My first visit to North Beach Bar and Grill on Tybee Island taught me a valuable lesson: read the signs. Of course, the canary yellow hut trimmed in turquoise looked like every other salt-and-wind-whipped crab shack up and down the southeastern coast. The wood plank floors were strafed with sand and a guitar picker’s music drifted in from the patio through the screen windows. Happily buzzed and sunburnt patrons sipped ice-cold longnecks and fruity umbrella drinks. Ravished from a day in the sun and wind, my husband and I snagged the only table left, mere seconds before a line started to snake out the door with hungry folks packed cheek-to-jowl at the bar. The crowd should have been my first clue that we were in for some kind of wonderful.
The old standbys—burgers, crab cakes, fish tacos and peel ‘n’ eats—were available, but there weren’t deep-fried smells wafting through the swinging door that led to the kitchen. The aromas were subtler and spiced with something I couldn’t quite put my senses on—jerk or curry, perhaps? Led by my nose, my attentions strayed off the menu to a blackboard propped against the corner of the bar on the floor.
Falafel salad, chipotle-citrus barbecue ribs, steak smothered in a caramelized onion-bacon-port sauce and lamb meatball sliders were writ in tidy block letters with white chalk. Directly above the bar, a hand-painted sign called for patience. “Every dish is made to order,” it read. Clues number two and three.
I chose a salmon from the chalkboard. Seared, then finished off with a sweet onion relish and served with a side of broccolini, the dish proved worth every minute of the gut-grumbling wait. So did my husband’s succulent ropa vieja, which I sampled aggressively.
That’s when it finally dawned on me. North Beach isn’t my granddaddy’s fish camp—it’s four-star fare dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. And the soul behind the Franco-Caribbean fusion, chef Mir Ali, tells me he often improvises the grill’s daily specials based on what’s in season and what spices he can get his hands on.
Tybee’s a long ways from his native Pakistan, to be sure, but Mir has made a home for himself here in the South, melding the flavors and techniques of all the places he’s been.
Coming of age in New York City and the Washington, D.C. area, Mir didn’t dream of becoming a chef, although the culinary traditions of his homeland shaped his childhood. His family emigrated from Pakistan when Mir was 7 years old. As Muslims, his parents prepared meals according to Islamic law, choosing only halal, or permissible, foods and preparation methods.
“My mom is a hell of a cook,” Mir says with obvious pride, describing how his mother would buy meats only from kosher butchers and select spices to grind fresh from Indian grocers.
He didn’t dip his fingers into the over-salted fast-food nation swirling around him until the age of 15, when he forgot his lunch on a school field trip.
“The whole class was treated to White Castle. I had two orders of fries and a soft drink.”
Fast forward to graduate school where Mir studied pharmacology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. To help pay for school, he got a job as a prep cook at La Residence, the venerable upscale French restaurant founded by Southern foodways pioneer Bill Neal. The executive chef at the time took Mir under his wing, inculcating Mir with the edicts of New Southern cuisine—sourcing fresh produce and proteins from local growers, using heirloom vegetables and grains when possible, spiking simple foods with layers of seasonings, both indigenous and international. To his surprise, Mir found that he was able to lose himself in the cooking. He especially loved making fresh breads.
“It’s still chemistry,” Mir explains. “Compositions, mathematics, ingredients.”
In 1998, after college, he followed a friend to Savannah and got a job as sous chef at the former Georges’ on Tybee. There, he met the two Georges—Spriggs and Jackson—developing a food-borne friendship that endures today. Excited by the challenge of a down-island-inspired menu, Mir brought his New South techniques to the cutting board. He and the restaurant grew together, organically, until Mir left for France in 2000. There, he worked in a small bistro in the town of Toulouse to further hone his skills. Nearly three years later, Mir returned stateside, working in Miami for a brief time before he headed back to Savannah. When George Spriggs reopened his retooled beachfront outpost in 2011, he asked Mir to serve as the executive chef.
Mir is also the executive chef of the Wilmington Island home he shares with his wife, Azi, who was born and raised in Athens, Ga., to parents who emigrated from Iran in the 1970s. For everyday meals like the one Mir’s making tonight, he returns to the traditional dishes of his youth because of their familiar simplicity. He often incorporates the tastes and textures of Azi’s Persian heritage, as well.
Standing at the kitchen’s island, Mir hand-tosses a crisp, colorful medley of English cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions. Its sharp, citrusy brightness fills the air, melding with the heady scent of saffron and ginger coming from the direction of the stove. A marigold-colored chicken korma, one of his mother’s specialties, bubbles away in a stock pot.
“I ate this type of curry a few times a month growing up,” Mir says. “It was one of those comfort dishes—like meatloaf or mac ’n’ cheese—that I always craved when away from home.”
Around the dinner table, as we’re savoring this feast and sharing stories, Mir explains that there’s an Urdu expression—hath ke bareme—that explains why his chicken korma tastes different than his mother’s.
“It loosely translates to ‘about the hand’,” he says. “Even though I try to duplicate my mother’s recipe, I could never imitate hers. Each person’s hand adds his or her own flavor to the recipe. We can copy or mimic a recipe exactly, but it will never have the same imprint. Each hand has its own touch.”
Mir’s words confirm why I should always order off the chalkboard.
Mir Ali’s Chicken Korma
10 garlic cloves
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled
1 whole fryer chicken, 2 to 3 pounds, cut into
1 tablespoon white poppy seeds
1 cinnamon stick
6 whole cloves
6 cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander powder
2 tablespoons oil
1 large yellow onion, julienned
2 tablespoons grated unsweetened coconut
Salt and pepper, to taste
16-ounce container of plain whole-milk
Fresh mint, cilantro and green onion, chopped for garnish
Puree the garlic and ginger in a blender with a little water to make a paste to rub on the chicken pieces. Let the chicken marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour.
While the chicken marinates, grind the poppy seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, turmeric and coriander powder in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, then set aside.
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat and carefully add the julienned onions, stirring occasionally to allow them to caramelize. Add the ground spices, coconut flakes, salt and pepper and cook until the aromatics develop, making sure not to over-brown the spices.
Add the marinated chicken pieces and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the yogurt until it completely dissolves, creating a sauce in the pot. Cover the chicken and cook on medium heat until the chicken is completely cooked and fork tender, about 30 to 45 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
To serve, spoon the chicken onto a serving platter. Reduce the sauce in the pot until it is the desired consistency then ladle the sauce on the chicken. Garnish with fresh herbs.