By Ann Cipperly
With our area having so many good restaurants, Opelikans can be proud of our homegrown culinary star, Eron Bass, the executive chef of Café 123, who has lived in Opelika his entire life. Chef Bass trained under other local chefs and is also self-taught in creating innovative dishes that have made Café 123 a highly ranked restaurant in east Alabama.
Chef Bass will be one of 17 chefs featured at the 6th annual Taste of the Town with two wineries and specialty coffees Tuesday, April 24, from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the Museum of East Alabama in downtown Opelika.
Growing up, Chef Bass enjoyed wonderful meals at his grandmothers’ homes. His grandmother, Marie Bass, cooked southern dishes, while his other grandmother, Ria Higginbotham, prepared German and gourmet fare. She cooked with wine, which he appreciates more now than as a child.
Along with learning about cooking from grandmothers and his parents, Linda and Leh Bass, he also enjoyed watching Great Chefs in America and other cooking shows.
After Eron graduated from Opelika High School, he attended college for a while and then decided he wanted to enroll in culinary school. While he had enjoyed being creative with painting, he saw cooking as a creative outlet as well.
His father advised him to work at a restaurant first to be sure that was what he wanted to do before beginning a culinary program.
Eron worked at the Marriott Hotel at Grand National for three years and learned a great deal from a chef from New York and others who worked there. He discovered that he could learn just as much doing hands on work at a restaurant as he could in school.
With a natural ability, Chef Bass quickly learned and began adding his creative influences to dishes.
When John Robert Wood purchased Café 123, he asked Eron to join the culinary team, as sous chef, and shortly afterwards he became executive chef.
At the restaurant, he retains longtime favorites on the menu; however, he continues to expand the menu with new creations. His additions have included the Shrimp and Grits and the Brown Sugar Rub Ribeye, which is covered with his signature rub, caramelizing on the steak.
The restaurant also serves brunch on Sundays. Popular items include pecan chicken and waffles, steak Oscar and an open-faced breakfast sandwich, among others.
Since dishes are prepared fresh, the menu stays small while offering a variety of choices. He considers the menu fine southern cuisine with a French influence. The chef wants everyone to feel comfortable when they visit the restaurant and free to ask questions.
Since he cooks with fresh ingredients, he can’t buy produce in bulk but shops the markets for the best of what is fresh for the day.
“We have a good staff in the kitchen,” says Chef Bass. “That is what keeps it consistent. You have to have the same quality all the time.”
The kitchen is small, and the chefs work together to maintain the quality. “We have mastered what we do,” he says, “even if there are 100 people on the books, it is always the four of us in the kitchen.”
Along with cooking at the restaurant, Chef Bass has always enjoyed cooking at home. He married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer Lisenby, and they have a 4-year-old daughter.
Café 123 has casual elegance with white cloths on tables, candlelight and the bar gleaming with softly lit lamps reflecting in the long mirror. The restaurant is housed in a historic building that was once Haynie’s Drugstore with the dark walnut cases remaining from when the drugstore occupied the space.
The history of Haynie’s goes back to the 1800s when the drug store was originally on the opposite side of the street. J.K. Haynie purchased the store in 1907 from W.F. Chester. Before that it was owned by Mr. Glass in the 1800s.
In 1947, W. P. Pearson purchased the store and tore out the marble topped soda fountain and replaced it with a modern unit and stools. Two boys were hired to work the counter and also hopped cars. In those days, Haynie’s offered curb service on both sides of the street.
The ice cream that Pearson dipped was packed in salt to keep it frozen since there was no mechanical refrigeration. At the soda fountain a variety of flavored Cokes were served. Haynie’s was a popular hangout for students in the 50s and 60s.
After the drug store closed, Bill Carpenter opened a restaurant in the space for a few years.
Downtown Opelika has changed and grown in the past few years with more restaurants, the Brewery and Distillery.
When Chef Bass went to work at Café 123 in 2005, there wasn’t much nightlife and only a few restaurants. “At night time it was pretty much a ghost town,” he says. “It has been growing with more restaurants and much more traffic downtown at night.”
