Table, Donkey and Stick is the restaurant reborn from the much-admired Bonsoiree after Shin Thompson—in order to ready a forthcoming West Loop Asian spot—handed the reins over to Top Cheftestant Beverly Kim for a short, pricey, ill-fated experiment in prix fixe Korean.
The new name is derived from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a lying goat, a donkey that poops gold, and a magic table that fills with food on demand. Obscure literary references aside, it’s a clumsy name, if only for the failure to employ the Oxford comma. At least there’s no ampersand.
There is a bit of Grimm morbidity on display in the tiny front dining room, which remains as cramped as in past incarnations—a few animal skulls on the walls and a fearsome ax shelved in the foyer for summary beheadings of bad tippers, who will presumably contribute to the beet soup with blood sausage. But this is offset by a loud rock soundtrack, a rear dining room filled with communal tables like a snug beer hall, and the back patio warmed by a blazing fire pit (unless, human sacrifice?).
The food is “alpine”-inspired, meaning chef Scott Manley—who beat out three other chefs in a series of public pop-up auditions—is on the leading charge of an approaching blitzkrieg of neu-Germanic food that’s about to overwhelm the city. If you’re a fan of Paul Virant’s Vie—and who isn’t?—you’ve probably eaten Manley’s food, and some of that wholesome influence is apparent in his interpretation of things like charcuterie, sauerbraten, pretzels, and dumplings with unpronounceable names.
The preserved meats in that first category—dubbed wanderteller (“hiker’s plate”)—are excellent and among the most beautifully arranged in town: a lineup that includes folds of bloodred smoked venison tenderloin with cherry mostarda, iron-rich coins of firm blood sausage, and thin sheets of concentrically stuffed pheasant galantine seasoned with coffee and fennel. A generous bread service—a buckwheat baguette and a crock of finely emulsified pork rillettes—augments this, and goes swimmingly with the small selection of European cheeses served alongside a shallow dish of honey, with slices of sunflower-oat bread.
I would eagerly return for this ever-changing assortment, as well as for a few of Manley’s small and larger plates—say, a bowl of maultaschen, a kind of sliced ravioli stuffed with minced smoked chicken that wallow in a pool of amber consomme. The smothering richness of polenta with sharp Gorgonzola, topped with thick slabs of bacon and trumpet mushrooms, is relieved just enough by a garnish of pickled red pepper. And a mutant, Dali-esque soft pretzel, its dough worked with pork fat, can be had with a cheesy cauliflower puree or a plump, snappy pork sausage. Either way, you should eat one.
But much of the rest of the menu is uneven in execution. I’d settle for a bowl of the long, chewy, spaetzlelike dumplings over the veal sauerbraten they come with, which is devoid of any vinegary tang. Shreds of bland braised beef shank feel superfluous as they conceal silky au gratin sweet potatoes. And a small cast-iron skillet layered with irregular sheets of buckwheat pasta, undercooked potato, and gooey Talegggio is a wet, swampy mess. From a dull, gray turnip soup to a gluey smoked whitefish and white bean salad, too much on this concise menu reinforces old stereotypes of the dreary, heavy food of the Continent.
The few desserts are at odds, too: a smooth, nicely bitter chocolate pavé with charred meringue, strewn with buttery pine-nut brittle and topped with a gob of blueberry preserves, trumps a rectangle of apple pudding that, though attractively garnished, could have been pulled from a Starbucks display case. A cup of hot cocoa spiked with green chartreuse and topped with marshmallow and tarragon powder (a selection off the short list of after-dinner drinks) trumps them both and may be one of the best desserts I’ve ever drunk.
The tidy selection of wines and the dozen beers are mostly German, Austrian, and northern Italian. Those, a few brandies, and a trio of cocktails conceived by the masterly Matty Eggleston all contribute to the sense that Table, Donkey and Stick is a good place to pop in for some cured meat, cheese, and drink. But in general it’s a cautionary tale of how modern cooks and eaters sometimes over-romanticize the functional gruel of the long-dead peasantry.
Or, to quote the duplicitous goat from the Grimms’ tale:
“I have eaten so much,
Not a leaf more I’ll touch;