I took a friend to Table; it was his first time at Fort Street Galley, the collection of four restaurants in the old Federal Reserve Building downtown. "My first impression?" he said. "They want $14 for a hamburger in what looks like a food court."
Fort Street Galley is a food court. It's an upscale food court, with real silverware and glasses, no plastic to be seen — and the cuisines have nothing to do with fast food. I've always felt there's a disconnect between the generally excellent dishes at all of the Galley's restaurants and the atmosphere there, which is a big, somewhat echoing space with picnic tables. It's like, the food shouldn't be this good in this informal space. But it is.
I had the best drink of the summer in the Galley's excellent though pricey Fort Street Galley Bar, and that drink had some stiff competition as of early August. It was an $8 spritz: hibiscus aperitif and white wine with a big chunk of grapefruit peel.
Come during the 5-7 p.m. happy hour if you want to pay less than $13 for a cocktail. The Magpie makes them either "draft" — pre-mixed and you choose which spirits to add — or created on the spot. They're all lovely, but especially the latter. I had a refreshing bittersweet "Moneypenny" with passionfruit, aperitif, fortified wine, lemon, and vodka.
Table, a project of chef Phill Milton, opened in May after two earlier Galley restaurants, Allenby and Pursue, had bitten the dust after only a few months in operation. Milton once cooked at the lamented Tribute under the renowned Takashi Yagihashi, so he comes with credentials.
His idea is soul food, sometimes gussied up — your mama never put duck confit in her mac and cheese. He says he's doing his "American comfort food," which he grew up eating in Michigan, with "modern techniques and ingredients to give it that chef touch, but it's still very recognizable and approachable." Rare is the chef who doesn't try to allay diners' fears this way. Can you imagine a restaurateur saying, "We seek to intimidate with the unfamiliarity of our dishes and the oddness of our presentation"?
The food is totally recognizable, and cooked and served by very friendly staffers. While we were pondering the menu, one offered us a "taste" of the watermelon salad, which turned out to be almost a serving. The melon is joined by heirloom tomatoes, feta, cukes, mint, and a lime vinaigrette — nothing could be more refreshing (except that spritz).
I also loved fried green tomatoes, breaded in cornmeal with pimento cheese and a "BBQ ranch" sauce — there's nothing more "approachable" than ranch dressing, the best-selling salad dressing in the U.S. since 1992. But these slices avoided the ranch cliché and let the tomato flavor shine through.
As you know, Nashville hot chicken is the thing now, with Nashville restaurants competing for the highest number of Scoville Heat Units. Milton's crust, and there's a lot of it, was too hot for me, but the bird itself was juicy and sweet, indicating that the cayenne-lard paste was applied after the frying, which is more traditional. The chicken pieces were way too much to fit into a bun, though this is officially a sandwich, served with a giant heap of fries. All serving sizes were gargantuan.
We also liked skirt steak with chimichurri and grilled corn salad. The strips are chewy but tasty, and the corn-tomato-red onion mix is both sweet and pungent. Barbecued pork belly is super-fatty — and why order pork belly unless you're seeking fat? — with a big hunk of jalapeño cornbread that was actually honey-sweet.
A lot is fried at Table, in keeping with the theme. Crisp shrimp hushpuppies are one example; their flavor is good, though there's no discernible shrimp in taste or texture. I wondered if the shrimps were whirled in a blender to make them melt into the batter.
The fish in the fish sandwich is pecan-crusted walleye, but I have to say it seemed like a normal hard-fried fish to me.
Chicken-and-biscuit means two large breasts, maybe a little dry, or at least there's a lot of crust. The buttermilk biscuit is crisp and creditable, but I would have put the honey on the side, to give the diner a choice. Cheddar grits are very creamy — the flavor was good but I prefer mine with a bit of texture. Grits on their own have no particular flavor, after all, being simply a means of conveying butterfat to the mouth, so a little texture helps.
I'll mention one more dish, which I didn't order, because it sounds like the apotheosis of mid-century housewife bad: cheese curds with a saltine coating and more of that BBQ ranch sauce. Why? If any reader orders "Cheese in Crackers," please write me.
It was at Table that I scored the best dessert of the summer (though competitors are still sought). You'd think strawberry purée on strawberries would be silly, but I swear that when Milton does it, it's not. These two items and shortcake and a whole lot of whipped cream are chopped and thrust into a Mason jar. It is heaven on earth.
Desserts are supposed to change regularly, but it was strawberry shortcake both times I went, and you'll hear no complaints from me.
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