Parc, Finally

“Steak frites, please.  Medium rare.”  The words tumbled out of my mouth with all the weight of a commandment, an incantation that would invoke the start of one of the most wonderful and highly anticipated meals of my life as a food writer so far.  Was it really that good?  Absolutely!  Should you go there for dinner?  Yes!  Go right now.  Take me with you.

Stephen Starr opened Parc on Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philadelphia nearly a year ago, on July 14, 2008 – Bastille Day.  Offering seating for close to 300 patrons, with additional space for 75 more at the sidewalk tables, Parc instantly evokes memories of its mainstay Parisian counterparts, the brasseries that remain crowded and brightly lit, stoves hot and ready to serve, well into the depths of the post-midnight hours.  Having fondly missed Paris almost every day since returning from our vacation five years ago, Parc has been cemented to the top of my to-do list for a very long time.

And a long time it has certainly been.  I have made seven unsuccessful attempts to have dinner at Parc – that’s how many times we’ve found ourselves in Philadelphia and somehow managed to eat somewhere else, either due to convenience of location or at the behest of the people we were visiting.  Our busy schedules keep us from driving down to the city “just because”, so whenever we’re in town, we’re in town for a reason.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I saw a spontaneous window of opportunity open up on Saturday, with just myself and my wife, plus the addition of the inimitable Amy Shields from the profoundly fabulous superband Mojo and the Helper Monkeys.  We were hungry, we were downtown, and we had nowhere else to be – so I seized the day like an obscure 80s movie reference..  “Parc! Parc! Parc!” I shouted as we navigated the narrow streets of the City of Brotherly Love.  I think I may even have made up a song about Parc along the way.  I was quivering with excitement, or maybe low blood sugar – either way, we were going, at long last, to have dinner at Parc!

We arrived early enough to have the fortune of being seated immediately.  As we were led through the massive space, I was impressed at how authentic Parc felt – the layout, tiled floors, dark woods, and zinc bar were all reminiscent of classic bistros in Paris.  We placed our drink orders, and, as I have practiced over and over in my head since first previewing the menu online, I ordered the steak frites.  Listed on the menu as “seared hangar steak, maitre d’ butter”, the description is deceptively plain for a dish that, to be honest, requires a certain elevated measure of talent to pull off correctly.  I’ve seen other restaurants offer steak frites, but compromise on the true interpretation by offering ribeye, or strip steak, or some other cut of beef that is more forgiving than hangar.  If you’ve ever worked with it, you know that hangar steak is a naturally tough piece of meat, and if prepared inartfully, can turn a dining experience into an event only slightly better than chewing on a wallet.

While we were waiting for our food to arrive, our server brought a basket filled with an assortment of bread – French baguettes, hearty wheat slices, and raisin bread, all accompanied by a crock of softened butter.  The bread, baked on the premises, presents a nice array of varied textures and flavors – the crusty, chewy baguette, the thick, grainy slabs of dark bread, and the sweetness of raisins tucked into a loaf that just yearns to see you return for breakfast.

The moment of truth arrived as my steak frites platter was placed in front of me.  True to form, it was unmistakably hangar steak – no other cut of beef has that same muscular, fibrous quality, a look that makes you wonder if you should eat the steak or wear it as a vest.  Brushed liberally with melted butter, parsley, a touch of garlic, and salt, the steak needed nothing else to become transformed into classic steak frites.  I wielded my steak knife, held my fork firm, and was reassured to feel the knife glide effortlessly through the meat.  Placing the first bite into my mouth, an act that I had looked forward to for close to a year, yielded an astounding burst of gamey flavor and a tenderness that approached filet mignon in its delicacy, but with the characteristic chew that can only come from true hangar steak.  I’ve had steak frites in Paris; this was no mere replication of that dish, no homage – this was truly a genuine steak frites in every sense.  The fries, slender, golden, dusted with sea salt, were served with an aioli for dipping.  The plate oozed with decadence, each bite as rewarding, flavorful, and satisfying as the first.  And, just like that, it was gone.

Other dishes proved just as skillfully executed and true to form.  A Trout Amandine presented perfectly cooked, delicate white flesh, adorned with slivers of almond toasted in butter and a splash of lemon.  Unapologetically French, there is little on the menu at Parc that would classify as light fare – even a Salade Lyonnaise comes draped with a poached egg.  But the poached egg is not alone, as it’s paired with lardons, that wonderful gift of salty, smokey pork fat.  It’s bacon taken to the next level and beyond.

