after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Aimee Brings Some Thunder: A Review of Talula’s Garden

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t says:  Ah yes, it’s now time to put up our Talula’s Garden experience.  We’d done Talula’s Table a number of times (the farm table and the chef’s table … twice), but now it was time for Episode 3: Return to Philly (Episodes 1 and 2 were obviously Django and Talula’s Table).  Here we go!

4/2011, Sunday 6:30pm, Party of 2.  We first arrived and were greeted by the friendly hostess.  She did offer us a seat at the “communal table” and wasn’t the least bit dismayed when we said no.  While we normally wouldn’t mind something like a communal table, g and I feared a JG Domestic-esque nightmare (which apparently has been rectified since the last time we went) and instead went for a normal two-topper.  And it’s a good thing we did (more on why later – it has nothing to do with the communal table being bad or anything like that …).

g noted that everyone appeared to be friendly and happy; it was nice to see that while they were most likely stressed out of their mind (it was their first weekend officially open), they were quite pleasant!  As our server greeted us, she let us know as nicely as possible that there was a corkage fee for the wine that we brought (I knew there was – it’s $25, but as soon as you order 3 glasses of wine, you’d spend more than $25 anyways …) and then proceeded to explain the menu and how cheese could be incorporated whenever/wherever you wanted.  It was a neat idea.  Knowing g, she’d probably make a whole meal out of cheese if she could.  But alas – we went a more traditional layout: app, main, cheese, dessert.  So let’s bring it!

veloute of sweet pea with squid

g was very impressed with this dish.  The texture was velvety and lying underneath was what we can only presume was squid ink … and she ate every last drop.  She even ate the squid … she normally avoids tentacle-containing animals, but she couldn’t resist!  But as good as it was, it paled in comparison to mine …

oxtail consomme with marrow dumplings

So here’s the skinny on the oxtail consomme ….  It doesn’t look like much (and it’s not helped by my camera and photography skills that suck).  And that hunk of meat doesn’t look flattering … but it was magnificent – tender and flavorful – not as gamy as oxtail can be, but definitely in-your-face cow.  And then there was the consomme, which was equally flavorful (it was so good that g even snuck her spoon in to taste the broth inbetween my spoonfuls), the perfectly brunoise veggies (at least, I think they were 1/8″ cubes), and those little dumplings which had a nice bite to them with a subtle flavor – mostly getting flavor from the broth around it (so I’m not sure if the marrow added a whole lot – it might have been too subtle for me to really appreciate amidst the rest of the dish).  At first I felt that the crouton was a bit unnecessary – but then I realized that it  allowed me to completely clean the bowl, not letting a single drop escape, so it was indeed useful after all.  So I take the lead, 1-0.

As I had mentioned, g and I opted for a two-topper.  The table we were assigned was seated somewhat near the hostess stand, which is where Aimee was fluttering about, so we were in prime position to try and get her attention (we wanted to say “hi”!).  I tried to convince g that it’d be a good idea if I did my over-eager smile and wave, but she felt that it was too creepy.  So she kept the look-out and eventually caught Aimee’s eye sometime after our appetizer.  She came over to greet us, making us happy and giving us an opportunity to shower her with praise for how great everything looked (and to thank her for moving back to the city) and the successful first course.  She seemed a little nervous, but it was her first official opening weekend, so she seemed a bit excited, too.  It was nice to see her!  As I’ve said in the past, she really has a way to make you genuinely feel like you’re special – which we appreciate – it really makes us want her to do well (which, in retrospect, is perhaps a very good talent to have for someone in the food industry).  So now that we had seen Aimee, it was time for our next course!

double the beef, double the fun.

g went for a manly entree (it seems like she always gets the manly entree) – but she promised to share (I was going to get it, too, but it’d be dumb to get two of the same!).  Those puddles of white were almost like a potato foam, and it was accompanied by a turnip and a carrot, both of which were divine (a divine vegetable?  yep – beautifully cooked texture).  But the real star was that rib (?boneless short rib?) hiding under that thick brown glaze on the left.  It … was … ridiculous.  It’s probably the single best short rib I’ve ever had – including the short rib we had at the Inn at Little Washington.  That’s no easy feat.  g wondered if it could have taken on the Inn’s sous vide filet as well, but I’m not quite sure that this braised piece of meat could have matched the texture/flavor imparted by the sous vide method – it was close, though.

Just some gnocchi and mushrooms, right?

