By Chris Utterback
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They're not looking at the decor, either. Bathed in sunlight, the space exudes a dusty, junk-store chic; a sense of having been thrown together over a weekend by friends who fitted it out with mismatched chairs and stuff found in basements and attics, friends who never expected the place to do the kind of business it's doing in this comfortable Park Hill neighborhood and who never expected the lines. The tables from which the restaurant takes its name (at least in part) are rough things -- chipped and battered and worn smooth at the corners, built from wood that's got some history and, in many cases, was something else before it became a table. Most of the tables are from the collection of owner Amy Vitale, and the joke when she and Dustin Barrett opened Tables last year was that Vitale just needed a place to put them all. How else to explain why these two veterans of Strings would open a sandwich shop?
But the people waiting in these lines will take whatever table they can get, whatever seat they can find while the kitchen crew assembles their lunch. It's surprising how many people Tables can handle during a busy lunch, how smoothly, and how, as the line squirms in toward the counter, Vitale seems to know nearly every single person in it.
Park Hill: $6.50
Hot ham sandwich (the Holly): $6
Hudson Street: $6< br>French toast sandwich: $6.50
Egg salad (Smiley Club): $6.50
Antipasti salad: $7
Prosciutto and melon: $8
Tomato salad: $13
Chicken pasta: $16
Sausage and clams: $17
Pork loin: $22
Tables is much more than a sandwich shop, and these are far from standard sandwiches. The hot ham sandwich comes dressed with pineapple, basil and a sambal aioli. It has sliced scallions rather than onions, and the tomatoes are roasted, sweet as candy. The Hudson Street is ham and Swiss cheese dressed with watercress and thin-sliced pears and apricot jam, its sweetness offset by a smear of creamed Dijon mustard. The egg salad comes with smoked salmon and bacon, the derivative croque monsieur on French toast with ham, a honey-maple spread that gives the whole sandwich an overwhelming sweet-over-savory taste, sharp cheddar, bacon, and tomatoes sliced so thin they seem to just melt away. A simple Italian (called the Park Hill) with salami, excellent prosciutto, pepperoni and soft provolone is sharpened by the inclusion of smashed, bittersweet black olives and an herbed oil-and-vinegar dressing that's so thick and rich with herbs it could be a spread. This single sandwich has more than a dozen distinct ingredients, each working in perfect harmony, capped with sweet strips of roasted red pepper that act like a singing high note with every bite.
These are carefully constructed sandwiches. The layers are stacked just so, the breads (crusty Italian for the Park Hill, real marble rye for the Reuben) ideally matched, the ingredients chosen wisely for the way they play together. Two Park Hills ordered two days apart are nearly identical, the components laid on in the same order, in the same ratios, with the same generosity coupled with a weird stinginess that works: lots of salami, just a little prosciutto for salt, four or five strips of roasted pepper, a mere scattering of olives but a lot of herbed oil, light on the vinegar. And even if the lunch special one Saturday -- a salmon burrito-slash-wrap-sandwich that tasted like the leftovers of a bad California/fusion salad wrapped in a tortilla with bitter greens, mango sauce and chunks of smoked salmon -- was pretty much inedible, I should've known better than to order it. A salmon special on a Saturday afternoon? That just screams Friday leftovers, and there was no reason for ordering it save my own infernal curiosity and psychological weakness for fish burritos.
But if lunch at Tables is surprising, dinner is astonishing. In the evening, Tables is a totally different restaurant -- and the difference is literally night and day.
There's a lot of magic on the floor of a good restaurant, a lot of stagecraft that smart chefs, floormen and owners pick up piecemeal over the years. The trick of putting all your servers in soft shoes, the tricks of padded tabletops and the smell of sautéeing onions and garlic wafting over the dining room, the lightbulb tricks (peach-tinted bulbs make everything look better; incandescents make everything look sculpted out of nursery-school paste). Everyone knows that candles and fresh flowers can make even a Denny's seem romantic. A good manager knows all about the power of polished wineglasses, heavy silver and folded napkins on a dinner floor, and a great one understands how people's expectations can be manipulated long before the first plate hits the table with something as simple as the way that napkin is folded, the amount of silver laid out, the flowers in the vase against the wall.
And at Tables, the secret stage magic that is the stock in trade of front-of-the-house staffs everywhere is on full display. A feeling of comfort, of rightness, radiates from the front windows and catches me before I even step inside. That's the magic. As the sun begins to set, a space that just a few hours earlier felt incomplete and coffeehouse-Bohemian, filled with hurried lunchers and families and kids and brown-baggers, seems like an island of light. The unfinished brick, the trestle tables, the rough counter -- all of it takes on a new life. Now, with candles flickering in the windows and servers on the floor; with seating carefully rearranged; with baskets of bread, little jars of butter, glasses of wine and sprigs of fresh flowers on every table; with amazing, beautiful, wonderful smells filling the air and the cooks staying in the kitchen rather than delivering lunches -- this sandwich shop has transmogrified into an idealized neighborhood bistro, the kind of place everyone dreams about finding one night. You want to settle in at a table near the back and simply never leave.