As is typical with any outstanding restaurant experience, I’ve already assembled a mental hit list of menu items that I need to try on my next visit.  As the last dish that I enjoyed before leaving Paris, it is imperative that I sample the escargot, if only to have an opportunity to relive that memory again.  A charcuterie platter was a generous pile of cured meats, accompanied by pate and chicken liver mousse, presented on a wooden cutting board.  The onion soup gratinee, along with a glass of wine, would make for a wonderful midday lunch.  And was that steak tartare that I spied on an adjoining table?

June 23, 2009   Comments

Scenes From a Birthday Party

You wouldn’t expect a birthday party for a six year old to include house-cured duck prosciutto and steak tartare, but then again, it’s not every day that a restaurant has a birthday party.

We had the fortune of being invited to the sixth anniversary birthday party for Alison at Blue Bell, Chef Alison Barshak’s second venture since her return to the Philadelphia area in 2001.  As the sunlight of late afternoon faded into an early evening dusk, we mingled among roughly a hundred friends, family, and associates, all of whom had come to celebrate the restaurant’s entry into its sixth year.  That, and also the pig.

That’s where this story actually begins, with a tweet about a pig.  On Twitter, Chef Barshak had started following me, and having heard a great many good things about her, I followed her back.  Over the course of a week or so, I followed her updates and watched with interest as she started mentioning the preparations for this party.  She noted that they were pit roasting a whole pig for the event – an exchange of DMs led to an invitation to join the fete.

We arrived right at 5pm to find Alison at Blue Bell nearly empty – the kitchen was in its final moments of preparation, and guests who shared our sense of timing were standing around making small talk.  We were offered our choice of sangria or beer, and we settled into a table, nursing our drinks while partaking of pita wedges and hummus, only a mere preview of what was soon to come out of a kitchen that was clearly running on all cylinders.  By the end of the evening, I was glad that we arrived when we did – within an hour, all of the seats and tables in the small bistro would be filled, and latecomers would find themselves standing for much of the meal.

Standing turned out to be not as bad as one would expect.  Service was flawless, with the servers flowing through the crowd with trays of passed hors d’oeuvres like a performance of culinary ballet dancers (kudos to the server who, after witnessing my repeated failures in getting a sample of the bacalao fritters, made a priority out of dashing from the kitchen straight to our table when the next tray became available).  In addition to the constantly rotating offerings that were emerging from the kitchen, a long table running the length of the dining room featured platters of oysters and bowls heaped to overflowing with caesar and garden salads.  I typically don’t expect great things from salad, but the garden salad caught me off guard, bursting with the flavors of mint, tomatoes, radishes, tarragon, and snow peas in a light vinaigrette.

To date, I am still amazed at how well the handful of servers at Alison at Blue Bell managed to cater to that many people, with such a grand variety of dishes.  There were the aforementioned bacalao fritters, small marble-sized croquettes of fish, quickly breaded and fried, the delicate nature of the cod offset by the salty hit of a disk of chorizo sausage.  Wooden skewers bore small pieces of sweet melon wrapped in the house-made duck prosciutto, a combination that was only enhanced by a small dollop of mint pesto.  Small anchovies, known as boquerones in Spain, were accented with baby artichoke and bread crumbs.  The mozzarella en carozza were light pillows of cheese, breaded and flash-fried – the perfect food-on-a-stick, something that ought to come by the dozen in a paper cone at the ballpark.  Hangar steak tartare was served on crostini, topped with a sharp gorgonzola.  Bowls of lamb meatballs and tomato sauce were a surprising departure from standard beef-pork-veal combination. Small dishes served to bear a single ravioli, a delicate envelope of pasta wrapped around an eggplant filling and served with a sauce that bore the unmistakable tang of goat’s milk.

Among this panoply of treasures were more than a few outstanding preparations worth noting specifically.  Hollow egg shells were transformed into serving cups, holding an absolutely heavenly spring pea and parmesan custard, its foamy lightness tempered by the slightest hint of earthy truffle.  Shot glasses were filled with warm sunchoke soup blended with the irresponsibly decadent combination of foie gras and truffle.  Of these, I probably ate more than I should have, but I would have regretted it had I not.  You know those dishes that haunt your dreams?  I now have two more.

