The transition of Art Smith's Table Fifty-Two to Blue Door Kitchen & Garden has proved to be more dramatic than expected. The tidy little Gold Coast restaurant, which lasted nearly 10 years, is now less formal, less Southern and, truly, less Art Smith-y.
The changes begin in the dining room. The buttercream-colored walls have been painted a serene blue (though artworks from Smith's personal collection remain in place), and tablecloths no longer adorn the stone-look tabletops. Gone also is the open hearth, once visible from the dining room. The upstairs dining room retains its antebellum charm for now, but a makeover is planned for that space as well.
A big plus is the transformation of the adjacent parking space into a beautiful outdoor dining area, strung with lights and anchored by a massive white hutch. (Chicago's outdoor-dining days have dwindled to a precious few, but keep this in mind when spring returns.)
Though Smith still has a presence at Blue Door Kitchen, the reins are firmly in the hands of Rey Villalobos, executive chef of the restaurant group that owns Blue Door Kitchen, La Storia and Chicago Q (and more restaurants to come). Villalobos had been with Table Fifty-Two from the beginning and provides stability and continuity to the new operation.
The eager hospitality that defined Table Fifty-Two remains at Blue Door. Guests still receive a complimentary starter, for example, except that these days, the spoon-drop biscuits of old (I'm salivating just thinking about them) have been replaced by housemade hummus with sweet-potato chips. The dish, very pleasant to be sure, represents a not-so-subtle statement by Villalobos that a new mindset is in place.
That mindset embraces Midwest dishes, along with French technique and Middle Eastern inspirations. At the top of Blue Door's menu are pierogi, filled with charred eggplant and topped with pickled beech mushrooms, with just a bit of creme fraiche underneath. One item down is a nicely composed roasted beet and carrot salad, with dabs of feta and macadamia nut. The vegetable fritter sounds Southern; the harissa-dominant aioli companion most assuredly is not. Seared tuna is essentially a stealth salade nicoise; pureed padron peppers add a Cuban accent to thin-sliced pork belly with carrots and pineapple.
The Brussels sprouts and kale salad is a triumph. Imported from sister property Blue Door Farm Stand (currently closed as it relocates to Halsted Street), this is a crunchy, delicious and shareable salad with sliced almonds, bacon and Parmesan flakes, tossed in a maple-tahini dressing. (Light eaters can bolster the dish with a protein for a few dollars more.)
Smith's devotees' alarm will be assuaged by the signatures that remain on the menu. There are the deviled eggs, from Little Farm on the Prairie, currently served with roasted corn, pickled tomatillos and a heavy dusting of paprika. (Expect this prep to change very soon.) Shrimp and grits, fleshed out with bits of tasso ham and crispy okra and supported by a rich tomato stew, remains a menu highlight.
And of course there is the buttermilk fried chicken; Villalobos would incite a riot if he ever removed this dish from the menu. The four perfectly bronze, heavenly crunchy chicken pieces over garlic-mashed potatoes, accompanied by black-pepper honey and red-pepper hot sauces (the beautifully balanced Fresno-pepper hot sauce is especially good), is a thing of joy. Once upon a time, Table Fifty-Two offered this beauty on Sundays only; now it's a daily feature. And for a small-scale version, the fried-chicken sandwich, slathered with pimiento cheese, is a great lunch option.
Other dishes worth your attention include the pan-seared salmon, encircled by thin lines of apple sauce and creme fraiche; the accompanying rutabaga latkes are a nice touch, but they need to be more crisp. Braised short ribs get a French treatment, served with green beans over a square of potato pave and a drizzle of peppercorn sauce, a nice riff on steak au poivre. At opposite ends of the beef spectrum is the $15 BDK Burger, a double-patty burger with Hook's cheddar and aioli; and the $44 bone-in rib-eye, a fine, dry-aged steak topped with a little blue cheese and a stack of battered onion rings.
In what may be an act of mercy, Smith's signature hummingbird cake is slightly smaller these days; instead of three layers, now there are but two layers of banana-pineapple cake, between quarter-inch layers of cream-cheese frosting and, of course, a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
"It took me 10 years to work up enough nerve to go down to two layers," Villalobos said.
There may only be a few days left to enjoy the peach cobbler; Villalobos hasn't much peach preserve left. But there is still the cheesecake, a blend of mascarpone, ricotta and cream cheese on a savory corn-crust base and topped with a little berry coulis.
Blue Door Kitchen is impossible to dislike, but the rather conservative menu is missing that wow factor. That's understandable, as the owners clearly want a gentle transition from Table Fifty-Two. It will be interesting to see where Villalobos and crew take this restaurant in the coming year.