Vitale and Barrett waited almost a year before they started serving dinner, waited until they had a liquor license and the neighborhood's support. Tables still only serves dinner a few nights a week, and it's always full. My first dinner here (with no reservation), I had to promise the host that I would be gone in less than ninety minutes, then got a seat near the windows just as the rain started coming down outside. I ate prosciutto sliced thin, served with brightly colored balls of cantaloupe and honeydew, the whole plate drizzled in thyme honey, thin and sweet as simple syrup, then followed that with a bowl of littleneck clams and sausage over pasta in a beurre blanc shot with reisling and lemon. I'd smelled the clams and wine and lemons the minute I walked through the door. By eight o'clock, when my time was up, the room was crowded with diners, loud with laughter, busy with servers and five cooks on the line. It looked like a movie set, it was so perfect. I couldn't wait to come back.
When I do, I still don't have reservations, but the host finds a table for me and the wife anyway, in the narrow hallway that runs along the edge of the kitchen, with a window onto the line that acts like a second pass. Again, dinner is like a dream. The floor fills slowly with friends and neighbors while the cooks crowded in the tiny kitchen do their thing with pans and pots and speed-pourers shoved everywhere, their mise balanced between stations, orders called down the line from white jacket to white jacket and expo'd at either end.
We order apps and salads and pastas and entrees. We eat hugely and it still isn't enough, because everything on the dinner menu -- like everything on the lunch menu -- is as described, only better. I have a martini that isn't a martini, just three ounces of cucumber and elderflower-infused gin in a martini glass with a slice of cucumber as garnish. It's delicious, and I don't even like cucumbers. Nor do I know what an elderflower is. The sweetbreads would be good enough in their basic presentation -- breaded, cooked gently, served in a tarn of silky veal demi with baby carrots and caramelized whole shallots -- but the kitchen added bacon to the mix, and, as I have long insisted, there's no plate on any menu ever written that couldn't be improved by the inclusion of bacon. The kitchen's simple antipasti platter is served as a salad, with the olives and chopped artichoke hearts, the roasted peppers and cubes of stiff mozzarella all tossed in a bowl made of sliced salami and pepperoni, drizzled with a powerfully sweet and astringent aged balsamic vinegar and a little oil, and served with crostini smeared with homemade herbed hummus.
Tables serves a stacked salad of heirloom tomatoes and basil shot with a lemon vinaigrette and salted with black American caviar; a ribeye steak with peach-brandy demiglace; fried chicken over bread pudding with ripe summer-tomato jam. The simplest, most throwaway dish on the menu -- a chicken pasta -- is done with bacon and spinach and peppers in a composed pesto cream sauce so rich and thick and rustic that it should be taught at school, with the entire plate held up as an example of how proper sauté work is the highest achievement to which any journeyman cook can aspire. The roasted pork loin is delicious, unlike any of the myriad pork-loin presentations I've had over the years: a purely seasonal, totally rethought plate of sliced loin pan-roasted almost dangerously rare, balanced over fingerling potatoes tenderly gingered through some miraculous process that left their skins and flesh intact, and topped with a fall of sweet-sour plum-and-rhubarb marmalade that explodes across my tongue like a dozen summer vacations.
Tables is full of surprises, large and small, but the biggest could be how much fun this place is. It's too small, too crowded, too casual to ever be a serious restaurant, and thank God for that, because we've got plenty of serious restaurants around here. What we need are more restaurants like this: restaurants where the lines crowd the door and friends spill onto the sidewalks, where magic fills the place at night. Tables could move into a space twice as big, with an address twice as impressive, and probably still fill the books. But that would be a shame, because it's in the space between opposing identities -- casual neighborhood sandwich joint versus crazy-smart and chef-driven bistro -- that Tables finds its power to surprise.
It's the pressure of the cramped quarters, the over-committed floor and a menu half designed by circumstance that distills the talent of the cooks and the owners into genius. It's the pressure of the neighborhood -- of knowing that every night, the floor is full of friends -- that drives Tables to being better than imaginable, with flavors more intense, spices sharper, sauces smoother. When you look out over a dining room and know half the people waiting by name -- and more to the point, they know you -- every plate becomes a highly personalized expression of self: your passion, turned into dinner. Into magic.