While all of this was going on, the pig slowly rotated on a spit outside, its skin having turned to bronze from the heat of the charcoal beneath it.  My overindulgence meant that when it was time to serve the pork, I admittedly wasn’t very hungry anymore, but when Alison Barshak presents you with something that has spent the better part of a day in the making, you don’t refuse.  It was an interesting choice to serve the slices of spit-roasted pork with a tonnato sauce, that concoction of tuna, olive oil, and mayonnaise that is more traditionally served as an accompaniment to veal.  I ate maybe three-quarters of one slice of pork before realizing that I had to throttle back to ensure that there was enough room for the cake.

Cake? Cake!  Of course, every birthday party needs a cake, and this party was no exception.  Like the prosciuttio (and, I suspect, everything else) the cake was made in-house, but that’s not really surprising given the caliber of the kitchen.  The really outstanding aspect of the cake, something that has made me completely forget mostly all of the other details about it – was the filling.  Running throughout the center of the cake was a layer of burnt caramel filling, the best of all worlds sweet, smokey, and dark, which pulled everything else about the cake – the frosting, the crumb, into a perfect synergy of flavors.

Happy birthday, Alison at Blue Bell.  You sure know how to throw down.

May 16, 2009   Comments

A Bar Review We Can All Get Behind

Like any bar worth its salt, Ron’s Original Bar and Grille in Exton, Pennsylvania is marked by dark woods, shadowy corners, good music, and an imposing taxidermied head of a caribou that gets increasingly more menacing with each downed pint of draft beer.  We have happily found another bright star in the universe of restaurants with excellent food and a killer selection of microbrews.

For two years, our work and shopping travels have taken us within yards of this straightforward, unassuming spot, just a quick turn off of the intersection of Routes 113 and 100.  Whenever we exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike, our route would take us straight to the front door of Ron’s – if only we turned left, that is, instead of turning right to head home.  For two years, we thought of Ron’s Bar and Grille as nothing more than another restaurant with an ad in the local newspaper insert.  We had no idea what we were missing.

Last month, we needed to ship some Christmas gifts and, instead of going to the shipping store located closest to home, we decided to stop in Exton on the way home from work.  The parking lot of the modest strip mall was packed, and we had to drive around to the back of the building to find a spot next to the dumpsters.  Laden with bags and gifts, we lugged ourselves around the side of the building, passing right under the exhaust vents that lead directly out of Ron’s kitchen.  It was the right place, at the right time, and it smelled like bar heaven.

And what, you rightfully ask, does bar heaven smell like?  It smells like pizza, and grilled onions, and burgers, and beer.  And when the weather turns dark and cold, and you haven’t eaten anything since lunch, it smells perfect.

We’ve been to other neighborhood bar-restaurants that have lofty dreams of serving higher-class fare, and in the grand majority of cases, these kitchens fall short of the mark.  Instead of focusing on making the best bar food that they can, these establishments offer one page of bar food, followed by more complex, more expensive selections that are marketed as ‘complete meals’.  The result is too often perfunctory bar food and middling entrees no better than your average nationwide chain restaurant.

This is exactly why the menu at Ron’s is so refreshing.  Yes, there is a selection of dinner entrees, mostly Italian, that occupies the back page of the menu.  But, as is suited to a place with an outstanding variety of microbrews, the rest of the menu, all five pages’ worth, is devoted to bar food – buffalo wings, chicken fingers, burgers, hoagies, pizza, roast beef and roast pork sandwiches, and what Ron’s calls ‘ovals’, which are rounds of pizza dough with a selection of toppings, no sauce.  For now, I can only comment on the wings, ovals, nachos, and cheesesteak, but seeing as we have been to Ron’s twice in one week, I have little doubt that we’ll be making my way through the entire menu in short order.

There’s a universal standard for what makes a good buffalo wing – deep fried, not too saturated, no breading, with a slight vinegary kick that can only come with the right kind of hot sauce.  The wings at Ron’s Original Bar and Grill hits all of these points, and perfectly at that.  These are truly outstanding wings, served hot and served right.  We also sampled the No Holds Barred oval, which comes adorned with chopped steak, pepperoni, bacon, cheddar, and mozzarella – truly a heart attack on a plate, but so good.  On a subsequent visit, a platter of chicken nachos illustrated the generosity of the kitchen, with heaping mounds of cheese and grilled chicken that made the tortilla chips cling stingily to one another.  The cheesesteak, as much a barometer of good bar food as a burger, hits on all cylinders – decent amount of meat, chopped fine so that it blends seamlessly with the cheese, and a soft long roll to do justice to it all.  It goes without saying that all of these items pair wonderfully with the beer.

