Southern Cooking in the Windy City

Gary and I had scheduled a Monday morning meeting in Chicago that required us to go there Sunday. So we decided to make the most of inconvenience and go out for a very good meal that Sunday night.  And what a meal we had.

We knew about the meeting a month out so we had time to decide and get a reservation. So we created a list of possibilities and narrowed the list down to Table 52.  This is Chef Art Smith’s place in Chicago which features Southern Cooking. I have seen Chef Smith several times on Iron Chef America and Top Chef. He was Oprah’s personal chef,  recently cooked for Lady Gaga and President Obama and Michelle ate at Table 52 for Valentine’s Day so there was a really good chance it was going to be memorable. And it was.

Gary started his meal with the Southern Pickles. The dish came with several house-pickled cauliflower, carrots and okra with micro greens, onions, two kinds of salt, baguette, smoked gouda and jelly on the side. The idea was to make your own pickle sandwich out of the ingredients trying the different ingredients. I like participation dishes like this where you can choose your own combination of food so when Gary offered a taste, I went for it.  The pickled vegetables were tender and sweetly pickled but not to the point where the taste of the vegetable was lost or the crunch was gone. The rest of elements added interesting tastes of sweet jam and salty salts along with different textures of crusty bread, crunchy pickles and gooey jam. Combining the different elements of the dish was fun but we both agreed that although the gouda cheese was fine on it’s own we couldn’t find a combination that matched well with the cheese.

I went for the Beet Salad for my first course.  The salad came with nice portions of  two colourful beets, whipped goat cheese, thyme crumble and Myer lemon puree. For what I thought was going to be a simple salad turned out to be a very complex dish by the various combination of items you could put on your fork. The sweetness of the beets matched well against the tartness of the Myer Lemon Puree and the almost metallic flavour of the Thyme Crumble. The textures of the dish also provided a spectrum of densities, firm beets, semi soft Whipped Goat Cheese and thick puree.  We wanted wine with the meal and had our waiter match a glass of wine with each course. For this course we had Acustic from Montsant (Catalonia, Spain) named ‘unplugged’ in the same way that you find ‘naked’ (oak free) Chardonnay.

For Gary’s second course, he went for the classic southern dish Fried Green Tomatoes. The two large heirloom tomato slices were lightly battered and then pan-fried giving the tomatoes a light crunch with a soft center.  Along with the tomatoes came fresh greens, creme fraise and a light tomato puree.  Like an old married couple, Gary and I ended up sharing tastes from each others dishes so I can report this version of the southern classic was great.  The sweetness of the fried tomatoes contrasting nicely with the spicy tomato puree.  The crisp greens and silky puree matched well also.  For this course, our waiter recommended the Eyrie Chardonnay from Oregon. I found the wine to have a light oakiness and a little bit fruity. A nice match for both the Fried Green tomatoes and my dish.

For my second course, I also went for a southern classic in Low-Country Shrimp and Grits. I lived in Florence, South Carolina back in the 80′s so I tried grits many times but never became a big fan but when you are at Art Smith’s restaurant you give them another try.  It was great!.  These grits were Stone-ground White Corn Grits and so different from my memories of the 80′s.  These grits were more like a risotto than the cream of wheat memories.  These grits were nice and creamy as a whole but the individual grits still had a bite to them as in “el dente” pasta. A very nice consistency.  The Wild-Caught Shrimp were tender, sweet and well-cooked.  The Spicy Tomato Sauce contrasted well with the sweet shrimp and creamy grits. Basically a very simple dish but well executed with excellent ingredients.

For Gary’s main course, he went for the Fish of the Day special, which was Halibut. I forgot to bring my recorder to get all the details of the dish but from my memory, the fish was pain fried and topped with a variety of vegetables and greens.  I got to taste the fish and it was perfectly cooked with flakes falling off with just the touch of your folk.  Halibut is my favourite fish and Table 52 did it right.

For the main course we decided to order the Braised Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey as our side dish.  Collard Greens are about as “southern” as you can get but the smoked turkey was different twist I had not seen before. The more common version I had seen when I lived in the south was with ham hocks.  The turkey version turned out fine with greens taking on a light sweet taste of the turkey but not the saltness of the ham version.  The greens were well-cooked, infusing the turkey into the vegetable but stopping the cooking before turning the veggies into mush.  This was the best dish of collard greens I have ever eaten.

For my main course, I went for the Maple Sugar Short Ribs.  These were the most tender short ribs I ever had in my life. Just using your fork you could twist the meat and it would flake off into single strands of flavourful meat.  The carmelized maple sugar matched well with meaty flavours of the short rib. The dish came with red wine reduction that match well but I was so focused on the tender meat.  A potato puree was the matching starch and a carmelized onion accompanied the dish. Our waiter recommended the 2007 Cristom Pinot Noir to go with the dish.  I thought this was an interesting recommendation given Gary’s fish and my short rib selection but it ended up being perfect for both of us.  Not overcoming the fish and not under powered for the ribs.  Nice wine selecting Justin.

I have had the privilege to eat in several celebrity chef restaurants; Emeril’s, Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, BLT Prime, Daniel,  over the years but one thing was always missing, the celebrity chef. Until this visit. Making several tours of the dining room during our three courses was owner/celebrity chef Art Smith.  He stopped at every table checking to see how the meal was progressing. I thought the treat of the evening was going to be this photo of the two of us but it got better when Art joined us at our table as the restaurant thinned out at the end of service.  They say that television puts pounds on you but this thinner and fitter version of Chef Smith has been dieting and exercising lately and looked the healthiest I have ever seen him. I wish I could say that about myself but after this great meal, I wouldn’t have much credibility would I. 

It gets worse, Gary and I agreed that we were going to pass on dessert as we were both pretty full from the three courses, wine and cocktails we had already consumed. But as we sat there with Chef Smith he had the staff big over some desserts for us to try.  First came the Smith Family Twelve-Layer Chocolate Cake.  Delicious, light and a great chocolate flavour. The cake came with Vanilla Gelato and Strawberry for contrast.

Next came the Peanut Brittle.  I remember peanut brittle as a Christmas treat during my childhood but this was the best brittle I ever had.  The thick rich harden caramel sauce was chock full of fresh Georgia peanuts.  I was amazed at how thick the brittle was.  It was very good and very sweet.

Finally Executive Chef John, formerly of Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, brought over Art’s Hummingbird Cake.  I had my share of cake when I lived in the south but never had Hummingbird cake.  If I had most likely I would still be in the south cause this is great cake.  Art make his version with Banana and Pineapple flavours three layers high all coated in Cream Cheese Frosting. Served on the side is a wonderful Vanilla Gelato.  It was delicious with all the different flavours going on and amazingly light.

We had a great chat with Chef Smith during our 30 minute sit-down talking about everything from the making of Iron Chef, his diet and exercise plan, to who’s cooking in Chicago he likes (and who’s he doesn’t) and where he likes to go hear the Blues in Chicago.  The evening ending amazingly with Chef taking us to his favourite Blues Club in Chicago and having a couple of cocktails listening happily to the blues.

It was an amazing meal that will, most likely, never happen again.  Thanks Gary and Chef Smith for a great meal and a great story.

Read other reviews about Table 52 here, here and here.

Table 52 52 Elm Street, Chicago, IL  – 312-573-4000

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One Response to “Southern Cooking in the Windy City”

  1. Ann Says:

    Peter, once again a mouth watering write up. What a wonderful treat and
    what a great memory for you, to meet a socialise with the great man himself.

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