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.
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Photograph: Kipling Swehla
I was worried that Alan and Kevin Shikami, the ambitious brothers who opened SHIKAGO a block north of the Board of Trade, had spent so much time dreaming up the affected name that they’d neglected the food. But the menu at their modern Asian spot, next to the W Hotel on Adams, mimics the one at their River North standout, Kevin: more options than the Board of Trade. A big selection of maki and other starters means you can make a meal without an entrée. The Shikago roll of salmon, avocado, tomato, spicy mayo, and strong cilantro flavor reminded me of seviche for chopsticks. But too many of the maki I tried had mushy rice.
Kevin’s wonderful signature tuna tartare also appears, with a hit of wasabi, soy, ginger, and a side of spicy tuna, hamachi, and avocado maki. Alan Shikami, the congenial host, loves to make the rounds—and brag about his brother. “Kevin throws all sorts of animals into the pot,” he said when I noted the delicious reduction with the caramelized roasted quail and braised daikon. At first I was bewildered by the smoked pork jowl and roasted sea scallop with grilled Chinese broccoli, Szechwan peppercorn–dusted goat cheese, and kimchi in chili/heirloom garlic dressing. Then I decided I loved it.
Beautiful entrées deliver Kevin’s patented vivid Asian flavors in modern guises. Meat lovers should go for five-spice glazed and roasted Berkshire pork loin on black rice with braised pork belly, bok choy, and a spring roll of smoked pork jowl, plum, and napa cabbage. Fish is always a safe bet with Shikami. Check this out: He roasts Alaskan halibut, gives it a spicy caramel glaze in coconut milk, star anise, and ginger reduction, and serves it with an array of chanterelles, charred corn, Chinese broccoli, and a salad of smoked Thai chili, candied lime, pickled plum, and radish sprouts. It sounds like a mouthful—but it’s a good mouthful.
Catherine Miller, formerly of May Street Market, does the desserts, and they are stunners: intricate and unusual. Two past standouts are the coconut coriander cake with white chocolate mousse, roasted mangoes, and cardamom ice cream and the toasted almond strudel with caramelized plums in ginger broth with white chocolate ice cream. A 2005 Domaine Gros Frère & Soeur Bourgogne “hautes Côtes de Nuit” ($65), from an interesting but outrageously expensive wine list, was on the low end, and it was chilled way too much, leaving the lovely Burgundy aroma more pronounced than the damped-down flavor.
The room provokes mixed reactions. A couple of my companions didn’t care for it at all—looks like a warehouse—but others found it edgy and airy. (Speaking of edgy, we were instructed to use the valet at the W Hotel: a ridiculous $24.) I was even more put off by the carryout space up front, which accounts for roughly half the dining room but remains vacant during dinner with all the steel heating trays empty behind glass cases. The area is redeemed by interesting art: big photographs of cooking utensils on rice paper and a long installation of four spiraled metal strips. My favorite touch is the wood tabletops cut from recovered old oak, ash, and walnut trees with similar burl patterns. Despite a few problems, a good Loop dining destination is always welcome, especially one that the brothers Shikami should sharpen over time.
TABLE FIFTY-TWO 52 W. Elm St.; 312-573-4000 A Model meal Low-country shrimp and grits, ancho chili-crusted pork chop, hummingbird cake Tip Art Smith’s cookbooks are available for sale at his restaurant and he’ll sign them for you. Hours Lunch Tuesday-Saturday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (Dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip), $40 to $45
SHIKAGO 190 S. LaSalle St. (entrance on Adams); 312-781-7300 A Model meal Tuna tartare, five-spice glazed pork loin, coconut coriander cake Tip Take a cab. Hours Lunch and takeout Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday Tab (Dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip), $35 to $45