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

Meeting the Meat on the Main Line

I’ve recently started contributing content to West Chester Dish, a site dedicated to all that is hip and happening in and around the quaint college burg of West Chester, Pennsylvania.  As part of this new gig, we were invited to a press dinner for Georges’ (formerly Les Mas, formerly Le Mas Perrier) in Wayne to preview their new Butcher Shop menu, a collection of supremely high end cuts of prime beef and veal.

Here’s an excerpt:

My entree, the strip steak, was a 14oz platform of perfectly medium-rare goodness, seared to perfection on the outside, a uniform crimson throughout, with no bone to interfere with the coordinated attack of my knife and fork. The meat possessed that telltale mineral flavor that’s indicative of beef that’s been aged.

My writeup of that evening has been posted to West Chester Dish and can be found in its entirety here.

May 12, 2009   Comments

Game On at the Victory Brewing Company

I’ve wanted to write about the Victory Brewing Company for a long time, and I would have pushed this review out close to a year ago, but chose to wait on it.  Don’t get me wrong, Victory Brewing has some of the finest craft beers around, and is home to one of my favorite beers ever.  But when they emerged, butterfly-like, from their renovation last spring, having transformed from a dark, moody neighborhood hang-out (think brewery with some tables and a bar thrown in for good measure) to a full fledged restaurant – something didn’t feel quite right, despite the gorgeous overhaul that included a Brewmaster’s Table, where up to a dozen people can sit underneath a copper brew kettle top.

Prior to the renovation, which took around two months and, at its height, limited the available food items to about six tables and a handful of sandwiches, Victory had offered a decent selection of dishes.  The best output of the kitchen was always to be found in foods that one naturally would pair with beer – pizzas, burgers, the excellent buffalo wings and buffalo chicken wrap, a serviceable steak sandwich.  The menu offered some higher priced items, and whenever we would dare to venture outside the realm of “bar food”, we would invariably be disappointed – a dish described as “osso bucco” was clearly not the shank that the rest of the world has come to recognize as osso bucco, and its texture was closer to pot roast than anything.  So, we would stick with the bar food, and we were pretty happy with that.  The great beer lent a lot of leniency to the food, which wasn’t outstanding, but pretty good for what it was.

For me, the benchmark of any brewpub is the quality of its cheeseburger, which is the perfect pairing with a pint of beer.  So, in my mind, it was an unimaginable sin for the “new” Victory Brewing Company to have taken its burger, which was fine, and replaced it with two thinner patties which surrounded a “filling” – in other words, they took the toppings and tried to get fancy by “stuffing” the burgers with them.  The result was a disaster – the grill cooks could never turn out a proper burger after that, and we’d always get two overcooked, dried out burger patties.  Everyone we spoke with echoed the same sentiment – why can’t Victory just put out a regular cheeseburger and be done with it?

Well, recent excursions to Victory for their monthly “Follow the Liter” event ($5 liters of beer, plus arm wrestling!), as well as an impromptu midweek lunch, has shown the kitchen to be much improved.  Creative burger configurations are a thing of the past, and I am happy to report that the burgers are once again single patty wonders of beefy deliciousness.  They are also better than they were prior to the renovation, thanks to a switch to aged beef.  Having conquered the beer (the renovation enabled Victory to expand their offerings, so today they offer upwards of twenty different drafts plus another four on cask), it was only a matter of time before the kitchen caught up.  As a server recently remarked, the owners kept all of the food items that were working, tossed what didn’t sell, and now introduce new items on the right-side of the menu.  If you want to play it safe, stick with the left side of the menu – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a pick from the right side is doomed to disaster.

There are certainly more high notes to the menu as compared to last year.  The wings are as good as they’ve ever been, just the right heat, accompanied by that traditional tang of vinegar and always, always a requirement when we go there.  The burgers, as I’ve noted, are large and in charge, well enough of a meal in themselves to make you regret ordering the wings (but yet you’ll finish everything anyway).  The pizza selection has been trimmed to reflect the varieties that were actually not, you know, bland disks of bread – so you have a much better shot of ordering a pie that you’ll want to eat.  The buffalo chicken wrap is still on the menu, just as good and spicy as ever.  A hot roast beef sandwich was, in my wife’s words, “what Arby’s must taste like in heaven.”

Perhaps the best new addition to the food offerings at Victory, though, is a dish that I tried the first time we went to a Follow The Liter event.  It’s called Schweinshauxe, and it’s a pig ankle.  Actually, it’s two pig ankles, served with a cream sauce, sauerkraut mashed potatoes, and red cabbage, and it’s all kinds of amazing.  The meat falls off the bone, and the cream sauce pairs with the potatoes and the tart crunch of the cabbage very well – it’s a perfect rendition of traditional German cooking.  That, and one of Victory’s huge pretzels served with cheese dipping sauce, will always make me regret ordering the wings.

Somehow, though, I don’t think I’m ever going to learn from my mistakes.

April 27, 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