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.

November 2, 2009   Comments

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.

August 4, 2009   Comments

The Best Burger in Chester County, Pennsylvania?

It was the first truly nice evening of spring.  A two-day heat wave gave way to a dusk that was tinged with the smell of cut grass, the rhythmic chirps of insects awakening to their own dawn, and the longing of everyone who, bone-tired of a winter chill that had long overstayed its welcome, just wanted to sit outside with a cold drink and a nice meal.  As it so happens, that’s exactly what we found at the Four Dogs Tavern in West Chester.

There’s some history behind the stone walls and heavy wooden floors of this place.  Two centuries ago, The Four Dogs Tavern was a stable, an accompaniment to the neighboring stone edifice that is now known as the Marshalton Inn.  A few days earlier, we had made an attempt to come to the Four Dogs Tavern for dinner and drinks with our neighbors, but the weekend crowds had packed the establishment so thoroughly, it was impossible to even find a hostess to find out about the wait.  We left, frustrated, only to fall prey to a lackluster dinner at a nearby bar that, in hindsight, should have never even been considered as a second, third, or even fourth option.

Despite the initial impression, we made a second effort to hit Four Dogs a few days later.  Like a lot of things in life, it turns out that timing is key – having gotten there at around 5:15, we were seated immediately in the outdoor patio area.  By 6:00, though, a line of hungry patrons had started to form around the periphery of the patio, with various sets of eyes darting to and fro, looking for any signal of a dessert order, or a request for the check.  There would be no such satisfaction, though, at least not from our table – given the weather, the beer, and the excellent food, our early bird status had given us free license to linger and savor each moment.

We started with an order of the calamari, served on a long serving platter, crusted with parmesan, and dotted with remoulade and parsley pistou.  Far from being overwhelmingly chewy, a sure sign of poor quality pre-frozen ingredients, each of the tender rings was delicate and tender, lightly batter-coated and flash-fried until just barely done.  Despite the wispiness of the coating, the richness of the remoulade made for a deceptively heavy dish, at least when apportioned between two people.  Overall, the calamari is a pleasant departure from the traditional heavily breaded stalwart tubes that one always sees served with a cup of marinara.

What really made the meal, though, was the burger.  Described quite simply on the menu as an “8oz Black Angus Burger with Fries”, its unassuming title fails to convey the absolute perfection of what arrived at the table that evening. A pillowy bun, wrapped lovingly around a thick patty that was prepared precisely to order (an occurrence so rare in other establishments that I’m actually surprised when someone gets it right), with a burst of sizzling hot juices that run down your wrist on your first mouthful, and the crusty char that is characteristic of the best tavern burgers around.  This is why I would be a miserable failure of a vegetarian.  Some cultures worship cows as sacred beings; I worship cows because they are delicious.  Is this the best burger in Chester County?  It may very well be.

The fries are worth a mention, for the sole reason that they reminded me of the fries that they used to serve at Veterans Stadium – crisp, thin, and not at all greasy, and not at all like what is served today at Citizens Bank Park.

The quality of this meal went a long way towards convincing me that, one day soon, we need to book a reservation at the Marshalton Inn for dinner.  If the kitchen can be so artful in its execution of a simple grilled burger and fries, I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by the higher end menu items that are served across the parking lot.  But, before that day comes, I suspect that I’ll be having quite a few more burgers at the Four Dogs Tavern.

June 5, 2009   Comments

On an Overcast November Day, Christmas Comes Early

This has been an interesting weekend, in a good way.

Up until Friday afternoon, we had been planning on going up to New York City to visit the New York Chocolate Show.  We went once, about three years ago, and it was all flavors of awesome – rows and rows of high end chocolate vendors from Paris, Japan, and the United States, all giving out free samples, plus many culinary demonstrations from top chefs.  Hell, this year they even had chocolate covered bacon.

The couple that we had wanted to go with, though, weren’t able to do the show on Saturday, and as the day passed on Friday, I became increasingly disenchanted with the notion of doing this grand day in NYC on a Sunday, standing in line to get Chocolate Show tickets, maneuvering among the throngs of chocolate-faithful, then having to do the drive back to Pennsylvania and getting in late.  So, on Friday evening, we decided to cancel the weekend.

On Saturday, with a suddenly open schedule in front of us, we decided to take a drive through the rain-soaked farmlands of Chester County.  On a whim, we decided to stop into Talula’s Table in Kennett Square to pick up some cheese and bread, and ran into Aimee Olexy who, as usual, was found running around doing a bit of everything.  As readers may recall, Talula’s Table is the neighborhood foodie shop that transforms into a 12 seat BYOB private dinner at night, and it takes reservations 365 days ahead of when you really want to eat there.  For a recap, read here, here, and here.

While we were talking to Aimee, I noticed a small handwritten note on a whiteboard behind the cheese counter which directed folks to watch The Martha Stewart Show today, Monday, November 10.  As it turns out, Aimee’s husband, Bryan Sikora – who is the chef here – was going to be doing a cooking demonstration on the show.

We remarked that we were glad to have secured our June 2009 reservations, because while it was impossible to get reservations as it is today, after being featured on The Martha Stewart Show, it would become even more impossible.  Aimee agreed, and said that while she tried to keep the reservations process democratic (first come, first served, which means that the reservation for November 10, 2009 was locked up within moments of the first phone call being answered this morning) it was still pretty difficult, and the wait list was getting out of hand and not serving anyone well at all.

Aimee said that she had just started this new tactic, of editing the Talula’s Table website to list cancellations when they came in, to give people a chance to grab it.  In fact, she said, she had just listed a cancellation for a night within the next two weeks. “We’ll take it!  We’ll take it!” was my wife’s reaction.  I was sampling an extremely ripe Camembert, and would have concurred if I wasn’t chewing at the time.

So now, because we elected not to go to NYC this weekend, and just because we decided it would be a nice day to have some cheese, we managed to score an on-the-spot reservation for the farmhouse table.  And the funny thing is, the June 2009 reservations were so far off, I had put that entire affair into the back of my mind and haven’t really thought on it.  Now, we’ll be eating there in less than two weeks, and it still hasn’t really sunk in, because I’m so used to regarding dinner at Talula’s Table as something of a “coming much later” concept.

And, as I do think about it, I get more and more excited because Sikora is a genius with seasonal ingredients.  We used to make a point of going to Django at least twice a year, once in the warm months and once in the cold months, just to see what was coming out of the kitchen – now, we’ll be lucky enough to experience the Talula’s Table menu in both seasons.

November 10, 2008   Comments