Let’s talk about the beer.  From the outside, no one can tell that Ron’s would have such an outstanding selection of microbrews.  Once you set foot inside the bar area, though, your eyes are drawn first to the immense caribou head mounted to the wall, but then to the chalkboard that lists that day’s beer offerings.  During our visits, about 80% of the board consisted of heavier beers for the cold weather – stouts that showcased elements of coffee or chocolate.  We ordered, between the two of us, the Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, the Breckenridge Christmas Ale, and the Founder’s Breakfast Stout.

Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, as is described on the Dogfish Head website, is a “dark beer made with a touch of roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, St. John’s Wort, and licorice root. Brewed with whole-leaf Cascade and Fuggles hops, the grains include pale, roasted & oatmeal”.  It was, from the moment it touched our lips, an instant classic – dark, but not too heavy as to overwhelm the palate, its sweetness pairing wonderfully with the spice of the buffalo wings.  We left Ron’s that evening with four bottles of this brew from the neighboring takeout counter, and are trying to ration our inventory until we can get back to the store.

The Breckenridge Christmas Ale, noted by Breckenridge as the “ultimate winter warmer” at over 7% ABV, is another dark beer with notes of caramel and chocolate.  It made for a good first beer, something to sip off of while waiting for your food to arrive.  Contrary to my suspicion, having a glass of the Breckenridge while eating a full meal did nothing to slow the absorption of the brew into my system.  I was glad to be sitting down.

I finished the evening with a Founders Breakfast Stout, which is brewed with flaked oats, chocolate, and two varieties of coffee bean to arrive at a knockout 8.3% ABV brew.  This was probably my favorite out of the three microbrews that we had that evening, with the combination of chocolate and coffee forming an excellent post-meal libation that made me all so very grateful that I wasn’t the one driving home.

January 18, 2009   Comments

Coming Together: An Evening at Talula’s Table

It’s 7:10pm, and we’re racing our way through the utter blackness that is the backwoods of Chester County at night, our car swerving through tight corners, over single lane bridges, and past sleepy farms and darkened houses lit only by windowsill candles.  The first course at Talula’s Table will be served in 20 minutes, and we’re running a little late.  I pray that the deer that are so prevalent in these woods would stay far from the road tonight.

Something about us must have earned the favor of the food gods that evening, because our trip to Kennett Square was accomplished in record time, shaving at least ten minutes off of the typical ride.  Most of the businesses in this small downtown area close early, so finding parking was no challenge, and soon we were shuffling hurriedly through the cold night and flying through the doors of the shop with minutes to spare, a crinkled brown paper bag of wines in tow.

Tuesday night brought together friends, neighbors, coworkers, and a handful of people we had never had the fortune of knowing prior to Saturday.  Given a little more than a week to pull together a dining party, and having had a few cancellations, we were concerned about making the minimum 8 person quota for the reservation by the time the weekend was upon us.  Eventually, we turned to the wonders of the Internet, posting our call-to-arms to a couple of food-related threads and forums – which were well-received, to say the least.  In short order, we had the opposite dilemma, having rocketed past twelve attendees, up to fourteen, and were relieved when Talula’s Table allowed us the additional two seats.

We arrived at Talula’s Table at around 7:20pm to find that everyone had already settled in around the table.  Aimee Olexy greeted me warmly and took the bottles of wine from me, and we made the rounds, making it a point to introduce ourselves to the three people that we had never met before.  We yet had a few minutes before the dinner service started, so I had an opportunity to chat with folks and take in the room for a bit.  Besides, I needed to walk around to shake the mid-November cold off of me.

The store had taken on a completely different character for the dinner hour – I had gotten accustomed to the bustling marketplace that occupies the space from 7am to 7pm, bristling with regulars getting their daily coffee and office professionals picking up prepared foods and freshly baked loaves of bread for dinner.  Now, at 7:20 in the evening, none of those people were here – it was just the fourteen of us, the waitstaff, and the kitchen.  The store, normally brightly lit by sunlight streaming through the front windows, was dark except for a warm glow emanating from the single chandelier suspended above the table – the lights of the cold cases, and of the cheese counter, were turned off.  It gave you the sense, almost, that you were in a place where you shouldn’t be, but yet getting away with it – and that was a very strange and wonderful feeling.

