sauce recipes originated in Rome. I suppose I am a true Eurasian in heritage and diet!
Approach to Cooking:
I can describe it in a three-word mantra, which anyone I have ever trained will recognize: “Reduce and refine.” Strip away anything from your practices that does not serve an absolute purpose and try to add an unexpected, but familiar, accent. From how my colleagues write their recipes, control heat, adjust seasonings and practice their knifework – all are examples of this simple philosophy.
What’s Next for the Green Apple Restaurant Group?
The Soda Jerk: This “fine fast food” concept is coming to Edgewood and also Huntsville.
The Ice House: This Texas barbecue restaurant will be around the corner from AVO. It will serve up Texas-style barbecue, sausage, turkey, German potato salad, pinto beans and creamed corn.
AVO Signature Crab Cakes
Makes 6 crabcakes
At the restaurant Chef Rozario serves these on top of avocado with Fresh Wasabi Mayonnaise.
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 egg white
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 pound fresh lump crab meat
- Panko breadcrumbs
- Olive oil, for frying
1) In a glass bowl, whisk together salt, egg white and mayonnaise until fully incorporated. Gently fold in the crab meat with a rubber spatula; be careful not to overmix.
2) Portion each crab cake using ¼ cup per serving. Gently roll each cake in Panko breadcrumbs.
3) Over medium heat in a large skillet, heat one tablespoon of olive oil. Gently fry each crab cake until golden brown and cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Repeat with remaining crab cakes. Keep warm in 250°F oven until ready to serve.
- ¼ pound firm tofu
- 4 tablespoons fresh parsley, leaves and stems
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
- 1 tablespoon wasabi powder
- 1 cup mayonnaise
1) Place first five ingredients in a blender or food processor and run on high speed until smooth, about two minutes.
2) Add mayonnaise and blend at a low speed, until just incorporated. Refrigerate in an airtight container until ready to use.