While he feels Café 123 is a destination restaurant, he is pleased with the lively nightlife downtown and believes more restaurants help everyone. “It has been awesome to see how the downtown has rejuvenated over the past ten years,” says Chef Bass.
The space started with Haynie’s as a place for friends to gather for a good time, and that has continued. With Café 123 the ambiance is much more elegant, and, instead of an icy soda, it is an outstanding meal prepared by a talented chef.
Following is a selection of Chef Bass’s recipes he prepares for family and friends.
Look for Chef Bass at the Taste of the Town event. Tickets are $25 and available at the Museum of East Alabama on 9th Street in downtown Opelika or online at eastalabama.org.
Fig, Goat Cheese and Caramelized Onion Bruschetta
Two 11-oz. logs goat cheese
14 dried mission figs, halved lengthwise, then sliced crosswise
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large Spanish onions, halved and thinly sliced
10 garlic cloves, crushed
3 sprigs fresh rosemary (3-4 inches long)
2 tsp. coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Baguette, thinly sliced or crackers
Preheat oven to 350. Crumble goat logs into a medium-sized oven-safe dish. Set aside.
Put sliced figs in a small saucepan. Add sherry and a little water to cover. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Set aside. Dried figs will plump and absorb the flavor of the sherry.
Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, rosemary sprigs, salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring often, for 10-12 minutes, until onions are lightly browned. Remove plumped figs from pot; add to the onion mixture. Stir to combine.
Discard thick woody rosemary stems from mixture, and heap the caramelized onions and fig mixture on top of the goat cheese. (If making ahead, at this point you can cover and refrigerate the dish for a day or two. When you are ready to serve, let it sit at room temp for 1/2 hour before continuing.)
Just before serving, bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, until cheese is hot and starting to bubble at the edges. Serve hot, surrounded by baguette slices or crackers.
Two 6 oz. packets cornbread mix
14 oz. can pinto beans rinsed and drained
14 oz. can corn, drained
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 cucumber, chopped
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1 1/2 cups ranch dressing
1/2 cup barbecue sauce
1 romaine lettuce heart, roughly chopped
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 lb. bacon, cooked and crumbled
Sliced green onion
Prepare cornbread mixes according to package directions. Let cool and cut into 1-inch cubes. Layer cornbread on bottom of a 9×13 baking dish.
Top with a layer of pinto beans, followed by the corn, tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumber and onion.
In a medium bowl, mix together ranch dressing and barbecue sauce. Pour evenly on top of salad.
Top with a layer of romaine lettuce. Note: You may need to gently press down this layer. Then top with cheddar cheese, bacon and green onion.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
12 oz. pasta, your choice of variety
8 pieces thick cut bacon, diced small
1/2 whole medium onion, diced Small
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 whole eggs
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan
3/4 cup Heavy Cream
Salt, black pepper
1/2 cup green peas
Cook pasta according to package directions.
While pasta is cooking, fry bacon until just barely crisp. Remove from pan; drain on paper towels. Pour off all of the bacon grease, but don’t clean the pan. Return the pan to stove over medium-low heat and sauté onions and garlic until golden brown. Set aside.
In a bowl, mix together eggs, Parmesan, cream, and salt and pepper until smooth.
When pasta is done, reserve a cup or two of pasta water. Drain pasta and place it in a bowl. While pasta is still really hot, slowly drizzle in egg mixture, stirring pasta the entire time. The sauce will become thick and should coat the pasta. Splash in a little hot pasta water if needed for consistency.
Halfway through, add peas, bacon, and onion and garlic. Finish adding sauce, stirring until it is combined.
Serve immediately with extra Parmesan.
1 carton fresh strawberries, washed
3 cups balsamic vinegar
Place balsamic vinegar in a saucepan; bring to a low simmer. Reduce vinegar by two-thirds and let rest. Sauce will thicken as it cools. Place berries in a small bowl; drizzle balsamic syrup over berries. Garnish with fresh mint and powdered sugar.