The table had already been set with placemats, utensils, and several wine glasses for each guest – a nice touch, and a nod to the respect for differences among varietals.  Water glasses were filled, and would remain filled throughout the evening, thanks to the attentive yet unintrusive waitstaff.  For each dish that would emerge from the back room, a member of the staff would take the time to introduce the presentation, which was a nice touch.  Shortly after 7:30, the door to the kitchen swung wide, the conversation at the table quieted, and the first course was presented.

Fluke “Naturel”, Cauliflower Puree, Orchard Apple, and Foamy Pomegranate

The first course was a pitch-perfect demonstration of contrasting textures and flavors.  The fluke, topped with a crisp, paper-thin dried apple slice that shattered under your fork, was ringed by a pale cauliflower puree, and the plate was accented with small cubes of apple nestled into a mixture of delicate pomegranate foam and green roe.  The fluke itself was mild, fresh and clean tasting in the unassertive way that white-fleshed fish can be, pairing very well with the similarly mild taste of the pureed cauliflower.  The fluke barely held together, and flaked easily at the merest suggestion of a utensil.  But then, a layer of sweetness arrived in my mouth with the introduction of the apple and pomegranate foam, which was then further contrasted with the crunch and oceanic saltiness of the roe.  It’s definitely an eat-everything-together kind of course.

The kitchen continued the seafood theme into the second course.

Citrus-Drop Ricotta Ravioli, Butter Poached Red Crab, Greenhouse Radish Sprouts

Take a good look at the lump of red crab on this plate, and know that this was the singularly best crab I have tasted in my lifetime, in this or any other country.  It almost does a disservice to the ravioli, because the quality and taste of the crabmeat overwhelms everything else on the plate.  The ravioli was a pocket of pasta filled with oozing ricotta, bathed in butter.  I would have preferred a thinner, softer ravioli, so bear in mind that this pasta was a bit firmer than I am accustomed, but very good nonetheless.  The crabmeat – oh the crabmeat – was a nice firm knuckle of crab that had the purest, most definitive crab flavor ever.  Well sourced, perfectly cooked, and plainly served, as all seafood should be.

It was at this point that I switched from the white wine that I had been enjoying from the start of the evening to red, in anticipation of the courses to come.  Each place setting had a copy of the tasting menu, so we could see what was coming next.  It’s also very useful when you’re writing a recap of the evening later in the week.

Chicken Liver and Beech Mushroom Terrine, Duck Confit, Fresh Cranberry Sauce, and Smoked Brown Sugar

Shifting gears into more assertive flavors, the kitchen delivered this trio that introduces and demonstrates the proficiency of Talula’s Table with respect to terrines, pates, and game meats.  Almost a counterpoint to the smooth texture of many pates, this terrine was rough and earthy with a hearty and intense flavor that evoked country farmhouse-style dishes.  The cranberry sauce was intensely sweet, the flavor of the fruit condensed into a powerful core, and the duck confit – a small mound of shredded meat – at first seemed to be a stingily tiny portion until your palate realizes the depth and richness of everything in this course.  On the whole, the components of this course combined well to evoke the warm feelings of a holiday meal, with rich game meats and sweet accompaniments.

Spiced Black Grouper, Glazed Little Carrots, Saffron Infused Swallowhill Squash Broth

For the fourth course, the kitchen returned to seafood, but in an entirely different manner from the fluke that started the evening.  Where the fluke was a delicate, flaky fish, the black grouper was a nice firm chunk of marine goodness, annointed with a light broth, dried strips of nori, and served over some of the most perfect carrots I’ve tasted – lightly glazed, but not overly so, tender, but not overly so, allowing the fresh flavor of the vegetable to take center stage.

Now we come to what I personally believe to be the star course of the evening.

