A Midsummer Night’s Feast at Talula’s Table

The scene was the same, but nearly everything else was subtly different this time around at Talula’s Table.

We were a group of writers, artists, musicians, and artisans, united for one evening around the heavy wooden table that serves as the centerpiece for this gourmet grocery-turned-private bistro.  The first and last time we were able to reserve this table was in November – given very short notice due to an unexpected cancellation, we were able to cobble together a patchwork of friends, coworkers, and internet acquaintances that cold autumn night, and an extraordinary time was had by all.

If that meal, then, was our unofficial “first” dinner at Talula’s Table, then this one was our “official” debut.  A mere 365 days prior, my wife had placed a telephone call at exactly 7am to place a reservation, and was fortunate enough to be met not with the expected drone of a busy tone, but a live voice, greeting her a good morning and graciously granting her request for the table.  This time around, we were able to give our invitees much more notice, giving our prospective guests more time to consider, to plan, and to anticipate.

Different, too, was the weather.  In November, the cold was unforgiving, and we had to hustle our way through the darkened streets of a mostly-closed downtown Kennett Square to reach our destination.  Today, in the first week of June, we found ourselves strolling along, our spirits buoyed by a near-perfect summer day and the anticipation of experiencing Bryan Sikora’s seasonal menu for the second time in seven months.  We were lucky to be lucky.

This time around, we had a chance to mingle before the start of the meal.  Since our first outing, Talula’s Table has introduced a course consisting of passed hors d’oeuvres, which only improves on an already perfect service experience.  The first was a chilled green pea soup, served in shot glasses, the verdant color perfectly matched to the time of year – it was, for lack of better words, utter freshness in glass.  Next, we were presented with small bits of steak tartare mounded onto crostini, which were so good, I shuffled over and popped a second one into my mouth when the plate was set down.

7:30 came and we found our seats.  How entirely appropriate that, on that day, the sun set at 7:35?  And so it had, and the brightness of the light that was streaming into Talula’s Table slowly gave way to shades of ochre, then deep lavender, then darkness, as if Mother Nature herself were lowering the house lights and readying the stage for Act I, Scene I.

There was, of course, plenty of wine to go around, with each party contributing one, two, and sometimes three bottles to the communal mix.  Only this time, we were all in for a treat, as the wine was not the only libation – our friends Ray and Melissa, of Bathtub Brewery, were kind enough to bring four varieties of their homebrewed beer to share at the table.  Melissa had even spent some time studying the menu in order to craft the most appropriate pairings, and did a fantastic job of coordinating the harmony of flavors.  I will list the beer that was paired with each course, with descriptions provided directly by the brewers themselves.

Our first course was Foie Gras Parfait, Rhubarb Glaze, and Crunchy Nut Granola.  Kudos to the kitchen on the presentation of this dish, which was a cylinder of rhubarb gelee, through which ran a core of creamy foie gras, the meaty, salty aspects of which offset the sweetness of the rhubarb perfectly.  The savory and creamy aspects of the foie gras-rhubarb pipe were offset by the sweet crunch of the bed of housemade pecan granola that lay underneath.

The second course, Crayfish Bisque “a la Sazerac”, Anson Mills Polenta Pudding, and Fava Beans, was an explosion of bold flavors contained in a dish that was meant to recall the flavors of a Sazerac cocktail.  The pudding served as the foundation of the dish, a delicate disk of summery corn flavor surrounded by crayfish tails and fava beans, in a broth finished with Pernot and bourbon.  A slice of the housemade spicy andouille sausage jutted from the ensemble like an tiny Excalibur of pork.  The spicy undertones of the bisque paired beautifully with the sweet and assertive components of the Bee Sting Ale: “The Bee Sting is a hybrid ale built off a pale ale recipe-base, with the focus on honey and spice. Chinook hops,known for their grapefruit flavor, and Amarillo hops, known for their orange flavor, were used to complement the 2 pounds of orange blossom honey. These ingredients represent the “bee” while the “sting” is taken care of with seeds of paradise, also known as alligator pepper. The result is a very clear, pale yellow beer that is both refreshing and complex.”

All Things Asparagus, the third course, presented three interpretations of this harbinger of spring.  Where the roasted asparagus spears presented the vegetable with all of its flavor condensed and concentrated by intense heat, the asparagus flan demonstrated its light, airy, and springlike potential as a souffle.  Tempura-fried spears preserved the freshness of the asparagus in a light, brittle coating of batter that dissolved on the tongue.