Gnocchi and mushrooms.  No big deal, right?  In fact, you always see gnocchi and mushrooms (I think we’ve had it at Django, Talula’s Table, Osteria – I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it at other Italian places and contemporary American places all over the city).  So what?  Brace yourself.  This, my friends, was no normal gnocchi-and-shrooms.  First off, there were a few different kinds of mushrooms on the plate – so it was a bit of fun trying each.  And yes, these gnocchi were a step up even from the normally exquisitely texture Django/Talula gnocchi in that they were lightly pan-fried/roasted/seared/something, so there was a  slight browning on the outside, giving it a bit of a super-thin-shell.  And there was the round yellow egg yolk that added a wonderfully unctuous sauce-like mouthfeel.  But it didn’t end there – because if it did, it would have only been on par with ever other gnocchi-and-shrooms dish in the city.  No, there was something different – something weird about this dish – and I still just can’t figure it out!  Everything I’ve described to you so far would suggest that this was going to be a rich-and-heavy dish (courtesy of gnocchi and egg yolk).  But no.  There was something else going on.  It had some sweet, but it had some liveliness to it.  Or was it some kind of acid.  Whatever it was, that some kind of something livened up the dish.  It made the gnocchi, mushrooms, and yolk have a lighter, zippier, more playful taste than what I was expecting.  At first I thought it was maybe those little red specs, which at first I thought were paprika, but I couldn’t get any of that smoky paprika flavor on the palate (so now I have no idea what those were, either).  You know – it was probably something so simple that I’m overthinking it (someone’s going to be like, “duh t, it was balsamic vinegar”) (EDIT: raisin puree!!  that’s what it was!), but it was definitely there and made this one of the best gnocchi dishes I’ve ever had (I would have said best, but it’s been a while since we’ve been to my former favorite: Babbo).  Nevertheless, it at least so far beat out Vetri (Vetri’s was a volatile gnocchi – I prefer a denser gnocchi), it beats out the old Django/Talula’s, it beats out Gnocchi and La Viola and Mercato and Melograno and Modo Mio/Monsu …  Maybe I’ll leave it as the best gnocchi dish in the city?  Will that piss off the Italians?  Probably.  *Shrugs* I’ll happily eat my words if they give me a better gnocchi dish.

queso

Obviously, if you dine at Talula’s, you have to get some cheese, too.  We went for the three-cheese “special” – they were described as being in the style of brie/camembert.  They were definitely on the lighter side in terms of flavor – no extremely-vegetal/musty/fungusy flavors here – just butter and creme and a pleasant twinge of ammonia towards the rinds.  Of course, there were more subtle flavors going on up in there (it’s not like they were all the same or anything), but I’m no cheese connoisseur so my feeble attempts to describe the differences would be met with laughter and ridicule.  I will say that the Inn at Little Washington gave us a bit more variety (and quantity) than that which we had here – but maybe that was our fault – there were some more elaborate cheese options on the menu which we had not chosen (I think kp would have disliked our cheese choices – he likes them stinky and funky).  For a split second, I was about to regret not being a bit bolder in our selection … and then the unexpected happened.  Aimee showed up with two glasses of cava.  She said, something to the extent of, “and nothing goes better with rich cheeses than cava.”  Aww – how sweet!  A simple gesture like a splash of free cava really put the dot in the exclamation point of the meal.  And you know what – g found that the cava was indeed a perfect accompaniment, and it really pushed these cheeses show off more of their subtle flavors.  Personally, I can’t drink more than a single sip of bubbles, so g also helped me with my glass, too (much to her chagrin I’m sure … rriigghhtt).  Meanwhile, I stayed with my red wine and enjoyed the cheeses and the substance that was in that jar all the way to the right, which was filled with what can only be described as liquid crack.  Ok – some people might call it “rhubarb compote” … I call it liquid crack.  It was delicious.  And it was versatile.  It paired nicely with each of the cheeses (although that’s not too hard to see – it’s not like the cheeses were assertive personalities) and it even worked well with our dessert:

Looks weird, right?

Welcome to the real dessert of the evening – I love me a good cheese, but I like to end on sweet.  This was the dark chocolate “cremeaux”, as it was called, which I can only describe as a cross between chocolate mousse and boardwalk fudge (i.e. it maintained the rectangle shape).  It was accompanied by some caramel (with salt I believe) and some chocolate crumbles, and some BACON DUST, and those marshmallows.  Ok, right off the bat … caramel and salt.  Winning!  Then bacon dust … winning again!  But why bacon “dust”?  I believe it was a good way to introduce the flavor in a very restrained manner.  While I would have been happy with bacon bits, this was a more tasteful/playful way to do it – not like an over-the-top-bacon-on-everything (it seemed to be mixed in with the chocolate crumbles the most).  We had seen bacon dust before at Talula’s Table when Bryan was there and were glad to see it back in action.  But wait – and then there was those marshmallows … winning even more!  I don’t know what  they did, but it wasn’t just a plain blow-torched marshmallow – it really tasted like it had been roasted over a campfire (and if it was just a plain blow-torched marshmallow, someone please tell me and I will go out and buy that blow torch, myself).  In summary, what you had was a chocolate-based dessert with a variety of textures (the crumbles, the marshmallow, the fudge-ness, the caramel sauce) and intriguing flavors (bacon, smoke, caramel).  It was a very solid dessert …

