A few months ago, my parents treated themselves to a spa visit and overnight stay at a fancy lodge. My mother called me that evening to report that immediately following their romantic, decadent, organic dinner, she went directly upstairs to her hotel room and threw up.
"Was it bad?" I asked.
"No," she explained. "It was just white-people food."
My family has nothing against white people. Or their food. (Some of our best friends are white.) But, being brown people, certain food items and flavor combinations that appear on upscale American menus—mint gelée, lemon crème fraîche, vanilla glacé—and elaborate platings will always seem impersonal, impenetrable, and just beyond the realm of real enjoyment.
I had heard great things from a trustworthy source about Art of the Table, a new restaurant in Wallingford offering Supper Club, a weekly reservations-only dinner party (you have the option of sitting at either a communal or private table) featuring a $48 prix fixe menu designed around a specific theme. I decided to take my mother out for a nice meal (something I don't do often enough, since meals with her are always at home, free of pretense, occasionally free of silverware). After looking at Chef Dustin Ronspies's menu for the week, "A Trip to the Farmer's Market" (specifically a Swiss chard and goat-cheese ravioli with roasted sweet-pepper sauce, toasted pine nuts, and pesto), I was a little worried that we might have another tragic "white-people food" experience on our hands.
In hindsight, my concerns could not seem more ludicrous. Mom and I had one of the most comfortable, satisfying, quietly revelatory dinners imaginable at Art of the Table. Ronspies and house manager Laurie O'Donnell greet diners as they come through the door; a carafe of water with orange and fresh rosemary sits on each table. It's obvious that Art of the Table's first priority is to give diners an intimate and nourishing experience. While there are a lot of flavors going on in Ronspies's food, all the dishes are carefully balanced, almost perfectly executed, and absolutely delicious.
Our first course, zucchini fritter and corn soup, was a lovely, detailed dish that set the tone for the meal. The fritter—shredded zucchini, crunchy on the outside, light and wonderfully eggy on the inside—sat in the middle of a bowl of bright, sweet soup topped with smoked red-pepper flakes and diced chives. My mom could not get over the perfect temperature of the soup—"Not too hot, not too cold, just right."
That Swiss chard and goat-cheese ravioli I was so worried about turned out to be my favorite dish. The handmade ravioli, which were larger and more dumpling like than I expected, were filled with a silky mix of greens and cheese that held a surprising but very welcome hint of lemon. The red-pepper sauce that accompanied it was spot-on (not too sweet, thankfully), and enhanced by the small dollop of garlicky pesto.
The poached black cod was moist and downright heavenly. While I could have done without the braised fennel salad it sat atop (the fennel was too soft, its anisey flavor barely detectable), the oven-roasted tomatoes that accompanied the fish were tart and sweet and worthy of their own dish. (Quote Mom: "Oh, I love the tomato.")
Dessert—fresh fruit tart of blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and nectarines in a brown hazelnut-flour shell filled with huckleberry pastry cream—was divine and simple, a perfect end to a late summer meal.
From my seat in the tiny dining room I could see into the kitchen; I relished spying on Ronspies lovingly (and, yes, artfully) assembling each plate. He would then emerge from the kitchen to introduce each course. Listening to Ronspies talk about his food and where his ingredients come from—the names of each vendor, what items they specialize in—was one of the most impressive and compelling parts of the meal. He ended dinner by asking us to "please support local farmers. They need us as much as we need good food from them."
I will be back to Art of the Table. I need more food as good and thoughtful as this in my life.