We walked by the bustling tables decked with businessmen, shoppers, and young, shiny girls embracing their new adulthood. They flocked to the sidewalk dining of The Whiskey and Carmine’s on Chicago’s Rush Street, and enjoyed their drinks and apps on a clear evening. We continued walking looking for Elm Street, soon we were past the hustle and bustle and onto a quiet street offices whose employees were making merry behind us. I didn’t know if this boded well. We were headed to Table 52, a restaurant known for Southern-style cuisine, and it felt like we were swimming against the current and away from the places “to see and be seen”. This place, a couple of blocks down, stood apart from the rest.
Steve and I were trying to recoup a nice dining experience– our previous night’s dinner at David Burke’s was mediocre at best– and we decided to give Table 52 a try. We arrived at a small cream colored house with a celery trim with a small outside dining area. We walked through the glass-paned front door into a dining room where Savannah charm met the south of France. The walls were a buttery yellow, topped by thick crown molding that framed a burnt umber pressed tin ceiling. A staunch white farmhouse hutch anchored the room and housed the evening’s wine selection. The tables were all set with a small vase of purple flowers, nice linens, and rustic floral plates. If attention to detail was lacking at David Burke’s, Table 52 did more to make up for it. The hostess seated us immediately– probably because we were the first people to arrive (not for long– it filled up quickly). Our server brought us complimentary deviled eggs topped with smoked trout. The bottom of the egg had been sliced so it would lay solidly on the plate– a nice nod to detail. The smokiness of the fish complemented the tanginess of the yolk; I would have gladly eaten Steve’s.
Unlike our server at David Burke’s, who went through the motions, our server this night was personable and didn’t speak from a script. She was genuinely interested in the food, wine, and where she worked. When I asked her opinion of which wine I should choose, she described them both and provided a tasting of each. As we discussed our food orders, another waiter brought us complimentary goat cheese biscuits right out of the oven. (If pepper jack cheese is taking fast food by storm– then goat cheese has got a hold on the classier joints.) They were light and savory with warm chunks of goat cheese throughout. For our appetizer we selected the pickle plate, and for dinner Steve chose the steak and I chose the catfish after our server let me know that the collard greens that accompanied it could be made without bacon. She was mindful of our time since we told her that we were headed to the Rush concert.
One common annoyance I have with dining out is feeling like I’m a number– the 1,526,782nd served. I don’t want a perky waiter trying to up-sell us with the coconut shrimp and sitting at our table like he’s part of the family, but I do want to be recognized as a human being who enjoys good food. Good restaurants are the ones that make you feel at home and special at the same time. One of the chefs, who also happened to be a Rush fan, heard that we were going to the concert. He specifically requested to bring out our appetizer, so he could talk to us about Rush. He and Steve shared their favorite songs while I dug into the pickle plate.
The pickle plate is a misnomer. Included with the pickled vegetables– mostly celery and okra– was more goat cheese, sesame cracker, red pepper relish, and little corn biscuits topped with salmon roe. It was artfully presented and different from the standard appetizer. Okra, for me, is categorized with avocados and blueberries: food I don’t want to see on my plate. But I tried it anyway, and it was crisp and tart, the antithesis of the over-cooked slimy vegetable I’m used to. The platter served up a lovely contrast of textures– the crunch of the veggies against the smoothness of the cheese; the sweet of the relish with the savory items. The cornbread biscuits balanced out the saltiness of the roe.
After the pickle plate was taken away, I anxiously awaited my dinner. I ordered the catfish, not because I’m a huge fan of it, but because it came with cheesy grits, collard greens, and a hush puppy. The hush puppy sealed the deal. My plate arrived with three oven-fried catfish croquettes resting on the collards and grits. I moved the hush puppy to the side to save it for last. We also ordered a side of the macaroni and cheese because we were told that they top it all with more cheese and stick under the broiler to let it get all brown and bubbly. There would be plenty of burned cheese bits. Just can’t pass that up. I can’t. The mac and cheese arrived and broiled cheese encased its bowl. Dinner alternated between eating my cheesy grits and scraping the burned cheese off the macaroni (the pasta and cheese sauce were very good– just no match for crispy cheese coating). The catfish was okay, the coating could have used a bit more seasoning. The collards were tangy, and the grits were creamy with the hint of sharp cheddar– probably a Vermont white. The hush puppy was as good as a piece of fried cornmeal batter can be– very good. Steve’s steak, he declared, was better than the one the night before from the “steakhouse”.
We determined that we had enough time to eat dessert, and our server steered us toward Art’s Hummingbird Cake– a tall concoction of banana and pineapple cake layered between thick clouds of cream cheese frosting served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was everything one could ask for in a dessert. The cake was moist and I could taste both fruits, plus coconut, but neither overpowered the other. The frosting was smooth and creamy, but not as sharp as most cream cheese frostings. This cake did not have the same pungent spices as a carrot cake, so the toned-down frosting complemented it well. Vanilla ice cream doesn’t do a whole lot for me… it’s just, well, vanilla. This ice cream was smooth and had a rich vanilla flavor, and I found myself choosing between eating the cake or the ice cream.
It was worth swimming against the current away from the popular restaurants on Rush Street who cater to tourists and those wanting to be seen. With its eye for quality ingredients and service, Table 52 stands apart from the rest. If you find yourself in the Windy City, make sure you find yourself there.