Now by this time, g and I had polished off a bottle of red wine.  We have never been able to conquer a full bottle of wine above 12% alcohol (we did a bottle of white … once).  So naturally, we started doing things we wouldn’t normally do with our food.  Like have some cheese with our chocolate.  Or some rhubarb with our chocolate.  Or some rhubarb with our cheese with our chocolate.  And throughout these experiments we came to the conclusion that the triumvirate of that cheese plate with the rhubarb compote with this chocolate essentially turned out to be the best dessert we’ve had in the city (I’m trying to rack my brain to see if we’ve had something better outside the city – and while I can’t think of any, I’d like to remain conservative).  Shazam.  Zahav’s hold over me since whatever desserts I had way back when I had lunch there with k was over.  Of course, a lot of wine had been drunken, so maybe we should go back and re-try this just to make sure we weren’t hallucinating (actually, it’d technically be an “illusion”, not a “hallucination”).

And there you have it.  This was a stunning meal.  It started off with a “very good” veloute and just kept climbing from there, ending with a bang.  Time for some critical analysis …  The food here is definitely not as fussy as the Inn.  Duh.  It was also less than 1/4 the price.  And it wasn’t as rustic as our Philly favorite, Bibou.  The food came off as something inbetween, appearing a bit more polished than Bibou.  As far overall “feel”, the food reminded me a little of what I think JG Domestic is trying to be: a homage to local ingredients, but cooked superbly.  But, as you can see from the pix, the food is presented with a little more of rustic touch versus JG – it’s not like they were stacking veggies into pyramids or making intricate sauce smear designs everywhere.  As far the quality of the food – it was just as delicious as Bibou (which I prefer to JG … Jidoori chicken be damned) and a better cheese/dessert course (keeping in mind that we’ve only tried one dessert and one cheese plate thus far).   I found it interesting that Aimee described Talula’s Garden as “trying to do something that people say ‘only a small retaurant can do’ … but for a bigger restaurant.”  I can see that.  But I also can’t even imagine how hard it must be trying to produce food of this quality as they take on larger and larger parties – I hope the quality won’t go down, because if Talula’s is going to last in this erratic restaurant scene, it’s going to have to rely on the food (surprise!), alone.  At this point, g and I are going to give Aimee the nod over JG – however, I have heard that JG has stepped up its game, so this will probably be a heated battle as the months pass.  I’m not sure who would win in a Talula’s Garden vs. Bibou fight, as Bibou comes in at a lower price point (per dish, and it’s BYO), but it is far more difficult to get to/from (cabs, even when called, don’t exactly come right away to Bibou for pick ups) as well as get in (Bibou reservations have become scarce since the Philly Mag list).  The FTC has a meeting therein June, so we’ll find out!

Drawbacks?  There was a bit of lag-time in the beginning between the bread and the first course and and the first and second courses.  But for the remainder of the meal, everything was smooth.

The only other drawback I have relates to my longing for a more intimate environment.  It’s tough for a space like that Washington Square place to come off as intimate or garden-esque – there’s super-tall ceilings, distinct eating sections, lights, colored walls, etc … but I really have to just get over it – Django is gone, and this is the future – take it or leave it.  And trust me.  I take it.  Plus, it’s not like Aimee could lower the ceilings or cut the dining room in half or anything.  I will say, however, that I’m really excited for the outdoor space.  Hell – I’d put a retractable roof and walls on that outdoor space and make that the restaurant because that’s what I think of when I think of “Talula’s Garden” (aside from the obvious garden-esque theme, it just really feels homey and close – I like that).  Yes, I know that the outdoor space has gotten a lot of criticism with people/bloggers claiming that it looks too much like a Terrain store or something like that – but what’s wrong with that?  It’s pretty.  It’s got character.  It’s got a splash of up-scale (gotta do something with Starr-bucks).  What more do you want?

In conclusion, we wish Aimee’s new venture a ton of success – the food and vision is deserving of it (also, all this time, I have neglected to mention that the chef, Michael Santoro, deserves a lot of praise, too!  Double-duh!).  I must admit some reluctance in giving Mr. Starr any of the real  acclaim (the parts of the business that I [perhaps falsely] attribute to him – the large space, the liquor license – aren’t exactly my highlights, however, if he comes with Aimee, then so be it), he has won these compliments out of me by hooking up with the right people and finding a way to deliver actually good food and not just an over-shnazzified environment (looking at you, Pod).  g believes this to be the best of the Starr restaurants.  I reminded her that Morimoto was a Starr restaurant.  She thought an extra 2 seconds and was like, “yea, so?”  Shazam again.

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Written by afterdinnersneeze

18 April 2011 at 11:22pm

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