As soon as the Wild King Salmon, Smokey New Potato Sauce, and Red Trout Caviar was presented to me, I immediately suspected that Talula’s Table had started to venture into the use of sous vide as a cooking method.  The color of the salmon, uniformly crimson throughout the slice, could only be achieved by cooking over a long period of time at a set temperature.  Until now, I had only read about sous vide cooking, and I was very excited for the opportunity to try it.  In fact, I was so excited, I forgot to take a picture, so it is my sincere hope that my words do justice to this description.

The sous vide preparation exceeded all of my expectations.  The salmon was easily my favorite course of the evening, with a rich, unadulterated wild salmon flavor and an incredibly delicate silkiness that melted away on my palate.  The pure seafood flavor was only further amplified by the oceanic saline explosion supplied by the caviar, and the smokiness of the thin potato puree added an extra layer of depth to the entire preparation, while a cucumber mignonette lent the dish some lightness.  This course was paired with Dry Humour Dry Irish Stout, which was as near-perfect a combination as any that I could imagine: “Think Guinness, but immensely better. A low ABV makes this an excellent session beer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at – this beer is full of roasty, chocolate, coffee flavor. The beer pours black with an excellent black-brown head, and uses a blend of malts such as roasted barley, black patent, English Brown and crystal malts along with British Kent Golding hops.”

It’s funny how I read the menu, saw Natural Chester County Veal Cannelloni, Chanterelle Blanquette, and Ricotta Stuffed Squash Blossoms, and was immediately overcome by waves of anticipation not for the main component, but rather for the squash blossoms.  Squash blossoms are such a fleeting indicator of summer, it’s always a joy to find them on a menu whenever you can.  They’re so delicate, they cannot be shipped to supermarkets, so you either have to grow your own or find a kitchen that works closely with local farms.  Don’t get me wrong, the cannelloni were excellent, full of deep, earthy, meaty flavor, and the chanterelle mushrooms were a lively reminder that we were in the Mushroom Capital of the World.  But the combination of those delicate blossoms, piped full of fresh ricotta and flash-fried, will haunt my memory for some time to come.  This course was paired with Sweetheart Kölsch, “a traditional top-fermenting German ale brewed simply with wheat and pilsen extract and 2 hop additions of Vanguard and Sterling. It’s a very balanced beer with some caramel and fruit sweetness mixed with citrusy hop bitterness, as well as a bit of toastiness.”

The next dish, Crispy Fried Hudson Valley Moulard, Baked Beans, and Molasses, was an interpretation of classic summer picnic fare, and probably my least favorite of the courses because the components of the dish can rarely be made better than their standard counterparts, no matter how talented the kitchen.  Small mounds of coleslaw and baked beans accompanied a slice of roasted duck and a small pile of duck confit.  Both interpretations of the duck were very well prepared, with the richness of the meat playing well against the sweetness of the beans.

The trademark presentation of the cheese course did not disappoint.  In our Collection of Italian Cheeses, we were presented with a soft-ripened goats’ milk Robiola, Foja de Noce, Tallegio, Sottocenere, and a goats’ milk Gorgonzola.  As with every cheese plate devised by Aimee Olexy, each selection was outstanding in its own right, and taken as a whole, with the intensity of each cheese increasing as I made my way down the row, all of the flavors came together as a symphony, especially when paired with the last remnants of the red wine.

Our meal ended with a Summer Napoleon of Strawberry Gelee, Strawberry Rhubarb Mousse and Wine Roasted Berries, which was a straightforward interpretation of classic summer dessert fare and a wonderful contrast in textures.  I was grateful to see a berry-based dessert served, instead of a heavier concoction which would most certainly have interfered with my enjoyment of the peanut butter brownie that Talula’s presents as a parting gift.  Appropriately, the Napoleon was paired with Bathtub Brewery’s Hefe the ORC, which was “brewed with Hefeweizen yeast, which is known for its banana and clove flavors, but take the style of Hefeweizen for a bit of a stretch. The beer pours a nice golden color and is a wonderful mix of flavors.  Amarillo and Chinook hops provide citrus notes that work with the orange blossom honey. After the initial brew day we racked the beer on top of raisins and dried cranberries, followed by a second racking on top of orange peel and coriander. (ORC stands for Orange, Raisin, Cranberry). The end result is a wonderful strong Belgian meets Hefeweizen beer.”

We finished our wine and our beer as the bill was presented.  The end of a meal at Talula’s Table often resembles a high stakes poker game, with each party contributing their share to a growing mound of cash in the center of the table.  After counting it up, someone had the idea to bind it all together with a hairband, and the take, a short and thick plug of cash, looked like it should have been hidden in a mobster’s shoe.  Intoxicated as much with the company and food as with alcohol, we thanked each other for the lovely times and poured ourselves out onto the sidewalk to enjoy the cool summer evening, happy to be fed, once again, in the company of good friends old and new.