How Art of the Table Makes Monday Bearable

With eight plates priced below $10, Happy Monday is an irresistible bargain.

Monday is not a good day for most restaurants, especially not these days. But walk into Wallingford's Art of the Table on a "Happy Monday," and you'll notice that not only is it packed with people, but they really do look happy—even those standing in the foyer with an hour's wait ahead of them. And no one's happier than the chef himself, Dustin Ronspies, visible through a cutaway window alongside his sous, Phil Lehmann.Everything about Art of the Table is refreshingly unpremeditated, including its origins. Ronspies, a private chef, originally set up shop as a caterer in 2007. He started serving food a few days a week to lure potential clients. Passionate word-of-mouth and a fistful of positive reviews turned this unlikely location into a cult favorite. Though the early buzz has long since died down, business is still booming.If you're lucky enough to get one of the two seats at the kitchen window, you'll experience the thrill of watching Ronspies and Lehmann cook. This is a lot like watching two champion surfers tackle some monster waves, and not just because Ronspies has that lazy surfer-dude drawl down pat. It's the way these guys—tall, lean, handsome—move. Effortlessly, without wasted motion or words.The waitress slams them with an order for two pork and bacon albondigas (divine little meatballs); three house-made tagliatelles with duck confit and kale; a root-veggie tart; and a shaved fennel salad. Ronspies and Lehmann slide past each other, tossing full pans over flames, plating, mixing, arranging. Exchanges are terse. An occasional chuckle bubbles up. Even a brain-dead observer can tell that they're feeling a rush, they're cooking in the zone.Out on the floor, the customers consist of a few first-timers and many regulars, like the guy who works at Starbucks and lives up the hill. He often brings Ronspies fancy new coffee roasts to try. Laurie O'Donnell, Ronspies' business partner and head server, treats Starbucks Guy to a glass of Spanish sherry. Just because."This place makes Mondays bearable for me," Starbucks Guy says, savoring the amber oloroso. Ten of us are squeezed in at the communal table. We trade stories between bites and learn that no one's a local; everyone wandered to Seattle and stayed. Is that why the conversation takes wing?"No," says Starbucks Guy, after swallowing the tasty clam-and-mussel chowder. "It's because of the food. Dustin's food is magic."It's also a steal. Most of the eight Happy Monday plates are priced well below $10. The prix-fixe multicourse Supper Club dinners, offered Thursday through Saturday, are usually $55. Considering that Ronspies is not at all laid-back about his ingredients, these prices offer diners an irresistible bargain: beautiful food made from pristine ingredients that are mostly local and organic, often hand-selected by Ronspies at farmers markets. No wonder Art of the Table is bucking the recession.While Happy Mondays feel like a casual bacchanal that you can drop into whenever you like, Supper Club evenings are decidedly more sedate affairs. Reservations are required, and there's only one seating (at four double tables, one four-top, and a large rectangle that fits up to 10).Ronspies introduces each course, acknowledging farmers by name and describing how the food was made. In surfer-speak, everything sounds far more doable than it really is. Lulled by his soothing voice, we nod, envisioning ourselves hand-stuffing sausages until 2 a.m. and gathering the right pieces of wood for smoking the gravlax.A sprinter, I'm not a fan of prix-fixe marathons, and I've tuned out more earnest culinary recitations than I care to admit. But I've been to three Supper Clubs at Art of the Table—each lasting about three hours—and I've never found these dinners anything but delightful.This pleasure has a lot to do with Ronspies' utter lack of pretension. He might be a god in the kitchen, but on the floor he's a culinary geek. After breezily admitting this is the first time ever he's tried the elaborate Julia Child recipe he just served, he reminds us in the next breath to hold onto our silverware, because he'll be doing the dishes at the end of the night. Then he and O'Donnell scramble to serve the next round.One recent evening, an amuse-bouche of sunchoke soup was followed by a first course of house-cured salmon gravlax, seconded by crisp Yukon Gold potato gnocchi with kale and pancetta. The third course: a pepper-crusted Wagyu strip loin with caramelized onions and a Gorgonzola crouton that all but melted in the mouth. Dessert was a tender pear and almond frangipane tart with homemade apricot ice cream. Everything was superb.Ronspies admits to being something of a traditionalist. "I like to play with French, Italian, and Mediterranean—that's where my comfort level is," Ronspies told me in a phone call. "My cooking is 90 percent based on the ingredients. I don't do foams or molecular gastronomy." But he does his own shopping, churns his own ice cream, grows his own herbs, and, yes, washes his own dishes.Another Supper Club was vegetarian in theme: Fuji apple and Sea Stack cheese toasts; creamy celeriac soup with fennel confit; leek and wheatberry salad with roasted golden beets; seared spring mushrooms with gnocchi and parsnip puree; and a tart that reminded me of pecan pie, but made with pine nuts and finished with rosemary ice cream.I devoured everything, and found myself in such a good mood that I shrugged off the lone mishap of my six visits: a slightly gritty morel. The mushrooms were sitting in a basket at the front when I arrived, having just been dropped off by the forager, who held the door for me when I walked in. When Ronspies tossed the morels into the gnocchi alongside the chanterelles and hedgehogs, he completed the holy trinity of springtime fungi—a wonderfully generous last-minute maneuver. I'll take this kind of divine inspiration in any form, and for morels that fresh—five of them!—I might eat a whole teaspoon of dirt and not complain."The more I do this, the more I want to go further back, to preserving, curing, canning, and other traditional types of slow cooking," said Ronspies. "Laurie and I would love to have a country French Laundry, but not as fancy. That's where I'd love to take this, so that people can really feel all the love that went into growing and creating this food. That passion has to be there, you know? It's all about being connected to each other."I get it. I'm feeling it. The love. Connection. That's Art of the Table all Hahn is a food critic and blogger ( who was the staff restaurant reviewer for this newspaper in the late '90s. She is filling in this week for Jonathan Kauffman, who's on vacation.Price Check

    Happy Mondays:

  Leek and potato soup $4

  Meyer lemon tart, blueberry ice cream $7

  Shaved fennel salad $7

  Root-veggie tart $7

  House-made pasta, duck confit $9

  Gnocchi with shiitake and morels $9   

    Supper Club:

  Prix-fixe multicourse dinner $55 and up


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