Coming Full Circle

While I was a longtime subscriber to food magazines through my early cooking years, after a while I began to realize that I was seeing the same recipes year after year.  Every May, for instance, brought the secrets of the perfect burger.  Every fall, I saw the same recipes for squash soup and roasted turkey.  This would have been tolerable, if not for the fact that, other than the recipes and advertisements, there was often very little else to read in each issue.  Once launched, providing me with free access to all of the same recipes that were contained in the magazines, there was little reason to continue paying for my subscriptions.

I can’t say the same, though, for Saveur magazine.  For close to fifteen years, I’ve been diligently picking up Saveur each month, and the back issues take up the bottom shelf of the bookcase that holds my cookbook library.  Saveur has always provided well-written content that provided a foundation and background information for the recipes that accompanied each article – while the other magazines eventually made their way to the recycling bin, my Saveur issues were digested from cover to cover, then carefully archived.  In fact, when it comes time to decide what to serve for a dinner party, I pull out all of the current and prior months’ issues of Saveur from the stacks, yielding a pile of around 30 issues that serve as source material for my menu.  My collection used to be in chronological order, but has since evolved to be organized by season.

Because Saveur became the only food magazine that I read, it also happens to have become a major influence in my style of writing.  With food blogs quickly approaching a market rate of a dime per three dozen, I knew that I wanted to create a website that was more than just a collection of recipes or overviews of what I ate for lunch.  I wanted a site that reveled in writing about food as an experience, one that was a barometer of culinary culture, whether I was writing about an eight course tasting menu or a cheesesteak from down the block.  I respected and admired the writing style in Saveur and purposefully set out to emulate it, and sometimes I hit that sweet spot and sometimes I don’t.  It largely depends on how much coffee I’ve had.

When Saveur announced that they were soliciting reader submissions for their Top 100 list, I figured it would be fun to submit something.  I clicked over to their website, pulled up the form, and gave them a paragraph on the farmhouse table dinner at Talula’s Table.  Having written longer pieces on the topic once or twice before, it was fairly easy to dash together something quick and concise.  I hit ‘Submit’ and promptly forgot all about it.

One afternoon in October, I picked up my phone to see that I had one missed call and one voicemail.  The missed call was from the 212 area code, and I presumed it to be a misdial, as I don’t know anyone in Manhattan who would be calling my cell phone.

Listening to the voicemail revealed that the call was no mistake.  An editor at Saveur wanted to let me know that they were going to use my Talula’s Table entry in their Top 100 issue. I can count on one hand the number of times I have literally jumped for joy, and this was one of them.  But this was back in October, and the issue wouldn’t be arriving on newsstands until some time in January, long after Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the mad rush through the holidays.  Just as I had forgotten about submitting my entry in the first place, I tried very hard to put the notion of appearing in a national publication out of my mind.  It could have been, after all, cut due to space reasons.  The editors could change their minds.  The Large Hadron Collider could have spawned a black hole and ended the planet before it was published.  Until I held the hardcopy issue in my hands, it would not be real for me.

About two weeks ago, the current Saveur issue featuring the Top 100 became available in digital format.  I pulled it up on my browser, and while I saw my words laid out on the screen, part of me still couldn’t accept the reality of the situation.  But, there it was.

As it turns out, the world of magazine editing is a strange and wondrous place.  On the submission form, I had initially given them a single paragraph, knowing from previous Top 100 lists that each entry is allotted a very limited amount of space.  Saveur came back and asked me for more details, so I gladly wrote a longer piece, about four paragraphs.  Ultimately, the final copy that appeared in the issue had been edited – back down to one paragraph.  It still contains the major points of my original work, so I can’t help but be pleased with it.

It was only last week, when I spied the issue on the magazine rack at the supermarket, that it really felt real for me.  I grabbed a copy and flipped to the center of the issue to find my Talula’s Table entry staring back at me.  My name, my photo, and my words have been published in Saveur, the magazine that has propelled my food writing endeavors from the very beginning of this site.  It’s a small paragraph, to be sure, but it’s a start.  It’s not a feature article by any stretch of the imagination.  Still, the piece, #52, occupies the entire center of a spread that spans both pages, accompanied by a photo of a party enjoying the farmhouse table dinner.

It was a wonderful way to begin the new year.

January 6, 2010   Comments

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

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

When the Coyote Caught the Roadrunner

The ringing of the phone at my desk broke the silence that usually pervades my office in the early morning.

“What are you doing for dinner a year from today, 2009?”

Let me rewind.  A few days earlier, my wife and I had listened to the NPR feature on Talula’s Table, which merited a strange mix of emotions.  Happiness and pride, that the shop, after weeks and weeks of delays, had not only opened but was thriving.  A little bit of bitterness and resentment, on the other hand, that acquiring dinner reservations at Talula’s was such an impossible prospect.

