Talula’s Table, From The Other Side of The Kitchen Door

With a reservations policy that requires prospective diners to reserve the 12-seat farmhouse table exactly one year in advance, Talula’s Table continues to be one of the toughest reservations in the country – one that requires patience, diligence, and either a quick dialing finger or a willingness to camp outside of the store in the predawn chill.  Scoring one reservation, under any circumstances, would qualify us as extremely lucky – but having had the opportunity to eat at Talula’s Table twice in the span of seven months, once in November and again in June, is nothing short of miraculous.

But three times?  That would be pushing our luck.  This was our thirteenth wedding anniversary, and the last before the birth of our child, and by all rights we should have been planning an extravagant blowout celebration at a swanky downtown Philadelphia restaurant – Morimoto, Barclay Prime, maybe even Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.  But, in a moment of shared telepathy that only long-term married couples achieve, we had each separately come to the same wish – if at all possible, we wanted to have our anniversary dinner at Talula’s Table.  And, since an anniversary dinner isn’t an experience that is typically shared with ten other companions, we wanted more than anything to eat at the kitchen table, a private seating for two to six people that takes place in the middle of the action.

As luck would have it, our wish was granted.

Our evening started much like our other outings to Talula’s Table.  Having come in from the rain, we sat at a long table set up in the front of the store and dried ourselves while sipping drinks and partaking of  hors d’oeuvres.  From our vantage point, we were witness to an all-too-familiar scene, of that night’s dinner party greeting each other, mingling, and chatting excitedly as their sense of anticipation heightened.  Having been seated at the front of the store, with a generous cushion of space between us and the farmhouse table, I was quite sure that our presence never interfered with their experience.  In fact, if you were to ask me if I had ever taken notice of any kitchen table diners in either of our two previous visits, I can honestly say that I haven’t.

Once we had finished our starters, and the dinner service was ready to begin,  we were quietly ushered through the store, behind the cheese counter, beyond the threshold of the swinging door and into the brightly lit kitchen at Talula’s Table.

The first thing that struck me about the inner sanctum of chef Bryan Sikora’s kitchen is the quiet serenity of the entire scene.  You frequently hear stories of red-faced, manic chefs, barking orders at the harried cooks while the patrons in the dining room consume their dishes in blissful ignorance of the tumult.  The kitchen at Talula’s Table is nothing like this – it is calm, it is orderly, and it is organized.

As we walked through the kitchen, each member of the staff greeted us warmly.  Settling onto our chairs at one end of the wooden table, we immediately knew that we were in for a treat – having a front row seat to everything that was going on was a special, special feeling.  Sikora chatted with us amiably as he prepped the ingredients for the courses to come, and it was thrilling being able to ask him questions about the food as we watched and ate.  Want to know what’s in the sauce?  Ask the chef.  Right over there.

And that’s how our meal began.  We watched the sous chefs as they kept a close eye on an array of ingredients that were simmering on the stove, or baking in the oven, while Sikora tended to a cutting board of ripe summer tomatoes and ears of fresh corn.

I briefly recalled how hectic the kitchen at Django used to be, with Sikora and company spinning out dinner service for 38 patrons at a time, nonstop, from 5pm to 10pm and beyond, all in a kitchen no bigger than a small bedroom.  Now, Sikora reigns over a kitchen that is considerably roomier, where he and his sous chefs can concentrate on delivering an incredible multi-course feast to twelve people over four hours.

While the kitchen table experience is considerably different from that of the farmhouse table – for one thing, the kitchen is brightly lit, while the farmhouse table makes the best use of intimate shadows cast by the soft glow of an overhead chandelier, the service remains unparalleled in either environment.  As the dishes were presented to us, the server explained the construction of each preparation just as professionally here, with just the two of us, as if we were part of the larger group just outside the door.

Our first course was a Red Snapper Crudo, Cauliflower Puree, Nectarine, and Topeko Roe.  The cauliflower, piped into a circular base, provided an earthy well for the snapper, which was so delicate in its raw state, I can almost describe it as fragile.  The sweetness of the nectarine formed a perfect union with the marine saltiness of the golden roe – taken in a single unified bite, the components of this course melded well and were quite capable of waking up the palate to prepare it for the dishes to come.

Do you remember those tomatoes?  Those same heirloom gems, prepped by Sikora only moments before, made their grand entrance in the second course, an Heirloom Tomato Salad, Petite Sweet Corn Tart, Old Bay Butter Sauce, and Arugula Salad.  The actual dish deviated somewhat from the menu description, but its impact was in no way lessened by the variations – there was no Old Bay spice to be found in the butter sauce, and the corn tart was brought to a new level by chunks of goat cheese throughout.  The tomatoes, as fresh as one could get in August, were an appealing explosion of red, green, and gold.  Coupled with the crunch of fresh corn kernels in the tart, the entire dish was summer on a plate.

