after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Talula’s Table: Totally Worth Waking Up at 4am

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t says: There’s a pseudo-restaurant called Talula’s Table.  It’s located in Kennett Square, PA, just outside of Philadelphia (so I still consider it “in Philadelphia”).  It is our most favorite place to eat dinner … ever.  Over the past few years, it’s been recognized as the “Toughest Reservation in America”, ahead of The French Laundry, Per Se, Daniel, etc (although I think Momofuku Ko is nearly as difficult – but I have at least come across open reservations for Ko, so it’s not quite as elusive).  Why is it so difficult?

Back in the early 2000’s, there was a BYOB named Django.  It had the highest food rating of all Philadelphia restaurants according to the Zagat guide.  Laban gave it four (out of four) bells, a mark that no BYOB had earned.  Better yet, diners did not need to don tuxes or suit jackets or even button-down shirts to go!  It was the envy of the Philadelphia restaurant scene.  And then … owners Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy sold it, signing a non-compete clause in which they could not open up a restaurant within a certain number of miles (?40?) from Philadelphia.  They moved to Kennett Square and opened Talula’s Table, a cafe and market during the day, but a venue for a “catered dinner” in the evening.  The catch?  Only a single reservation per night is available for the single table of 8-12 people (it’s not even a fancy-looking table).  You can guess what happens when supply is so limited, but demand is so high: they are booked solid to a year in advance.  And every morning when they open up shop, the phone rings off the hook for people looking to get that single reservation 365 days into the future.  Meanwhile, Django in the city closed – clearly, something about Sikora and Olexy is magical.

Well, I got one of these reservations.  How’d I do it?  Those who know me realize that I’m not one leave a thing like this up to the meager “chance” that I’d be the first person to call Talula’s in the morning.  No, that’s not my style.  You see, there is a more guaranteed way to get a reservation at Talula’s.  One must simply be waiting outside their door when they open – if so, then the phones are disregarded in favor of a visiting patron.  Of course, showing up at 7 wasn’t guaranteed enough for me – I was shooting for the Saturday of Labor Day weekend 2009.  Clearly I should get there extra early so that I’m actually the first one there.  6:30?  No.  6?  No.  5:30?  No.  5.  Yep.  I woke up at 4am, drove out to Kennett Square, parked right in front of the tiny little shop, and passed the time with some reading and my iPod shuffle.  g had contemplated making a shirt for me that said, “Yes, I’m in line for Talula’s – so back off!”.  As you might have guessed, that reservation was mine.  (In a twist of fate, some months later, when k got engaged to cm, they decided to get married on Labor Day weekend … 2009 … we “returned” our reservation to Talula’s – they post cancellations on their website or in their shop – so that we could attend their wedding – but of course, that was also totally worth it – what a great time!).

So then how do I know it’s worth waking up at 4am for?  Well, you see, Talula’s also has what I like to call “a back door”.  They have a “Chef’s Table” for 2-4 right in the kitchen.  You call up, put your name on the “list”, and whenever they have an opening, they call you – and you have to decide right then and there (or in a reasonable amount of time – I imagine they give you ’til the end of the day) if you can make it.  I put my name on the list, and a few months later … We got the call.  The reservation was 1.5 weeks in advance for the middle of the week.  I hesitated – did I want to trek out to Kennett Square on a weeknight in December and have to drive back to Philly afterwards?  I called up one of our favorite food-friends for a consultation – were we crazy?  He replied that for Talula’s, he’d take off from work – it didn’t matter what day, what time, or how he got there.  Apparently, we were crazy.  And it ended up being so good that g and I returned again in June 2009 (for our anniversary) as well.  And it was so good the second time that the weekend we drove up to k and cm’s wedding on Labor Day weekend, I showed up at Talula’s early in the morning again (although only 6am this time), and got the big-table reservation for … Labor Day weekend 2010 (I wonder if anyone’s going to get married this time?)

So, our two visits to Talula’s were over 6 and 12 months ago (12/2008 and 6/2009).  It’s far too difficult to remember the nuances of the dishes (each meal is 8 courses – 6 savory, 1 cheese, 1 dessert).  But I can say that each meal was phenomenal.  My personaol top 5 savory courses from our visits include the following:

Sausage fried scallops, creamy polenta, toasted almonds, and chile emulsion

Confit of Meadowset lamb, rosemary dumplings, and parmesan crusted Vollmecke hubbard

Crayfish bisque “a la Sazerac”, Anson Mills polenta pudding, and fava beans

“All things asparagus” (asparagus prepared 3 ways: roasted, tempura, and FLAN accompanied by bacon dust and mustard foam)

Crispy fried hudson valley moulard, baked beans, and molasses

Also, both of the cheese plates offered such an incredible variety of textures and tastes (Aimee knows her cheese).  And the desserts were also not mere afterthoughts – they were Zahav-good.  Actually, technically Talula’s was first, so perhaps Zahav’s desserts are Talula’s-good.  One was a napoleon of strawberry gelee, strawberry-rhubarb mousse, and wine roasted berries, and the other was a ricotta charlotte with a hazelnut-sea salt crust and blood orange sorbet.

But what makes Talula’s great is NOT just the food – it’s the whole experience.  Having dined twice in the kitchen, we were able to see Brian (and Aimee) in action –  they are the greatest people ever.  Brian’s control of the kitchen is calm and cool.  He’ll be the first to admit that he has absolute faith that the kitchen could cook the entire meal without him; he’s super-humble.  And then, when we got him philosophizing about the importance of focusing on “food” in restaurants (and not things like atmosphere or props – perhaps a subtle jab at Stephen Starr?), we could see that he’s not in the biz for ego or money – he actually likes food (either that, or he’s a great actor)!  Meanwhile, every single member of the staff was pleasant and very courteous and professional (despite not donning bow ties and jackets) – friendly top notch service!  Add in the fact that we were able to bring our own wine (and visit great local wineries beforehand – Va La is awesome) and walk to a nearby bed-and-breakfast afterwards (shout out to Gilja of Kennett House!) and what you have is not just a dinner, rather, an unbelievable gastronomic experience.  I’m actually a little worried about eating at the big-table – we’d lose out on the connection with the staff and being able to see how everything was made.

By the way, if you do get a chance to go – get some scones to go.  They were day-old’s … and they were still awesome.  My fave was banana-chocolate, while g’s went ga-ga for the lemon-ginger!  I’ve also tasted them at 7am  when they are fresh from the oven – I actually considered moving to Kennett Square and commuting to Philadelphia …

Written by afterdinnersneeze

21 February 2010 at 10:02pm

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