I have this recurring fantasy in which I am in a beautiful old building, sitting around a rustic farm table in front of a fireplace. I am surrounded by family and friends, and wonderfully kind people keep bringing me plate after plate of delicious food, loaves-and-fishes style. There is great conversation, free-flowing cocktails and the joy of shared food discovery.
Wait. This isn't a fantasy. This actually happened to me at Table, chef Cassy Vires' sophomore success in Benton Park.
Table embodies the joy of the communal dining experience better than any other place I know, save for Thanksgiving dinner or an Italian Sunday supper. The menu and genre of cuisine are not far from Vires' first venture, Home Wine Kitchen, in the sense that the dishes capture her knack for refined rustic cuisine. At Table she has translated her style into smaller plates, added a touch of whimsy and is asking guests to take a chance on a way of dining that is somewhat unfamiliar in our individualistic society.
I had a fantastic time at Table, but I must be upfront with a word of warning: The restaurant works best when one goes as part of a group, the larger the better. For starters, the menu is extremely large with 50 — yes, 50 — dishes from which diners must choose. No matter how much one tries to narrow it down, it is impossible for a party of two not to focus on the "dish not taken." Secondly, there is something utopian about Vires' vision of a community table in which diners come together over food. The setup at Table consists of mostly large, communal tables where diners are seated next to strangers.
In a perfect world, a table of two would sit next to another table of two. They would engage in banter, become instant friends over a mutual love of all things epicurean, and end up sharing a bottle of wine and eating off each other's plates. This would be lovely. Unfortunately, it's not how people tend to eat in this country. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is not the point; that many of us can't share a table with strangers without feeling uncomfortable speaks volumes about our culture. As a result, what happens instead is this: A party of two is seated next to another party of two, awkwardly says hello (am I supposed to talk to them?) and places the silverware caddy in between them to create an artificial barrier. And that is presuming the joining party even agrees to sit at an occupied table. According to our server, it is not uncommon for guests to request empty tables. Just be prepared to participate in this sociological experiment.
Once seated you'll find that choosing from such a broad variety of dishes at Table is no easy task. Did we want pork cheek or pork belly? Chicken confit or duck confit? Goodness — this only covered two of the eleven menu categories, whimsically divided under headings such as "hoof," "snout" and "roots." Taking a cue from a party of four at the end of our table (see, Vires is onto something), we started with the fried-chicken confit with potato puree, bacon dust and blue-cheese fondue. While I expected a bone-in preparation, these were more like chicken croquettes, pleasantly laced with fresh herbs. The meat was extremely moist and tender, and the breading provided a complementary crunchy texture. The bacon dust pulled everything together under a subtle smoke and paired wonderfully with the earthiness of the blue cheese. My only complaint is that there was not enough blue-cheese fondue to enjoy with every bite.
Always a sucker for the French farmhouse comfort of cassoulet, I was eager to sample Vires' interpretation of the classic meat-and-white-bean casserole. Not surprisingly, her version, an homage to all things pork, delivered a scrumptious stewed cauldron of spice, smoke and tang. The braised pork shoulder was intentionally crispy to provide some texture to the firm yet creamy beans, while the sausage's fennel and notable spice permeated the dish's tart tomato undertone. The menu mentioned the addition of bacon to the dish, although there was such a sweetness to it that it seemed more like bacon's un-smoked, pork-cheek cousin guanciale. I was dazzled by this dish in the middle of August but can only imagine how perfect it would be on a drizzly fall day.
Whereas dinner at Table was good, brunch was absolutely stellar. It is possible that this has to do with the fact that I went with a large group this time around. However, I am also convinced that Table's brunch best showcases the restaurant's secret weapon – its pastry prowess. If you are going to eat only one thing at Table, you must go to brunch and order the shortbread biscuits. Be aware, though, that you only get three small (half-dollar size) biscuits to an order, and even the most altruistic diner will be reluctant to share them. These lovely little nuggets are crumbly on the outside, pillowy soft on the inside, and come topped with a subtle dusting of sea-salt flakes. A side of tempered sweet cream butter with shaved vanilla bean balances the savoriness of the biscuits, while the crock of Missouri honey provides an herbal and citrusy sweetness.
The cornmeal pizza was a delightful display of bacon, mozzarella, tomatoes and spinach, but the star of the dish was how the over-easy egg oozed over the pie to provide a rich sauce. Again, texture was key, as the crisp cornmeal crust soaked up the gooeyness of the egg and mozzarella without losing any crunchiness.
Another savory wonder was the dish of shirred eggs with spinach and gorgonzola, a sort of creamy egg fondue served with griddled toast points. The subtle barnyard tang of the blue cheese deepened the delicate egg flavor, while just the smallest crack of pepper added a tiny bitter bite.
This sampling does not even scratch the surface of the endless cornucopia of Vires' handiwork from which guests may choose at Table. On two visits alone, I had thirteen additional dishes. Some of these were fantastic: The tomato strata is so warm and gooey that it should not be missed, and Table's pork-belly and cheese-curd spin on poutine, the Canadian guilty pleasure of gravy-topped fries, is positively shame-inducing. Others, however, could be skipped. Table's cornmeal-coated take on macque choux, Louisiana's traditional corn and vegetable sauté, didn't do it for me, and although the smoked butter had a pleasant flavor, its texture was a little gritty. However, that's the beauty of a place like Table. With so many options, one is bound to find some favorites. And when you do, go ahead and share it with a "friend." You know, that stranger next to you at Table.