Before becoming the executive chef at Bistro V, Jeremy Downey grew up immersed in the culinary world. He recalls unloading seafood and shoveling shrimp in his hometown of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, where his mother worked in a cafeteria and his father grew fresh vegetables in their garden. In Jeremy’s world, from a young age, the farm-to-table mindset, inner workings of the kitchen and appreciation of food was de rigueur.
“People in the South love their vegetables and meats,” Jeremy says. “That’s the food I grew up eating: honest soul food. Dad had a garden since I was a baby, with turnip greens, squash and potatoes. Those are my favorite foods still. I know how to cook them a little differently now, but dad’s turnip greens are still the best.”
Although Jeremy left home to play football at The University of Alabama, where he was part of the 1992 National Championship team, he never forgot his culinary roots. “I was working around town at a few restaurants in Tuscaloosa, and there was not much of a culinary scene then,” Jeremy says. “I was washing dishes and started in the very back of the house, working my way up to cooking.” He was a quick study and soon opened up a small Cajun take-out restaurant in Tuscaloosa, but the Cajun concept didn’t take off at the time, so he decided to travel to work in kitchens that would challenge him to expand his culinary mastery.
He headed to Northern California, where he worked at an upscale Italian restaurant in Sacramento that opened his eyes to exploring his kitchen creativity. Then, he ventured cross-country to Washington, D.C., where he worked at the highly acclaimed restaurant, Vidalia. That was followed by a string of other eateries that encompassed a range of global cuisines, arming Jeremy with a diverse set of cooking techniques. He eventually found his way back to his home state, landing in Birmingham, where he worked under “the Godfather of Southern cuisine,” Chef Frank Stitt, at Bottega.
“I was interested in getting my palate in a new place. That’s what I do now: find some dishes that are interesting and use local produce to spin it into a new concept that I like and that gives it a Southern twist.”
His experiences and travels resonate deeply in the menus of Bistro V — “V” for Vestavia, where the eatery is just a stone’s throw from the iconic “Temple of Vesta” or Sybil Temple. It’s a mashup of classic Southern eatery-meets-upscale-seafood restaurant. From fresh farmers’ market vegetable plates and Bayou La Batre-style po’ boys for lunch to homemade gnocchi and paella for dinner, Jeremy allows Bistro V’s clientele to experience a variety of flavors all in one place.
For an appetizer, try the fried oyster salad, a bed of mixed baby lettuces with fried oysters, a poached farm egg, cracklins and a sherry vinaigrette; Ahi tuna tartare with wonton crisps and wasabi aioli; seafood bisque; or the Southern-fried Joyce Farms chicken livers for an old-school classic. And for dinner’s main course, it can be hard to choose. With main courses like Gulf crab ravioli with shrimp, crab, leeks, corn, arugula and lemon cream; risotto of the evening; Francisco’s paella with fresh fish, shrimp, chorizo, corn and sweet peppers served on saffron rice; handmade crab cakes served with fried green tomatoes, mixed greens and tomato-corn relish; country-fried pork loin over buttermilk mashed potatoes with red-eye cream; and a hand-cut 8-ounce filet mignon, served with potatoes, bacon, onions, mushrooms, arugula and Bordelaise sauce — you might hem and haw over what to order.
The lunch menu echoes the Southern- and seafood-centric vibes, featuring mouthwatering seafood entrées along with some sandwich classics like the Bistro cheeseburger; smoked turkey panini with bacon, Havarti, tomato chutney and arugula; Tuscan grilled chicken sandwich with pesto mayo, provolone, olive tapenade, arugula and tomato on ciabatta; New York-style reuben with pastrami, sauerkraut and Havarti on marble rye; and the list goes on.
“The classics here are braised short ribs, and the fish changes daily, so it’s the top thing on the menu during the night usually,” Jeremy says. “Mainly, though, the seafood is still the draw. Fish is the most popular and always has been, because people know that’s what I do, and they know we put a lot of care into it.”
For the past 10 years, Jeremy has established relationships with local farmers and fishermen who have been stocking Bistro V with the freshest Alabama ingredients.
“Luckily I have a lot of vendors now doing organic for me, and they have all kinds of access to new produce that I’ve never seen,” Jeremy shares. “Birmingham has done well with that. Farmers are reaching out to restaurants and giving us the ability to put something special on the plate.”
Jeremy takes pride in knowing where his food is coming from and the fact that, because of his high standards for sourcing ingredients, guests know they are enjoying a quality meal that supports local businesses and local farmers. Jeremy focuses his formal, fine-dining training on creating aesthetically pleasing plates that are even more pleasing to the palate, letting the ambience and expected attire sway towards a more casual, cozy spot where laid-back camaraderie and food are the main focus.
“It was an upscale diner at one point, and some of the food we do is still that way,” Jeremy explains. “Fine dining is hard to do because Bistro V is a very upscale yet casual atmosphere. I always say, you can wear whatever you want to wear, just have some clothes on! From there, we’ve raised the bar on the cuisine, and now we do braises and risottos at dinner. But you can still get sandwiches and salads and some classics — everyday stuff, meat-and-threes even.”
Bistro V’s 10th anniversary takes place this summer, and Jeremy says it is a huge milestone in the competitive restaurant industry, as they tend to operate more in dog years with their lifespan. And his attention to quality ingredients coupled with his ability to deliver a well-rounded, crowd-pleasing menu has made Bistro V a beloved neighborhood staple.
“You’ve got to buckle down, figure out where you are, and put out the proper dishes that people want,” Jeremy says. “Bistro V has a family environment, and some of our earlier clients are now bringing their kids. The kitchen is open, so people can interact with us. You can watch us cook and look at what we are doing back there. It’s a warm atmosphere, and I think people enjoy coming to be around that.”
Bistro V is located at 521 Montgomery Hwy., Vestavia, AL 35216. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. To learn more, call (205) 823-1505 or visit bistro-v.com.
Thank you to Bistro V for sharing the fabulous images of their delicious dishes!
Want the best of local restaurants and happenings? Download our SB App. It’s FREE!