Saturday, April 23, 2011

Talula's Garden - A secret garden that shouldn't stay secret

While I'll admit that I'm partial to the Jose Garces empire, I found my recent Stephen Starr experience at The Dandelion quite engaging and delicious. As such, I was particularly excited to get a solo reservation at Talula's Garden--a joint venture between Stephen Starr and Aimee Olexy (of the famed Talula's Table in Kennett Square--an impossible reservation, by the way, from everything I've read on the blogs).

Whenever I tell people I like to eat alone, they often seem surprised or confused. Especially when most people can't stand the thought of eating out without some sort of company. At the end of a long day or week though, all I want is some "me" time, where I can sit with my own thoughts, relish the food in front of me, and enjoy the space I'm in.

Upon arriving in Washington Square, I had to loop around a few times, call 411, and even ask a tour guide for assistance before I found the restaurant tucked away on St. James Street. Although I could easily have been frustrated (given that my stomach was calling out to me by that point), I appreciated the possible Burnett reference--as if only those "in the know" would be able to find their way to the restaurant's "secret garden."

I was glad to find my way though, because the space is absolutely breathtaking--a wonderful combination of Stephen Starr's drama and flair with Aimee Olexy's farm-table aesthetic. High ceilings, lots of light, beautiful prints, and whimsical details. The main dining room is a bi-level open space that looks out onto a lush garden (which will be perfect for al fresco dining--that is, as soon as spring decides to settle in). In contrast, a few smaller nooks afford some patrons a bit more privacy in their dining experience.

As a solo diner, I was asked if I'd like to sit at the communal table, which was situated right by the cheesemonger and her array of cheeses. Considering that my friend Erich had just mentioned the restaurant's cheese focus, I would've been foolish if I'd chosen to sit anywhere else. Furthermore, the communal table was not only gorgeous with its tea lights in mason jars, but also with its view of the lighted garden.

My server Josh produced a series of menus for me to scan through, including a drinks menu, a cheese menu, and the dinner menu. As he was highlighting items on the drinks list, I had to stop and inform him that I was allergic to alcohol, at which point I started to inquire whether..."any of these are salvageable?" I had to laugh because that was precisely what I was thinking. I mean, who wants to simply substitute seltzer or tonic water in a drink? It makes sense. At this point, Josh bowed out gracefully to speak with the bartender, and then promptly brought me back a non-alcoholic version of the house sangria. The gesture was very thoughtful, and I actually found the drink quite good, though it could probably have been a bit sweeter.

Having scanned through the menu online, I was very aware that: 1) the main courses were all fairly heavy and 2) the desserts needed to be ordered. Consequently, I advised Josh that I'd be choosing several of their smaller dishes to try, just so I could save room for sweets at the end. He quickly and easily obliged, offering to bring out each of my dishes as individual courses. Definitely the kind of dinner service worth paying for.
I started with a cheese plate of "Rare & Ridiculous Cheeses," which consisted of four cheeses, ranging from mild to blue. The cheeses came out on a piece of shale, with several accouterments, including dried fruit, stripes of jam, and thin crisps. Given the company in which I was in (namely, Kate the cheese-monger), I couldn't help but try a few more cheeses throughout my meal, including the Strathdon Blue, the Von Trapp Oma (which I seriously ordered because of the name), and a triple creme brie. All of the cheeses were cut into just the right size for a few bites, giving me the chance to try more than my fair share. A definite indulgence, no two ways about it.

My first small plate was the veloute of sweet peas, which was literally finished at the table. The server brought over a soup bowl with a few pieces of squid, a few pieces of crouton, and a thick stripe of squid ink on the bottom. Upon arriving at the table, he proceeded to pour the bright green veloute over the other components. As I mixed the bright pea soup with the dark squid ink, the soup turned into a lovely deep green. The squid pieces were perfectly cooked--tender without being chewy--and the crouton pieces added a nice textural contrast to the soup. I think the soup needed a bit of salt, but otherwise, it was a nice start to the meal.

My second small plate was the flourless ricotta gnudi, which was described by Josh as a much lighter version of gnocchi. With the torpedo shallot jus on the bottom of the bowl, I interpreted this dish as a wonderfully light and modern version of French onion soup (minus the soggy bread). The jus gave the dish a rich heartiness, but the limited amount prevented it from being overwhelming. The pillows of ricotta were perfectly sized, with each puff encapsulating the essence of ricotta. They were also perfectly decorated, with each puff being covered in just the right amount of seasoning and decorated with a single flower blossom. Talk about meticulous! Being the detail-oriented perfectionist that I am, this was definitely my favorite of the three small plates.

My last small plate was the mushroom pate en croute, which came with a chicken wing and a quail egg. I fully expected this dish to be my favorite of the night, but ironically it turned out to be my least favorite. (This kind of thing happens all the time--with me especially.) The mushroom pate was arranged to look like a piece of toast--whimsical, but the pate wasn't particularly good, and definitely didn't capture the essence of the mushroom. On the other hand, the two pieces of chicken (which in no way looked like they formed a chicken wing) were perfectly cooked--crispy on the outside, moist and juicy on the inside. The quail egg offered great color, but didn't add much to the dish. Plus, the brunoised onion or shallot (though I really couldn't tell) seemed to overpower the dish, as if the bitterness had yet to be burned off. All in all, I was pretty disappointed.

To close out the meal, I selected the chocolate cremeaux. While I normally go for something lighter and more citrus-ey for dessert, I decided to choose something richer given that all three small plates had been fairly light. As I had no preconceived notions of the dish, I was delighted when I tasted what looked like the chocolate mousse--and it turned out to be cold! Like a cross between chocolate mousse and a really rich, dense, and dark chocolate ice cream, the cremeaux slowly melted away on the tongue and left the faintest notes of chocolate on the palate. The best contrast was offered by the toasted marshmallow cubes (which could only have been made cuter by having them skewered on a branch) which were warm and melting on the inside. The chocolate cookie crumbles, the crushed bacon (mmm.... salt!), and the rich caramel served as amazing taste and textural contrasts, especially when one spoonful encapsulated all elements of the dish. This was definitely the best dish of the entire night.

While I could've stopped there, I decided that my sweet tooth could handle more, so I asked for the house-made cookies to go. The box came with: a carrot cake cookie (which resembled a more substantial whoopie pie), a crescent shortbread cookie, a salted caramel cookie (which was pure decadence), and a chewy bar of some sort. All of them were delicious, and none of them made it home. What can I say? Eating and walking are my strong suits--especially in combination.

Although it was lovely to treat myself to a special meal, I'd definitely have to say that Talula's Garden is more of a place to indulge your senses than to pop in regularly for dinner. The price point is definitely on Starr's higher end, and the ambiance is a bit too upscale to feel comfortable strolling around in jeans. That said, brunch may be a little more relaxed, and outdoor seating may be as well. At the very least, I'd certainly be willing to go back for drinks and cheese. I mean, I did get complimented by Aimee herself on my cheese appetite....

Talula's Garden
210 W. Washington Square (at St. James Street)
Philadelphia PA 19106

1 comment:

  1. We've been to Talula's a few times. Here our are impressions on our first go:



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