Tenderloin of Bison, Bison Sausage Choucroute, Spaetzle, and Horseradish Bechamel

The fifth course showcased bison in two different ways, offering contrasts in preparation and texture.  Bison is quite similar to beef in its taste, but less heavy, and with sweet undertones, and not at all gamy as some would suspect.  The tenderloin here presented bison in its pure glory, a medallion of fork-tender meat that was more delicate than filet mignon, yet sturdier and more flavorful than a piece of well-stewed short rib.  By comparison, the bison sausage was firm and assertive, offering a chance to experience the bison paired with other flavors and spices in another medium.  The spaetzle, by its nature a very bland accompaniment, was brought up a level by the addition of the tangy horseradish sauce – I was anticipating the typical horseradish kick and was pleasantly surprised to discover a much more subtle accent.  I could eat this every night and never get tired of it.  This is my desert island food.

Having leveled off and firmly cruising along with the more succulent game meats and rich sauces, the kitchen introduced the sixth course.

Creamy Quail Risotto, Our Culatello, and Peppercorn Syrah Sauce

This course again demonstrated the pairing of components that bring a spark to what is otherwise a typically bland accompaniment, risotto.  The quail here, a small bird about the size of a tennis ball, was shredded to allow each diner to combine the meat with the risotto, save for a small leg bone that we were encouraged to eat with our fingers.  Quail is a dark meat game bird, and as such, the flavor of the meat was reminiscent of duck, but with less fat.  Culatello is a distinct part of a prosciutto cut, seasoned, salted, and left to age for the better part of a year.  The result, presented here, is a sliver of uber-prosciutto, a salty counterpoint to the risotto whose aftertaste pairs elegantly with the quail.  If Talula’s Table carries the culatello as a regular marketplace item, it’s going on my next shopping list for sure.  The crunch of the sauteed brussels sprouts provided a good textural contrast to the creaminess of the rest of the plate.

The seventh course consisted of a grouping of aged cheeses, ranging from mild goat’s milk all the way to a runny, creamy, robust St. Marcellin that made me think of the phrase “meadow oyster”.  As has been the case with Aimee Olexy’s cheese selections, the cheeses started out mild on the left and became increasingly challenging as you progressed to the right.  There was something for everyone’s palate, but I would think that the St. Marcellin would count for bonus points.

The eighth and final course was, of course, chocolate. Glorious, melted chocolate.

Bittersweet Chocolate Soup, Brandied Cherries, Crunchy Almond Financier

There’s nothing quite like a bowl of melted chocolate to bring a meal to an end, and this was exactly what the eighth course represented.  The soup was warm and thin, and only slightly sweet, with additional sugar contributed by the cherries and a nice crunch provided by the almond financier strategically placed in the center of the bowl and topped with foam.

The evening ended with the presentation of chocolate truffles, and a basket of housemade scones to take home (a nifty way, also, of delivering the check).  We gathered our coats, and there were hugs and handshakes and promises to see each other soon, and in short order we were driving through the dark woods again, this time at a much less frenzied pace.

After all of this, I think I’ve finally figured out what makes dinner at Talula’s Table so compelling.  It’s not solely the food, as masterfully prepared as it is and as creative as the seasonal menu becomes with Bryan Sikora at the helm in the kitchen.  It’s not the fact that you have to make reservations one year in advance of the date that you actually want to eat there, although this one fact is probably a compelling enough reason for many faux foodie hipsters – you know, the ones that have ten varieties of sea salt in their pantry, but who never cook, and who would probably buy a clod of dirt if they were told that it was artisanal volcanic soil from a small half acre plot on the vanishing shores of an exotic land.  No, it’s definitely not that.

It’s more than any one factor.  After experiencing firsthand the Talula’s Table Farmhouse Table dinner with my wife and twelve other culinary companions, I’ve come to realize that the thing that truly makes dinner at Talula’s so magical is the rare synergy that emerges between the cuisine and the people, both in the kitchen and at the table, between each diner and each course, each server, the chef, and the hostess.  If it were just a dozen people sitting in the same room eating together, Talula’s Table would be a clone of every BYOB bistro in every metropolitan area in the country.  Instead, it’s much more than that.  Talula’s Table fosters that uncommon sense of togetherness that’s rapidly fading away in the pace and stress of daily modern living.  It’s four hours of putting life on pause, enjoying food and wine and company without distraction.

