(page 1 of 3)
Table Fifty-Two’s pistachio-crusted chicken breast
First things first: Make reservations at TABLE FIFTY-TWO in advance. There are only 13 tables, and chef-partner Art Smith’s reputation looms large. He has achieved fame as Oprah’s personal chef; after his recent appearance on her TV show, those tables are always full. No sign out front identifies the restaurant, located in the old Biggs mansion’s carriage house, which predates the 1871 fire. Now it looks like a warm, chic cottage with beech doors, yellow walls, a granite bar, and a wood-burning oven. The big circular 1920s light fixture transplanted from Oprah’s house provides a sentimental touch, since the jovial Smith cooked under it for at least ten years.
Somehow, the tiny room manages to get uncomfortably noisy. Maybe that’s because people are so happy to be there: Almost immediately after being seated, they get an amuse of excellent deviled eggs, each topped with a pickled okra slice and set in indentations along a long glass tube. Then come goat cheese and Parmesan drop biscuits in mini cast-iron skillets. My mom, a great biscuit baker from Oklahoma, would never have recognized these yellow, cheesy things as biscuits, but she would have loved their flaky texture and full flavor. Chef Smith’s cooking reflects his Southern roots—although he also makes a fine daily wood-fired thin crust pizza. Closer to his heritage is his spicy low-country shrimp appetizer with rich, almost puddinglike stone-ground grits. Fried green tomatoes get a modern look, stacked in a napoleon with goat cheese, greens, bacon, and olive/sun-dried tomato tapenade. I also love the little crab cakes on rémoulade with crunchy fennel and Georgia peanut slaw.
The menu is packed with memorable entrées such as a wonderful thick and juicy ancho chili-crusted Berkshire pork chop with Brussels sprout leaves, figs, and pickled pear salad. Another winner, the ground pistachio- and Parmesan-crusted sautéed chicken breast, comes with spicy coconut-ginger-chili sauce, fat lo mein noodles, string beans, and asparagus. A Sunday supper menu includes another terrific dish, the buttermilk fried chicken with a fine crust. Skip the grilled chicken, shrimp, and vegetable salad—the bird was dry and the shrimp were better in the grits appetizer. But if the biscuits haven’t met your carb quota, throw in delicious sides of steaming three-cheese macaroni and skillet cornbread with Parma ham lardons. A hospitable 2005 Brandborg Umpqua Valley Oregon pinot noir at $54 was practically a bargain on the pricey wine list.
Do yourself a favor, and end the meal with the hummingbird cake, a variation on the classic Southern banana cake with pecans and cream cheese frosting, served with vanilla ice cream. Either that, or the 12-layer chocolate cake, Smith’s great-grandmother’s creation from the 1940s. I can see why folks went gaga over it back then.
* * *
Photograph: Kipling Swehla