Reader, I ordered the chicken.
So far as I can tell, this constitutes some kind of violation of dining-out decorum, or at least shatters civilian eaters’ fantasies of what they’d do if given carte blanche in a restaurant.
Periodically, a brave chef will mount a case for getting the chicken, but arguments on behalf of simplicity, flavor and technical skill are hard to hear over the guffaws of restaurant patrons who have freezers crammed with boneless, skinless breasts. Chicken, they maintain, is for people too boring or cheap to appreciate the other options.
Chicken has become the poster protein for home cooking, which is why it seemed like the perfect dish to order at Community Table, which in November opened on the I’On corner previously occupied by Fratello’s Italian Tavern.
Owners Ryan and Kelleanne Jones, who last year gave up executive roles at Mex 1 Coastal Cantina to create the Free Reign counter at Workshop, have plenty of hospitality experience: They spent seven years running a Connecticut restaurant described by The Hartford Courant as “one of Hartford County's top spots for fine dining.”
Community Table is decidedly not fine dining. The servers are dressed in blue jeans, and James Taylor keeps cropping up on the background music mix.
But from the looks of the room and the taste of the dishes it’s almost a stretch to place Community Table anywhere within the realm of restaurant aesthetics. A meal at Community Table is closer in spirit to a cozy dinner at the home of a wealthy friend blessed with above-average culinary talent and superior kitchen equipment.
That in no way means there’s anything amateurish about the operation, which has already achieved a degree of polish that eludes many restaurants until they’ve taken one turn around the calendar.
In fact, the Jones have the confidence to present every bill tucked between the pages of "The New Food Lover’s Companion," acknowledged as the authoritative A-Z guide to cooking terms. So if you’re wondering whether Community Table correctly executed the persillade on its scallops or the gremolata on its Bibb salad, you can look it up.
As for the chicken, it’s a relatively straightforward ballotine presentation, which means the bird is pounded, stuffed and rolled up before roasting; in this case, the core of each chicken slice is a blend of mozzarella cheese and arugula.
Its skin isn’t crisp. From a textural standpoint, the meat might as well be encircled by yarn, but the earthy interplay of a chicken stock-charged tomato sauce and scattered mushrooms surrounding it is lovely. Like so many Community Table dishes, it radiates warmth from the tips of its component chewy spaetzle.
Servers have a similar mission in mind, greeting guests with a friendliness as buoyant as the popovers they tote to the table at the start of each meal.
It’s tough to fake cheer, but even more challenging to affect familiarity with dishes one has seen but never tasted, as is often the situation for servers in restaurants with changing and wide-ranging menus. I don’t know what sampling strategy the Jones use when training their employees, but I was thoroughly impressed by the knowingness with which a server on one dinner visit coveted my dessert and another server at brunch evaluated the ways I could have my eggs with a marinated hanger steak.
Brunch is served daily at Community Table, which in appearance has a daytime disposition. The bare wooden tables are set with rustic cross back chairs, and the pale pistachio walls are interspersed with floor-length oatmeal curtains. There’s a bar with TVs toward the back, but it’s partially obscured by a room divider-slash-plant rack crafted from window frames.
On the other side of the fixture is the eponymous shared round table. Over the course of my three visits, I never saw anyone at it, but a colleague tells me he met a nice guy from Bolivia while seated there.
Despite the egg discussion, it’s the sliced beef that is the brunch standout. It may well qualify as the first great steak you can get in Charleston County after the sun comes up (Community Table opens at 10 a.m.). Cut across the grain in London broil style, the steak is juicy and salty and a fine companion to the tender creamer potatoes and roasted grape tomatoes on the plate.
Meat and potatoes are strong suits of Community Table. The menu touches on almost every 2016 to 2018 restaurant trend, including blistered shishito peppers, a whole head of cauliflower, Cobb salad and roasted octopus, but it’s the timeless preparations that shine.
For instance, you could start a meal with an appetizer-sized portion of spaghetti carbonara, the reigning “it” pasta before cacio e pepe displaced it (and yes, of course, it’s ludicrous to talk about ancient Italian dishes having lifespans roughly the length of fashion seasons, but such is the fickle nature of the food world). Unfortunately, the under-peppered pasta here is primarily a platform for green peas.
Those peas are admirably crisp. Still, I would steer you instead to the remarkably good mussels frites, featuring fat, meaty mussels that are far from mere sponges for the butter-rich white wine broth, enhanced with Sriracha and herbs.
Community Table has the host role down, so servers are quick to offer a cocktail, including The Armchair, which is nothing but bourbon poured over ice without judgment. Yet the mussels are an excuse to dip into the savvy wine list. You know you’re in good hands when you can get aligoté by the glass.
When the mussels first arrive, you can’t see them for the fries. Community Table’s hand-cut fries are exceptional. Warm and creamy within, the gorgeously browned fries go just about anywhere the restaurant can fit them, including all throughout an ill-conceived and possibly codependent pile of Little Gem lettuce, which I fear is a way for customers to get what they want by asking for salad.
Just order the fries. And if you’re in the mood for red meat, order the strip steak, because the brown butter mashed potatoes alongside it are nearly their equal.
For dessert, servers will suggest a dense brownie with chocolate sauce. The brownie is rich and lightly cooked, and it’s a brownie I recognized as soon as I sunk my spoon into it. The sweet brownie is the stuff of storybook slumber parties, always held in cheery, loving and comfortable homes. In retrospect, I’m not even sure why I asked to see a menu. How else could anyone end a meal here?