If you’re like me, for certain foods that you love, you will always remember the first time you had the opportunity to really taste them, and how much of an epiphany it was to have your palate expanded by this great new dish or ingredient.  For me, that food this night was the fava bean, and the third course is what introduced me to them.  The Hand Rolled Rigatoni, Maine Lobster, and Fava Bean Coulis was a relatively simple dish – a firm tube of pasta enclosed around some of the sweetest, most tender lobster meat I’ve had, all set on top of a forest-green puree of fava beans.  As a fan of broccoli rabe, I appreciate any vegetable that has a slightly bitter edge, and the fava beans delivered on this count, along with a velvety texture and a taste that evoked hints of grass.  I had tasted fava beans before, but only as an adornment – I had never had the opportunity to enjoy their flavor in such a pure, isolated format as this.

Following the Talula’s Table tradition of lighter courses that gradually escalate to heavier, more robust flavors, the fourth course was a Ballottine of Rabbit, Braised Cabbage, Spaetzle and Black Truffle.  The ballottine, comprised of boneless rabbit which had been stuffed and rolled into a bundle, had been braised and served with a rich rabbit jus.  The rabbit meat had a smooth consistency, not quite like a terrine, and a bed of spaetzle was put to good use, both to elevate the ballottine as well as to swirl around in the wonderful jus.  Earthy notes came from a hit of truffle butter and a topping of crunchy fried green olive slivers.

The last time we ate at Talula’s Table, I wrote about the amazing salmon course that was prepared sous vide.  At that time, I had images of a complex setup of precise heating units and immersion circulators dancing in my head, all perfectly calibrated to bring the vacuum-sealed fish to an exact temperature.  Having witnessed the preparation of the fifth course, a Wild Sockeye Salmon, Grain Mustard, Molasses, and Saskatchewan Chanterelles dish, I now realize that I have been overthinking sous vide all along.  At Talula’s Table, the sous vide process consists of little more than the highest quality ingredients, a pot of water, and a probe thermometer.  Yet, this simple configuration yields salmon with a velvety texture that melts on the tongue.  Paired with an aggressive mustard component that’s been tempered by the sweetness of molasses, the salmon was a standout presentation.  A delicately stewed cipollini onion, along with a smashed potato cake, crisp on the exterior yet soft as cotton on the inside, provided a nice contrast to the fish.

The sixth course was a celebration of beef entitled Caramelized Strip Steak, Smoked Short Rib, and Roasted Garden Pepper Terrine.  The strip steak was a straightforward preparation, seasoned simply with cracked black pepper, seared to medium-rare, with just the slightest hint of smokiness.  More creativity was devoted to the terrine, a block of shredded short rib meat encased in peppery Swiss chard, layered with slices of green and red peppers.

The cheese course was, as it always has been under the direction of Aimee Olexy, a perfect ensemble of ripened specimens covering the spectrum from mild to overtly adventurous.  There was a trio of goat cheeses, all local to Pennsylvania.  One was studded with cranberries,  another salty like feta, and still a third, tangy and covered in ash.  A Camembert followed, and an outstanding sheep’s milk cheese from the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York.  A raw cow’s milk cheese from Chester Springs led to the last, and most forward entry, Birchrun Blue.  The accompaniments – a sliver of housemade chorizo, a smear of honey, some toasted nuts – presented hard pairing choices with each of the cheeses.

The dessert course, a Frozen White Peach Parfait, Lavender-Almond Cake, Acacia Honey Granita, and Champagne Foam, was a perfectly balanced ending to such a lavish meal.  The cake was a spongy disk that served well to soak up the runoff from the melting custard-like parfait, and the granita provided a nice crunch to offset the smooth textures prevalent throughout the rest of the dish.

So, is the kitchen table a better experience than the farmhouse table?  It’s hard to say, because so much of the dining experience at Talula’s Table hinges on the synergy that emerges from a table of really well-paired dining companions.  With a farmhouse table filled with close friends old and new, the experience approaches perfection, achieving a harmony of food and wine and comradery that is unparalleled in any other establishment.  But with just the two of us, sitting there at the kitchen table, the feeling is the same, but more intimate, more personal – it’s the quiet thrill of sharing the best food with the best partner that you could ever ask for, celebrating the end of one of life’s chapters and the beginning of the next.