- Ron Bechtol
- Pharm Table recently relocated to a new space in Southtown.
As it happens, balance is at the heart of ayurveda, the venerable health philosophy espoused by chef Elizabeth Johnson at her restaurant Pharm Table, newly relocated to a handsome, patio-equipped space in Southtown.
“Ayurveda is an ancient Vedic medical system focused on maintaining balance: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual,” foodie mag Bon Appetit noted. “Food is one of its core tools — healing and re-centering the body with careful combinations of foods, herbs and spices. There are a lot of rules, and there are also no rules. …”
You don’t really need to know any of that to enjoy your experience at Pharm Table, where Johnson’s mostly vegan menu is built around her considerable culinary experience — bolstered by an arsenal of over 100 herbs and spices. I make no claims as to the food’s ability to restore your equilibrium. But I can say that I left happy both times I visited — and that’s no mean feat.
Let me first make another disclaimer: my usual Spidey sense of what’s “right” about a meal was occasionally thrown off by expectations that have one meaning for me but another in the ayurvedic canon. Take the term escabeche, for example. In my experience, this Iberian or Latin American dish is usually fish or meat cured in vinegar, but added vinegar is not part of ayurveda. Hence, Pharm Table’s squash “escabeche” — actually rainbow carrots when I ordered it — uses lime juice instead, and the dish was only subtly sour. Reset required on my part.
So, if you’re contemplating a Pharm Table visit, here’s what I suggest: start retuning your palate by the immersion method and go straight for its bounteous, beautiful and eminently shareable gravlox board. The excellent beet-stained salmon is one clue that all is not vegan here, but the surprisingly appealing cashew “cheese” swings back into the pantheon, and you’ll enjoy a full range of the house’s smoked and citrus-pickled vegetables — the tart sumac onions were a special pleasure. As an optional accompaniment, the $2 supplement for organic, non-GMO tortillas was truly worth it if only to marvel at their uniqueness.
The restaurant makes occasional menu substitutions to fine tune a dish for the temper of the day or to compensate for produce shortcomings. Fennel was a stand-in for hoja santa the day I had the smoked mole verde enchiladas, and the black beans were whole, not puréed with more fennel. Even so, it was one of the most provocative plates I have experienced, even in pre-pandemic times. The collards that replaced the enchiladas’ usual rolled tortillas were vibrant green and just tender enough; cutting into them revealed a vibrant orange filling of sweet potato with bits of braised onion. Further enhanced by the pale green mole featuring smoked tomatillos, the color contrast was stunning. Yes, you do also eat with your eyes.
Little wonder that the Thai zucchini noodle salad — imagine quotation marks around the noodle part —for all of its quieter beauty and varied textures, didn’t quite achieve the same distinction. Yes, there were occasional flashes of brilliance in the contrasts of toasted coconut with fresh mint and wafer-thin radish, but raw zucchini needs a little more help for this Western palate.
Not that there was a competition, but the tamarind amchur curry bowl was a winner among two bowls I tried. Its clenched victory thanks to cabbage soured by tamarind and dried green mango powder. You’ll have to imagine my double-take at being startled by this elevation of the lowly cabbage. Another component, sweet potato rice — imagine more quotation marks here — was less convincing texturally than its inspiration, but its complex flavors more than compensated for lack of bite. Those so inclined should feel free to add a small piece of marinated Persian chicken to the mix, where it becomes just another element, not the main attraction.
Za’atar-dusted avocado slices were easily the equal of the charred, shawarma-spiced cauliflower in bowl No. 2.
Pharm Table’s beverage program is no stepchild of the food menu, and that’s apparent from the carefully curated spirits selection behind the bar. Its emphasis on agave and other Mexican products, assembled with the help of veteran barman Houston Eaves, formerly of Esquire Tavern, hits close to my heart.
The day-to-day cocktail menu, managed by Ricardo Ruiz, formerly of The Hoppy Monk, takes full advantage of the selection with creations such as the ethereal Caña Mexicana, which by using a Oaxacan rum-adjacent spirit manages to be both delicate and earthy at the same time. Less potent, but equally alluring, is an on-tap blend of ginger and turmeric beer — quotes needed yet again. In any system, this has got to be good for you. No quotes around good.
611 S. Presa St. | (210) 802-1860 | pharmtable.com
Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. | Accessible: Yes
Price Range: $12-$16 for main plates, not including fish of the day
Best Bets: Gravlox board, smoked mole verde enchiladas, tamarind amchur curry bowl, avocado chocolate mousse, turmeric ginger beer, apothecary cocktails
The Skinny: Pharm Table’s relocation from Auditorium Circle seems to have energized its plant-forward menu, which now includes non-vegan and non-ayurvedic items such as a fish of the day, cured gravlox and add-ons of chicken and salmon. First bites can be as simple as a ginger meal-starter, designed to jump-start the palate, or as complex as the highly recommended gravlox board with a full sample of house “ferments.” A knowledge of ayurvedic principles doesn’t hurt, but it’s hardly necessary to enjoy dishes such as the stunning mole verde enchiladas with sweet potato-stuffed collards, or the excellent tamarind amchur curry bowl with an optional add of Persian chicken. A barely sweet avocado chocolate mousse gets better with each bite. Drinks such as the turmeric ginger beer and cocktails the likes of the ethereal Caña Mexicana are also worth trying. Service is friendly and informative.
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