Chef Brody enjoys the bridge club that uses the private dining room nearly all day on Thursdays in his decidedly hip Zen restaurant. Alyce and Doug will soon have their limited edition Sweet Home Farm single malt scotch soaked jubilee cheese available, but you have to find their farm first. Bluefish can put up a surprising struggle when you’re an out of practice fisherman, but captain Mike of Inshore Charters was cool and non-judgmental. Mild weather, powder white sand, blue water, butterflies and good food do create tranquility on Alabama’s gulf shore.
Open only 18 months, Zen is Lane and Ginny Gilbert’s third restaurant in Alabama’s Orange Beach. Although traditional southern fried seafood is some of the best of its genre, it’s refreshing to see the trend among restaurants along the Gulf of Mexico toward more eclectic menus. Executive chef and manager Brody Olive has, with some playfulness, positioned Zen’s cuisine along the Pacific Rim yet manages to utilize the top quality abundance of local seafood and produce.
Sushi, stir fry and tempura stations dominate the kitchen and with advance reservations, small groups may arrange cooking demonstrations. The kitchen looks out onto a spacious dining room with a minimalist decor, keeping with the Pacific Rim bent of the food. Light, crisp tempura fried mushrooms and shrimp are served with a variety of savory sauces. Stir fries with rice or bean thread noodles may include local crab, chicken, shrimp, chorizo sausage and any number of vegetables. Traditional sashimi shares space with playful sushi rolls such as the Rockefeller – fried oysters, smoked bacon, baby spinach and parmesan horseradish.
Asian influence is found in some of the entrees with hoisin glazed filet mignon a good example. Imagination extends to the bar with Zen gaining a reputation for Pacific/Gulf fusion blends. The zentini combines medori, vodka, triple sec, lime and pineapple juices while the sake-politan mixes sake, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime. An interesting note is the kitchen’s use of sake to deglaze the stir fry pans.
Sweet Home Farm is only 20 miles from Zen’s resort location on Perdido Beach, but you may need a GPS to find Elberta, Al. That’s exactly how Michigan transplants Alyce Birchenough and Doug Wolbert like it. Already dairy farmers, they established their 60 acres in 1984 as Alabama’s first cheese producing farmstead. Doug believes guernsey cows have the proper fat to protein ratio and natural levels of beta carotene for color to produce high quality artisan cheeses.
Alyce is the cheese maker maintaining 18 varieties on average and using several unique recipes. All are raw milk aged cheeses, including goats milk. Elberta is the most popular with a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel. Sweet Home Farm makes a very limited supply of specialty cheeses such as a jubilee cheese soaked for two months in single malt scotch. They sell quickly when available. Cajun spice is good melted in grits. Garlic blue with crackers and red wine or on a burger is terrific. Fennel gouda would pair nicely with salad, in grilled cheese or grated over roasted vegetables.
Sweet Home Farm’s store is open Friday and Saturday only and additionally on the Wednesday before both Thanksgiving and Christmas. All the business they wish to handle is generated through word of mouth advertising with no internet, no wholesale and no mail order. Several fine Gulf Shore and Orange Beach restaurants are among Sweet Home Farm’s steady clientele. The compact store sells excellent local artisan breads and will vacuum seal cheese purchases making transport easier.
You might want some of the cheese if you wish to take a break while fishing on one of Inshore Charters’ boats, located at Zeke’s Landing, a restaurant, entertainment and marina complex on popular Pardido Beach. Separated by several dozen yards may be customers enjoying a cocktail while fresh fish from a recent catch are being gutted and filleted at the end of the dock. Captain Mike Weaver is professional yet clearly takes pleasure in taking people fishing.
The inlets that snake through the barrier islands around Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are home to many varieties of fish and seafood. Using live shrimp for bait, a short pleasant two hour trip in Cotton Bayou produced several feisty bluefish and two delectable sheepshead fish. From the boat, dozens of people are visible fishing off the miles of protected beach along Gulf Islands National Seashore. If the attainment of zen is your goal, then Alabama’s gulf shore does provide tranquility among condos, beach houses and a vibrant night life.