We were sitting across from three people whom I had never met, and who had never heard of us prior to a week ago, and by the end of the evening, without knowing much of anything about their lives, their views, or their backgrounds, we could sincerely count them among our friends that we would gladly welcome into our home at anytime.  Talula’s Table has that kind of energy, and it’s not something that’s easily copied.  Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy have continued their unique approach, started years ago at Django, of making every meal a personal experience, one where the dishes actually seem to taste better because the people behind it have a genuine desire to make you happy.

November 22, 2008   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

Memories of Django: The Story So Far

Is it possible for a restaurant to break your heart?

Seven years ago, or thereabouts, a tiny storefront tucked away off of Philadelphia’s eclectic South Street was transformed into Django, a BYOB that would go on to revolutionize small bistro dining in a city notorious for its ridiculous markups on wine.

Owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy, Django enchanted diners with its homey atmosphere, superb service, and Sikora’s outstanding and innovative cuisine.  Django reaped the rewards, garnering Best New Restaurant and Best Chef in Philadelphia Magazine that year, along with a mention in Gourmet magazine, which contributed to regional and national recognition of the restaurant.  The best thing about this was that none of these accolades were hype – it was all very much deserved, corroborated by Sikora’s ability to turn out excellent fare and Olexy’s masterful command of cheese selection and front-of-the-house management.  Whenever you see a cheese plate in Philadelphia today, it’s because of her influence.

As word spread and the restaurant became more and more successful, weekend reservations became harder and harder to secure, and Django instituted a 30 calendar day rule for reservations, prompting many to hover over their redial buttons at 10am each morning, waiting for the magical window to open.  Even when we were successful at getting through to a live person, by the time we had reached the reservations desk the only available openings were frequently either 5:30pm or 10:30pm, which we gladly accepted.  Despite having countless other amazing restaurants in the city to choose from, whenever we had to schedule a special occasion dinner, or had out-of-towners coming to visit, there was never a question where we would go.  Over the next few years, we racked up a nice collection of anniversary and birthday dinners at Django, and made it a point to stagger reservations across each of the four seasons, just to see what changes would come to the menu.

Then one day, Sikora and Olexy sold Django and left Philadelphia.  On the heels of the birth of their first child, they had decided to give up the daily hustle of the Philadelphia restaurant scene, cashed in their chips, and rode off into the sunset.  It was a classic Michael Jordan move, retiring at the top of your game.  Our hearts crumbled, with our remorse only magnified by a visit to the restaurant after the deal was done, when we discovered that Django the Great had, with the departure of the original owners, become Django the Very Good.  Sikora and Olexy were the heart and soul of Django, and when they left, much of that heart and soul went with them, and the establishment felt more like a business than the personal experience that it once was.  It was still a very good bistro, but there hung a very palpable void in the absence of Sikora in the kitchen and Olexy in the front of the house.  Lacking the personal touch that was the hallmark of the “old” Django, the restaurant soon faded into the rushing waters of the BYOB scene that it had originally pioneered.  Today, I’m sure that it’s still a good bistro, but in a town now filled with BYOB bistros, it no longer stands above the fray.

After their departure, months passed, and there were rumors here and there, of Sikora and Olexy relocating to New Jersey, or perhaps clear across the state to Pittsburgh.  Their absence from the Philadelphia BYOB scene was quickly filled by more and more new and upcoming bistros offering homey atmospheres served by small kitchen staff, profiting on the template that Django had originated.  Still, after having tried a few, we were still not swayed from our opinion that Django did it first, and Django did it best.  We had all but written off seeing the duo back on the food scene when, to my surprise, I heard that Sovana, a small bistro in the heart of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, mere minutes from Philadelphia, had acquired a new chef named Bryan Sikora.

So, on the occasion of my wife’s birthday two years ago, or thereabouts, we trekked through the lush valleys of the Mushroom Capital of the World, along small winding country roads and shot straight past Sovana, which is located in a small shopping center, facing inward.  Turning the car around, we managed to find it fairly quickly and arrived shortly after the 4:30 start time for the dinner service.  Sovana does not require reservations, and the outgoing voice message states that they would always honor walk-ins, although it would be possible to make a reservations request.

