Table Fifty-Two

(Chicago, IL) — SheFed has an extended business trip in Chicago, and since a girl’s got to eat, she invites colleague and fab friend Karla K for a very special “She Fed / She Fed” gastronomic adventure. They decide on Table Fifty-Two for their girls’ night out, Art Smith’s famous eatery specializing in southern fare...

She Fed:

I have fond memories of a fabulous meal at Art Smith’s Southern Art in Atlanta. It was actually a Thanksgiving Day buffet. While I’m not normally a buffet fan (steamer tables, too many hands touching the serving utensils, the ubiquitous salad bar), the special holiday buffet was one of the best Thanksgiving meals I’ve ever enjoyed. (Sorry Mom!) So I have high hopes for Table Fifty-Two.

We’re shown to a cozy two-top in the lower level dining room. I order a glass of bubbles to start. While we try to narrow down our choices, the kitchen sends deviled eggs and biscuits out. Now I love deviled eggs in pretty much any style...spicy, sweet, or herbed. These eggs have been cut through the middle on the short side, not lengthwise which just gives them a fancy pants feel. And they’re topped with all manner of herbs and veg, making it feel less “naughty” to eat an egg yolk mixed with mayo.

There’s nothing virtuous about the buttery, Parmesan biscuits. They’re still hot from the oven and crisp on the outside, fluffy inside. I think they might serve biscuits just like these in heaven and if I could confirm it, I bet both Karla and I would consider behaving better!

The appetizer list is like picking one favorite from a litter of kittens—impossible. Fried green tomatoes, a pickle board, shrimp and grits, crab cakes...I just can’t decide, much to the dismay of our waiter who seems intent on turning our table quickly. Then I see the Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad. I’ve become obsessed with shaved Brussels sprouts salads of late, making them at home several times a month. Over the summer I also experimented with shaved kale salads, finding we love the greens raw. I would have never thought to put the two together so I’ve got to give it a try. A mound of greens mingles with crisp pancetta and toasted pecan bits is lightly dressed with a bacon-apple vinaigrette. Pancetta studs the salad like little porky gems. It’s a ridiculously good salad.

I’m sure I’ll lose foodie cred for admitting this, but I’ve never had a fresh fig before now. I’ve had more than my fair share of Fig Newtons, sure, but this is the first time I’ve had a fresh one. It’s sweet and musky, with a partly creamy, partly mealy texture. Delicious on its own and on the salad, it’s exceptional with just a few pancetta bits. Now I understand why people flock to the market when fresh figs are on.

The Cremant D’Alsace Rose I started with pairs wonderfully with the eggs, biscuits, and salad. Our waiter suggests the Bjornstadt Chardonnay from Napa; one taste and I’m gone. It’s buttery, just slightly oaky and has an unexpected burst of acidity at the backend. I know it will go well with the Cornmeal Crusted Catfish I’ve ordered.

I’m a sucker for fried fish, especially catfish. Three generous planks are stacked on a luscious pool of cheese grits and braised collards. The coating is ultra-crisp with that unmistakable gritty texture from the cornmeal. The catfish is clean, firm and a bit rich. Two bites in I declare this to be the best catfish I’ve ever eaten. The grits are creamy and I find myself daubing the fish into them for a nice bit of butteriness. The collards have been cooked perfectly, still a bit of chew to them. In quick time I devour everything on the plate, including the deep-fried slivers of okra garnishing the catfish.

I am stuffed like a holiday goose and have absolutely no business ordering dessert. But you can’t have a girls night out without dessert! I opt for the seasonal pumpkin pudding with salted caramel ice cream. It’s dense, almost like a bread pudding, and lush with the sweet and salty ice cream melting over top.

Tonight has reinforced my long held belief that southern food is the epitome of comfort food. As I toddle to Karla’s vehicle, I know I will be sleeping like a baby tonight.
She Fed:

I have wanted to try Table Fifty-Two, Art Smith's restaurant on Chicago's Gold Coast, for quite a while. Truth be told, I went in with rose colored glasses.

Yet, with so many great restaurants in Chicago, not only does the food come into play for me, but so does the décor. This one has been around for awhile, so I expect it to be a bit tired; instead, I immediately feel at home. The décor is a cross between a comfortable Southern welcome and a dash of organic contemporary thrown in from Colorado. We sink right into our table and I feel relaxed.

Deviled eggs can be very "Minnesota-family-reunion," but I prefer them to be pretty and our amuse-bouche certainly is, if a bit heavy-handed on the truffle (and I'm a truffle fan). I am more taken with the appearance of it. As someone who has over a thousand hours of cooking classes under her amateur chef's hat, I notice no grayish-green lining on the interior of the egg and the "décor" on top of the egg is quite impressive. Juliet points out the chef cut the egg through the middle, instead of lengthwise and I think this also adds to the presentation.

Chef Art Smith is famous for his biscuits and his fried chicken and waffles. Normally, biscuits hang in my mouth; I just simply taste flour. Not these. These are light and inviting. With each bite I find myself rolling it around in my mouth and dissecting, wondering how these can be so well balanced. The waiter is more in a hurry to get the meal started than we are. We are content just reading the menu, chatting and mulling over the wine list. Speaking of wine, I love the healthy pours at Table Fifty-Two. We order wine and the waiter brings over the entire bottle, pours us a taste to make sure we are happy with our choice, then pours a full glass. I order off the "specials" wine list to begin and instead wish I'd followed Juliet's lead. Her 2009 Bjornstad from the Bennett Valley is an amazing Chardonnay. It is buttery, with an unusual follow of acid. I keep thinking about that Chard.

It is time to make some decisions (I think the waiter is a bit pushy) and while the Southern Pickle Board is calling my name (think charcuterie), I lament over a wood-fired pizza, and instead opt for the Green Salad. Thankfully, I don't let the boring menu title impact my choice. While it seriously lacks in name, it is amazingly layered with flavors. A unique squash-banyuls vinaigrette, thick but not heavy, adds an uncommon mouth feel. My guess is the squash increases this element of depth. I don't discover the blue cheese "spread"—light mousse in style, whisked across the plate under the greens—until I'm a couple bites in. Amazing! I urge Chef Art to sell this in to-go containers! Apples and macadamia nuts round out the salad; I wish I could have a starter like this every night at home. (I'd certainly eat a whole-heck-a-lot-more-salad.)

The Tea Braised Short Rib is my main course. It melts in my mouth and I have to marvel over the layer of gorgeous flavor which surrounds the rib. I'm going to have to look into how to do this for the ribs I make at home! Juliet and I split a side of Three-cheese Mac and while it is really good, there isn't anything unique about it. I am a bit disappointed by the lack of character.

Dessert is an amazing slice of Chocolate Chess Pie, which also melts in my mouth. I am so full by the time it arrives I can only eat half of it, which is a good thing because one of the busboys accidentally knocks the to-go-box onto the floor. And, without even saying a word, the very nice guy brings me an entire new piece of pie, which I take home to my husband. (And, because it is untouched the next morning, I eat it for breakfast.)

Whether a dive bar or a nice Chicago restaurant, I am happy hanging out pretty much anywhere with my dear friend Juliet. But, I have to admit, Table Fifty-Two definitely lives up to the expectation of my rose colored glasses.

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