Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Table Fifty-Two

CHICAGO— It's mid May and the tulips are still blooming on Michigan Avenue. I'm up here for a book signing and making full use of my spare time eating my way through the Windy City.

Art Smith opened his signature restaurant here a few months ago. Table Fifty-Two is a quaint little eating place tucked away on a charming tree-lined street and a breath of fresh, southern air in the capital of the Midwest.

Smith spent several years as Oprah's full-time, personal chef and still cooks for Ms. Winfrey's social functions, parties, and charitable causes. He formed his own charity several years ago, Common Threads, which helps to educate children on proper nutrition using food and art. He's a James Beard award-winning cookbook author, a humanitarian, a leader in preserving southern culture and foodways, and a world-class chef.

Table Fifty-Two has all of the Southern charm of an elegant, old-south dining room— chandeliers, heavy curtains, sideboards, plate collections hanging on the wall— with the sophistication of a white-linen restaurant, all in a building that used to house a garage. It feels like home, right down to the Gail Pittman dinnerware.

Pre-dinner amuse bouches in typical fine-dining restaurants consist of small, bite-sized portions of caviar-laced seafood topped with micro greens, or a demitasse of a light bisque or culinary foam. At Table Fifty-Two— a restaurant certainly as elegant as any of the micro-green mainstays— the amuse bouche is a deviled egg followed by Smith's famous drop biscuits with goat cheese and parmesan. The latter being one of the more unique and flavorful bread items I have ever tasted.

I finished my drop biscuit in record time and tried to steal my wife's. There was no way she was surrendering hers without a fight. The server sympathized and brought another order. Of all the meals I have eaten, in all of the cities, and all of the fine dining restaurants over the years, this meal will go down as the first time I have ever requested seconds on an amuse bouche.

Actually, I could have made a meal out of the drop biscuits, alone. Fortunately there was more to come. The next course consisted of a wood-fired pizza of fresh mozzarella, ham, and a roasted tomato sauce. Smith is big on pizza. We were at an event together a few years ago where he served pizzas with smoked duck and turnip greens. It was one of the more interesting pizzas I have ever tasted. This pizza was as good or better.

My wife had a fried green tomato appetizer for an entrée; I skipped the main course offerings and opted for a selection of the family-style vegetable side orders— braised collard greens, roasted sweet potatoes with honey, baked macaroni and cheese, and market julienned vegetables in a light vinaigrette.

We finished the meal with a fruit cobbler and Art's famous Hummingbird Cake. Art Smith is full of Southern hospitality and charm. His restaurant is a perfect representation of his personality and character and worthy of a visit the next time you're in Chicago.

Chicago is one of our country's great restaurant cities. Where else could one sit a few blocks off of Michigan Avenue and eat turnip greens and drop biscuits while having a conversation with the neighboring table about the futility of the Chicago Bears offense.

Art Smith's Drop Biscuits with Goat Cheese and Parmesan Recipe

2 cups self-rising flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold butter
4 tablespoons goat cheese
1 cup buttermilk
extra butter, to grease pan and top biscuits
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. Preheat your oven to 425°F Place one 10-inch cast iron pan into the oven while it is preheating. Place flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder into a medium-sized bowl. Cut in the butter and goat cheese. Make a well in the middle of the ingredients and pour in the milk. Stir until the mix is moistened, adding an extra tablespoon of milk if needed.

2. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and place a tablespoon of butter into it. When the butter has melted, drop 1/4 cupfuls of batter into the pan, (use a muffin scoop to drop the batter if you have one). Brush the tops of the biscuits with melted butter. Bake from 14–16 minutes until browned on the top and bottom. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Enjoy warm!

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