My wife had the crazy idea.  She said, “Let’s just forget about going for a specific date.  Let’s forget about planning for a birthday or anniversary or how we’re going to get a bunch of people together.  Let’s just give them a call one morning at 7am.”

We commute into work very early in the morning, leaving the house at 6am.  She drops me off at my office, and then continues on to her work, meaning that we avoid the rush hour traffic, both of us firmly planted at our desks by 7am.  It just so happened that, on this particular day, my wife picked up her phone at 6:59am and dialed the phone number for Talula’s Table.  What the heck.

As my wife relates it, a young woman answered the phone, and my wife asked, “You don’t, by any chance, have a reservation open for this date in 2009?”

“Let me check,” said the woman. “Actually, it looks like we do.”

I think it took less than a millisecond to snatch that reservation and button it up.  So, next summer, we’re having dinner at Talula’s Table.

August 30, 2008   Comments

Chasing Talula’s Table

What do Craig Laban, NPR, Conde Nast, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the actor John Turturro have in common?

They’ve all contributed to the mountain of accolades that presently makes it impossible to reserve the farmhouse table at Talula’s Table for anything inside of a year to the calendar date – and that’s if you’re extraordinarily lucky with your dialing finger.

When Talula’s Table first opened, it was a known fact that, at some point after getting things up and running, Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora were going to begin offering private dining affairs after-hours, hosted at the large farmhouse table in the center of the shop.  Limiting the number of available slots to the number of seats at the farmhouse table allowed Sikora and the kitchen staff to concentrate on serving a multi-course meal to a smaller number of guests, a welcome departure from the maddening pace of a Center City restaurant kitchen.

That’s exactly what happened.  Shortly after opening, around March of 2007 or so, Talula’s Table opened its reservations book for parties of 10 to 12, one per evening, at a prix fixe of $85 per person.  This was right around the same time that we stopped into the shop to pick up some cheese, and as Aimee was helping us with our selection, we started talking about the dinners.  We waxed nostalgic about our times at Django, and how sooner or later we’d have to book a reservation to try the farmhouse table dinner, once we found eight more people who would be willing to come out with us.

Aimee told us that, if we were interested, there were still some slots available for the second half of the year.  Everything up until June was already booked.  Hm.  We politely declined, figuring we’d have some time later to make firm plans.

We were slightly mistaken.  As we wiled away our leisure time during the summer, word of mouth began to spread like wildfire, of this tiny shop in this little town in Pennsylvania serving these outstanding eight course, three hour feasts.

As of September 1, the table was booked for every available night until July 31, 2008.

Then, on October 14, Craig Laban, the restaurant critic from the Philadelphia Inquirer, published his review of Talula’s Table.  Mr. Laban, who grants the equivalent of a “good to great” rating (two bells, for you locals) to the majority of establishments that appear in his column (which is already enough of an endorsement to boost traffic considerably) stated that Talula’s Table was “one of the best meals I’ve eaten all year”.  Then, John Turturro said, of the Valentine’s Day dinner that he enjoyed with his wife, that “it was the kind of meal you’d request before your execution”.

Aw, crap.

On January 2, 2008, when the restaurant reopened after the holiday break, it opened its reservations book for the rest of 2008.  This was at 7am.  By 9am, a 2008 reservation was out of the question.

Today, Talula’s Table takes reservations exactly one year to the calendar date in advance, giving the farmhouse table to the caller lucky enough to get through first at 7am, 365 days before the first course is to be served.  By way of comparison, the French Laundry in Napa, which has a mere 17 tables, requires two months to the calendar date.  The only similar situation to Talula’s Table is El Bulli, in Spain, which is widely considered as the best restaurant in the world, which takes reservations in mid-October for the following year, and usually books up completely on the first day.

It was bad enough when Talula’s Table was garnering only local accolades in Pennsylvania and neighboring states on the eastern seaboard.  But when Conde Nast’s (“The Toughest Table in America”, March 19, 2008), the New York Times (“Spiritual Retreat”, May 11, 2008), the Los Angeles Times, and National Public Radio (“Talula’s: The Toughest Reservation in the US?”, April 22, 2008) chimed in with their own praise, the improbability of getting a reservation became a near impossibility.

We were frustrated, not only because we had failed to answer the door when opportunity knocked, but also because now, with all of the national attention, what was going to be a nice upcoming anniversary or birthday dinner was turning into an uphill battle against overwhelming odds.  With such a slim probability of scoring a reservation, we were resigned to never having the opportunity to experience Talula’s Table outside of its existence as a gourmet shop.

Come back here for Part 3, this Friday.

August 27, 2008   Comments