My first viewing of the menu felt like a culinary homecoming.  I saw menu items that I thought I would never see again after the end of the Sikora/Olexy era at Django.  Goat Cheese Gnocchi, Wild Boar Ragu, the best dishes that ever graced the menus of Django were now at Sovana, and largely retained the same qualities that made them such standout successes at Django.  The space, with a high-ceilinged industrial vibe, took some getting used to, but the meals that we had enjoyed with such enthusiasm were still there.  To be sure, there was definitely a different feel to Sovana than Django, as Bryan Sikora was now an employee, not an owner, Aimee Olexy was nowhere to be seen in this new endeavor, and the staff went about their duties with businesslike efficiency.  The no-reservations policy did yield some visits when we were relegated to waiting at the bar for over an hour, but overall our experience at Sovana was good, though not as good as Django.

We managed to have three meals at Sovana before the wheels of change turned again.  A subsequent call to the restaurant some months later yielded a hostess, obviously new to the position, who was unfamiliar with Sikora’s name.  She checked, and there was no “Bryan Sikora” working at Sovana, not anymore.  And the void came rushing back, although, seeing that Sovana never came close to achieving the approachability of the original Django, it hurt far less this time around.

This time, though, it was not too long after Sikora’s departure from Sovana that there were some news items regarding the next chapter of their endeavors – a small gourmet shop in downtown Kennett Square, right on Main Street, in a location that formerly housed a shoe store.  Delays and the usual hassles of opening a business meant staring at an “under construction” version of the shop’s website for weeks past the anticipated opening date.  But waiting for the shop to open was better than not having any news at all.

In 2007, on a blustery winter day when the warm rays of summer are a mere memory, and the thaws of spring not even a thought on the horizon, Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy debuted their new gourmet shop named after their daughter, Talulah’s Table.  Like Deadheads following the band, we just had to go and check it out, especially since the shop is only a pretty 30 minute drive through the countryside from where we live.

One of the things that’s particularly appealing about Kennett Square, and about small town centers in general, is the fact that the main drag is not a collection of franchises like Burger King and Starbucks.  Main Street in Kennett Square consists of a variety of small, independently owned shops and eateries, and makes for a nice strolling afternoon, provided it’s not 20 degrees out.  Which, on this particular afternoon, it was, and we had to hop over mounds of ice and snow to get to the front door from the car.

Talulah’s Table falls in line with the general Kennett Square aesthetic, and the first thing that you notice when you walk into the shop is that comfortable, homey feeling about the place, with a preponderance of wood floors and shelves and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee.  This effect lasts for all of about five seconds, before you dive headlong into exploring all that Sikora and Olexy have to offer in their latest spot.  In general, the merchandise is displayed on wooden shelves lining both sides of the room, with the coffee/pastry bar and register taking up the front of the rectangular space, with small coolers offering cold drinks and grab-and-go sandwiches next to it.  There are sections of the store dedicated to jarred items, chocolate, dried pasta, various oils – the typical items that you would expect to find in a gourmet shop.  It’s a place where you could stop by every so often to stock up on high end items, or find yourself there every morning grabbing a coffee and danish before heading off to work, or even every evening, picking up the components for dinner.

Things get more interesting as you head towards the back of the store.  On one side of the room are display shelves stocked with various breads and rolls, and next to that is a tap for olive oil – yes, you can bottle your own here.  A freezer case holds frozen house-made pasta and pasta sauces, and then as your eye follows the room in a counterclockwise fashion, you come upon the cheese display and your budget just flies out of the window.  I am so completely not kidding.

The display case at the back of the store, where Aimee Olexy’s hand-selected cheeses share space with her husband’s prepared food options, is the kind of display case that you would put on your desert island list, if your desert island had electricity, trees made from bread and crackers, and was surrounded by an ocean of red wine.  If she’s available, Olexy is more than happy to answer your questions about the cheeses, and will solicit your unique likes and dislikes in order to tailor her recommendations to your taste.  One of the best things we we ever did was to take the day off from work, drop by the shop, give Olexy a budget limit and just have her create a picnic basket of charcuterie and cheese.  That, and a baguette, made for one of the best lunches in the picnic area outside of Longwood Gardens.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned is the large oak table that resides in the center of the store.  When Talulah’s Table first opened, it had been announced that the table would be made available for private dinner functions, after the shop had gotten established and found its groove, and that was all that was said about that.  It would serve as an opportunity for Sikora to continue the tradition of a dinner service, but without the pressure of serving hundreds of courses each night.

Little did we know that, within a few short months, a seat at that table would be the hardest reservation to get in the United States.

Next Week: Part Two, Chasing Talulah’s Table

June 27, 2008   Comments