Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

the beautiful letdown

Michonne graduated from DePaul University’s law school last weekend. We knew that her family would be in town, and we wanted to find a nice, upscale restaurant at which we could celebrate. We’d heard of a place in Gold Coast with a well-known chef and a style of food close to our hearts, so we made reservations for five at Chef Art Smith’s Chicago restaurant, Table 52.

Chef Art Smith, some of you may recall, got his start as a celebrity chef in much the same way as the namesake for one of our lower ratings: Rachael Ray. Art Smith was once the private chef of Chicago’s media matriarch, Oprah Winfrey. A Georgian by birth, he also owns a pair of restaurants in Atlanta, and by reputation and association, is a Chicago favorite.

Table 52 is in a small, old-style house in one of Chicago’s wealthier neighborhoods, and the decor screams “Old South.” Not by coincidence, the food is very southern, at least in name and flavor.

We sat at a table by the window on the second floor of the restaurant, which seemed dimly lit at first, but became brighter as the sun set. M’s sister, Marcie, had a perfect view of the CVS at the corner of Clark and Division, and after waiting for a couple minutes, our server came to our table to take our drink orders. M and her sister ordered a Prohibition Manhattan, her dad and I each ordered a beer, and M’s mother ordered a Vodka Gimlet. The server also brought us a pair of amuses: A southern-style biscuit stuffed with cheese, and some very good deviled eggs. The biscuit was quite good, if a little bit crusty. The eggs were good, but I’ve had better at our Noble Square standby. (If you’ve been around here a while, you know which place I’m talking about.)

Marcie and dad both ordered salads: Mar ordered the beet salad, which had a nice bit of heat, likely due to chili oil, and dad had the spinach and tomato salad. It didn’t look like anything earth-shattering, but he declared it “Good.” He is a man of few words, so I consider that a compliment.

M’s family is as interested in food as I am, though everyone in the family has either an allergy or strong dislike, so everybody stuck with something semi-familiar.

For dinner, my choice was easy: Fried catfish. One of my favorite southern dishes. Marcie and I both ordered this. It was, for lack of a better word, typical. The crust was semi-hard and the fish was mild, as I’d expect catfish to be, but with no special flavoring. The grits and greens, however, were quite good. Not as good as our Bucktown spot, but still good.

Michonne ordered the lamb loin, which I tasted, and was very good. Cooked perfectly medium-rare, well-seasoned, and flavorful. I would still prefer the lamb I had at The Hotel Donaldson, but this was very good.

Dad ordered the fish special. I missed the fish’s name, but he again declared it “good.” It was a mild whitefish with vegetables.

Mom had the crab cake and the house macaroni and cheese, which arrived in a southern trademark cast iron crock. The crab cake, she said, was very good, and the macaroni and cheese was excellent. I still, and will always, prefer the mac and cheese made by my favorite Chicago chef (again, you know who he is), but this was excellent.

Dessert was, in my opinion, the best thing I had all night. I may have found the best pecan pie north of the Mason-Dixon line. The caramel was perfect, crust was flavorful and had a nice snap, and the pecans were fresh, sweet, and firm.

Michonne had a lavender-scented panna cotta, which arrived in a small mason jar. It was light, flavorful, and sweet.

Upon leaving the restaurant, Michonne put her parents and sister in a cab to their hotel, and she and I began our usual discussion about the place. We came to a conclusion: We were not impressed. For the price, our food was not mind-blowing, the service was lax (though the bussers were awesome), and the portions were entirely too small. Our drinks were not great, and my beer was not cold. It was cool, but not cold.  We felt let down, even disappointed. M was decidedly bummed, even depressed. I was frustrated, and still hungry.

In retrospect, we agreed, we should have gone to Frontier, and we won’t make the same mistake twice.

We’ve also decided not to expect anything of anybody once endorsed or made famous by Oprah. 

You all known I don’t like writing bad reviews (M sometimes says I’m too generous), but this was justified, and even deserved:

Rating: Rachael Ray

Table 52 is at 52 West Elm Street in Gold Coast.

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