Grilled Lamb Kabobs
1 ½ lb. lamb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
6-8 fresh rosemary sticks, leave tops and remove lower leaves
2 red onions, peeled and quartered
2 red peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 Tbsp. paprika
½ tsp. cumin
2 tsp. coriander
Mix all marinade spices in mixing bowl or food processor while slowly adding oil until it makes a paste. Place lamb in a bowl; cover with marinade. Refrigerate for an hour or longer.
Use rosemary sticks as skewers. May need to use a knife to get meat started. Alternate meat with peppers and onions. Grill for about 5 to 8 minutes, turning as needed. Once you get a nice char, remove and let rest.
Pan Seared Scallops with Brown Butter Vinaigrette
8 large scallops
½ lb. butter
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
To prepare vinaigrette, melt butter on low heat in saucepan stirring constantly until butter begins to brown. Do not burn. Butter should be lightly brown with a nutty aroma. Remove from heat. Infuse balsamic vinegar with shallots, garlic and thyme by whisking together while slowly adding brown butter until slightly thickened. Set aside.
Heat saucepan on medium-high heat with enough oil to coat bottom of pan. Pat scallops dry with paper towels; season with salt and pepper. Carefully place scallops in pan and sauté until caramelized, then flip. Cook about two minutes on each side. Once scallops are nicely browned on both sides, remove from pan. Let rest.
Plate scallops over mixed greens. Pour some brown butter vinaigrette over scallops and greens. Garnish with fresh parsley.
Smoked Salmon Dip
1/2 lb. smoked salmon 1/4 cup Duke’s mayonnaise 1/4 sour cream 1 medium shallot, minced 2 Tbsp. fresh chopped dill 2 Tbsp. capers, drained and chopped 2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice Paprika, for garnish
Flake smoked salmon into a medium size bowl. Stir in mayonnaise, sour cream, shallot, dill, capers and lime juice. Refrigerate until chilled and firm. Stir well. Sprinkle with paprika and serve with crackers or toast points.
Guinness Beef Stew
2 lb. beef chuck steak, boneless and well trimmed, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 cup quartered mushrooms
1 1/2 Tbsp. flour
Pinch of crushed thyme
Pinch (or two) of crushed cayenne
Pinch of black pepper
1 cup Guinness beer
1 cup beef stock
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 Bay leaf
2 cups chopped carrots
2 cups chopped potatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in a wide skillet or sauté pan that has a tight fitting cover until hot.
Add beef and brown well, stirring occasionally to brown all sides (turn the heat down if necessary so meat does not burn).
Brown meat in several small batches to avoid over-crowding the pan.
Add onion and garlic and continue to cook until onion is slightly browned.
Combine flour, thyme, black pepper and cayenne in a bowl and then add to the beef, stirring to make a roux.
Continue to cook over medium-high heat until the roux is slightly browned (do not burn).
Stir in Guinness and beef stock and bring to a boil, stirring until sauce thickens and any lumps are cooked out.
Add carrots and potatoes, cover skillet and place in a 325 degree oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours or until meat is tender.
Ladle soup in bowls and garnish with parsley.
Caramelized Onion and Bacon Jam
2 cups bacon, chopped
4 cups onion, chopped into chunks (about 5 onions)
3/4 cup brewed coffee
3 Tbsp. honey
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Cut bacon into approx 1-inch wide pieces and fry on medium high heat until they begin to brown (approximately 10-15 minutes).
Remove bacon from pan and transfer to a paper towel, set aside. Keep the fat from the bacon in the pot and add the onions.
Cook onions until they begin to soften (10 minutes or so).
Reduce heat to low, add coffee, honey, cumin and bacon and allow to simmer for 35-40 minutes or until the mixture has begun to thicken and become jam like in consistency.
Once it has reached the desired consistency, stir in balsamic vinegar.
Transfer mixture to a food processor and pulse 3-4 times so the bacon is broken down into smaller pieces. Don’t over do it as the jam should be chunky rather then a paste/puree.
Transfer to an airtight container and store in refrigerator up to 3 weeks.