MagoGuide recently transferred our flag from the Montana love shack to our Arkansas baracca di amore. Along the way—it took five days of wonderfully languid peregrination—we were “forced” by the Amtrak schedule to spend a night in Chicago.
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Rostra rating: 4.5
We decided to see if our very favorable first impression of Art Smith’s Table 52 was still valid. It was. In fact this meal was better in every way than our previous visit almost one year ago to the date on our highly acclaimed (at least by its author) MagoGuide 2012 Winter Tour. The only downside was the absence of Chef Smith from his flagship restaurant.
We began with the amuse bouche of goat and Parmesan cheese drop biscuits, which were sadly not accompanied by deviled eggs this time (although you can now order them as a starter, hmmm). The biscuits were better than before, ethereal, crispy on the bottom with a soft brown top and a nice salty cheesy kick. The biscuits are made in the large wood fired oven that dominates the dinning room and I think their superiority vis-à-vis our first visit (as well as the pizza) owes primarily to the fact that Table 52’s sous chef was plying his trade at il forno that night.
In fact, we were so fascinated by the oven and its talented attendant that we talked our waitress into moving us to the bar for our dinner so that we could watch the show up close and personal. The light was also better at the bar for photography. I personally hate bar stools, finding them amazingly uncomfortable and a distraction from the food because my legs go numb somewhere between the first and second course, but at Table 52 the show is worth it.
Our first course consisted of low-country shrimp and grits and pizza. The wild shrimp were deployed on top of the best grits I have ever tasted. The kitchen transformed Bradley’s stone-ground white corn grits into a Gamecock ambrosia that must be consumed with a spoon so as to dampen the virtually overmastering urge to lick the plate clean and beg the wait staff for more. The shrimp were perfectly cooked and their spicy tomato stew contained a subtle and perfect hit of cayenne, but I would have scooped it all off and flung the detritus into the bin if I could have secured a double helping (hell make it a Colonel Sanders-sized bucket) of them grits baby.
The pizza, which had been one of the kitchen’s weakest dishes in 2012, was a star this time around. The pie was built on a solid foundation of excellent crust that was blackened on the outside and soft and latticed on the inside. Of equal importance, the sous was a veritable paladin with the peel, knowing just where in the oven to deploy the ‘za and just how long to leave it there. The topping was a confection of pickled peppers, beef sausage, celery root puree, and salty slightly soapy (in a good way) pecorino. The pie got a drizzle of balsamic reduction just before it was served.
My only complaint was the sausage, which was bland as well as unnecessary—it needed fennel and heat, and how could a pig candy addict like Chef Smith allow beef sausage onto his pizza anyway? Dude, go whole hog or go veggie: without the sausage that pizza would have been a great shared vegetarian appie or an entre in its own right.
We had two fish preparations for our mains. The best dish of the evening was walleye pike served with pickled organic heirloom apples, cashew crumble, and fennel caramel. The fish was perfectly fried with a thin crispy shell and flaky but succulent flesh. The gnocchi, par cooked and then pan browned in butter, were as spectacular as they were un-Italian. The key flavor component was the pickled apples in a mirepoix dice, which added bright acidic notes to an otherwise rich and sweet dish. The cashew crumbs, fennel caramel, and little bits of crispy kale brought the texture and flavor profile to a perfect blend. Team Mago made such a fuss over the walleye that the chef de cuisine came out from the kitchen to shake hands and promise to do anything else for us that we could possibly want. But we had already over ordered and drunk far, far too much.
We revisited the catfish, because I had fond memories of a fish that I often avoid because it is indifferently farmed, harvested way too small, and then fried to within an inch of its life. Chef Smith, however, knows his siluriform aquatic vertebrates. A large boneless filet is served up on a bed of white corn grits with Tasso ham, Maitake mushrooms, and a nice dollop of killer hot sauce. What makes the dish, however, is the crispy okra that comes ensconced on top of the filet o’ catfish. Using either a knife or a dangerously sharp mandolin, some poor commis shaves fresh okra lengthwise into almost translucent strips that are then deep fried just to the point of total crispitude. The grit infrastructure for this dish proved quite distinct from that deployed for the shrimp. It had a lot more chew and a lot less cream, which I thought was a good thing since the dish was less refined and more robust than the shrimp preparation.
The second best dish of the evening was Brussels sprouts, again done in the wood fired oven. First the sous heated a cast iron skillet smokin’ hot and then added the Brussels sprouts, butter, and salt. These were allowed to get a very dark brown deep in the bowls of the Promethian beast, then doused with bacon and Maytag blue cheese, and returned to a higher circle of Smith’s inferno for a few minutes before they were finished with thin slices of pears and walnuts. Amazing sprouts, dude, redolent of porcine butter and blue cheese. If I had my druthers, and I probably should have pushed all the good will we generated with the chef de cuisine in this culinary direction, I would have dined on a heaping bowl of the Brussels sprouts, a mound of crispy okra and hot sauce, and a vat of those killer grits. If Chef Smith had been there, I might have tried given his professed fondness for sides that he shared with us a year ago.
Drinkies you ask? The wine list is in fact my only real complaint with Table 52. Not quality or quantity, but price. It’s down-right spendy, even for a restaurant of this caliber (e.g., a bottle of Ridge Zinfandel—Passo Robles—sells for $100). Sticker shock notwithstanding, we started with two glasses of excellent cava and then segued to a New Zealand Man O’ War 2008 Chardonnay (Waihekie Island). Although it sells for something like 3 times its retail price (told you!), this yellow gold Chard has a nice citrus and buttered toast nose followed by refreshing lemon, lime, and apple fruit ending in a peachy finish. It was a perfect match for all of our seafood preparations and cut through the rich fatty Brussels sprouts as well as standing up to the robust pizza.
Mago Tip: We were informed that Table 52 does not accept reservations for the bar, which only has four seats. We were able to spot an opportunity and strike while the coals were glowing, but if you want to maximize your chances for a ringside seat go early or late since walk-ins are always directed first to the bar and most tables are reserved for the 7 to 9 PM prime time slot.