Dustin Ronspies' Art of the Table serves contemporary American-style comfort food two ways: "Supper Club" Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights is like a private party, with a single seating for a four-course, prix fixe menu; and "Happy Mondays," featuring small plates.
The answer is an enthusiastic “Yes” from those, including me, who have discovered “Happy Mondays” at Art of the Table, a teeny-weeny Wallingford restaurant that deviates from the same-old same-old routine.
Dustin Ronspies is among that new breed of chef-proprietors who offer a dining experience that’s as much on their terms as their guests’.
He opens Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for “Supper Club,” when there’s a single seating for a themed four-course, prix-fixe menu that changes weekly. With just 20 seats up for grabs in the intimate triangular dining room, reservations are required and dining is perforce communal.
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Supper Club feels like a private dinner party, but on “Happy Mondays,” things are more freewheeling. That night they don’t take reservations. Ronspies devises six or eight small plates at prices that average less than $10. The roster is different each week, and there’s an interesting, moderately priced list of wines and beers to go with it.
Not many restaurants play to a full house on Mondays. My guest and I snagged the last two seats available, at the “kitchen window,” a chest-high ledge where even counter-height chairs put our chins nearly level with our plates. But it afforded a fascinating up-close view of Ronspies and his sous, Phil Lehmann, at work.
They do more than just cook; everyone on this staff of four multitasks. Ronspies runs plates to the dining room and even washes dishes. Laurie O’Donnell, who oversees the front, shot the framed food photos on the walls. She helped paint those walls, too, not to mention shellac the burlap-textured floors and build the dining tables of reclaimed wood. Ronspies, who once studied to be an architect, adroitly mixed fabric, color, art and light to create a comfortable, casual, smart-looking haven well-matched to his contemporary American style of comfort food.
A recent Monday menu had just one miss — prawns with an iodine tinge, apparent even through fiery harissa. It was an uncharacteristically busy plate, with bland babaganoush, coriander-studded quinoa, cherry tomatoes and two flavored oils.
But the successes were many and rousing. Halibut “brandade,” pungent fish cakes made with salted and dried halibut mixed with mashed potato, had crusty jackets that took well to their sweet tomato sauce; the lingering heat of sautéed peppers tempered their saltiness.
House-made mole sausage, split and grilled, hinted of cinnamon and chocolate, the perfect mate for sautéed chard and sweet parsnip purée.
A warm poached egg, looking as fluffy as a cumulous cloud, teetered atop a salad. Dusted with fennel pollen and smoked salt, it loosed a torrent of yellow yolk, rich raiment for sturdy greens and meaty slices of Portabella mushroom steeped in sherry vinaigrette.
Pine nuts, toasted breadcrumbs and herb-flecked sautéed chanterelles were a crisp coverlet for a lush cauliflower gratin made with a blend of cheeses, from nutty and sharp to mild.
Gruyere lent its strong flavor to “steak and cheese,” a refined riff on Philly’s favorite sandwich. Horseradish cream anchored baguette chunks stacked with sweet onion jam, molten cheese and strips of pliant skirt steak generously moistened with beefy jus.
Mondays are usually too busy for Ronspies to mingle much, but on Supper Club nights he introduces each course, crediting the local growers who’ve supplied the raw ingredients.
“Feel free to walk around. Come into the kitchen if you like. This is your place for tonight,” he says, welcoming a group with an amuse bouche: crostini topped with softened leek glistening with house-cured lardo. The luxuriously savory bite did just what it’s meant to: made us eager for what follows.
The first course was arugula salad crowned with rosy bits of smoked arctic char. Tucked among the peppery greens in their bracingly sharp vinaigrette were sweetly caramelized beets as small as marbles and tart strips of pickled rhubarb.
Gnocchi followed. The chicklet-sized dumplings were sautéed in brown butter with chanterelles and topped with strands of duck confit. A whisper of rosemary, toasted hazelnuts and a sweet swipe of roasted parsnip purée reinforced the earthy goodness of this heavenly ensemble.
Next up: braised boar cheeks that were rather like lean, elegant pot roast. The braising liquid, reduced with red wine, yielded a potent sauce. Beet greens cushioned the meat, along with grits made velvety with goat and other cheeses. A nosegay of peppery cress and salsify chips added a final fillip of taste and texture.
Dessert was ambitious but weak. Sliced pear pressed into a terrine of port wine gelatin spiced with star anise came with a spoonful of bleu cheese-mascarpone mousse. The flavors were nice, the textures monotonous. A soggy tuille cookie didn’t help, nor did almond praline that even Ronspies acknowledged weren’t as crisp as they should be.
Tall and lanky, with a bandanna-wrapped forehead and shaggy light brown locks, Ronspies resembles a wholesome Keith Richards in his prime, and he’s a rock star to his regulars, who pause to wave or chat on the way in or out. The 34-year-old chef has worked in kitchens for 20 years. As a private chef, he cooked in castles and villas and on yachts; he’s even catered meals on hot-air balloons. He was bent on catering when he landed in Seattle, but then Art of the Table happened. Now, instead of cooking in other people’s houses, he has his own.
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