after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

Revisiting Sean McPaul’s Talula’s Garden

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t says:  Talula’s Garden has seen some very big press and changes recently.  First there were a slew of mixed reviews, from a 2-bell review by Craig LaBan and 3.5 star review by Trey Popp to the food-fights of comments on foobooz posts every time they Talula’s was mentioned.  I wasn’t really sure what to make of the disparities except to say that g and I enjoyed Talula’s very much under the helm of Chef Santoro.  But then Craig gave three bells (just today) to Sikora’s, a place that we felt was unremarkable – Trey Popp semi-agreed with us, awarding only 2.5 stars.  How bizarre – I guess everyone has their favorites – and g and I are Aimee fanboys.  Now that would have been enough up-and-down, but there’s more.  Right after Talula’s made Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurants in America” list, there were chef-changes-galore going on, from Santoro to Talula’s Table’s Moon, and now to Sean McPaul.  So basically, in the setting of some fairly high volumes from the Bon Appetit review (basically, it’s been nearly impossible to get a reasonable dinner time unless you know well in advance), they needed to change captains.  Yikes.  g and I feared for the Garden and hoped that they could deliver the food that was expected of them.  To make matters worse, we, ourselves, really couldn’t quite get in there to see how things were going … until yesterday.  So now that the dust seems to have settled – how are things?  Here’s the quick-and-dirty (because I know we’re all tired about reading about Talula’s).

October 2011, Sunday 6pm, Party of 2.  g and I set out to visit Talula’s on what happened to be a nice warm night – the first in a week or two.  As we walked across the city with a bottle of Sancerre in hand, ready to pay the $25 corkage in lieu of acquiescing to the alcohol mark-up (our biggest Garden gripe), we found ourselves in the mood for a good last hurrah for summer, intending to partake in some outdoor dining and some lighter fare (“light” for me, means “no big slabs of meat” … little slabs are still permissible).  We took our seats outside in the perfect weather and this is what we got, what we thought, and a few pictures before it got too dark.

Tuna Crudo

We started with the tuna crudo.  Why?  Because if there’s a raw fish as an app, there’s a high likelihood that g will get it.  Thick slabs of fresh tuna (good temperature, good consistency, clean flavor) with a few greens, cooked carrot (little firmer than the tuna), surprisingly mild onion, chunks of avocado, some avocado cream, and a few other things.  At first, I was wondering if this was going to be too busy of a dish, as it didn’t really look, feel, or eat like a “tuno crudo” – it was like a cross between a ceviche and a salad.  It was a “rustic” tuna crudo.  But I tell you what – it was delicious.  The fish delivered a note equal to and complemented by the accompaniments – it was summer on a plate.  What a relief!  I was worried that Craig’s “too fussy” comment was coming to kick me in the butt.  Earth-shattering?  Not necessarily.  But a non-stuffy way to have delicious raw fish?  Absolutely.

A Return to Gnocchi

The last time we went, a little part of me wept like a little baby when I found that Talula’s had removed the gnocchi entree from their menu (i.e. the gnocchi-and-mushroom dish).  I needs me some pasta!  Then, yesterday, I saw a new gnocchi dish – an appetizer in which the pan-seared gnocchi were accompanied by a bitter green and a ?telaggio? cheese.  As you can see, we got it.  When it hit the table, I must admit that I was a little uneasy that McPaul was playing with fire by making the gnocchi with some Italian-esque flavors in there (in my limited experience, farm-to-table gnocchi rarely go for the cheese-and-greens combo).  Hell, it was a tomato or two away from a fight with Mercato or Barbuzzo … But this was damned good.  I mean really damned good.  Even g, who isn’t super-obsessed with gnocchi as I, was very impressed … and she’s Italian.  Just the right seasoning, just the right flavors.  This was a dish stripped down to a dainty loin cloth to show off some superb gnocchi cookery (you’d figure that’d be easy, right?  trust me – I’ve had some bad gnocchi in my time).

But then it got dark, so no more pictures.

Before moving onto our next course, we had a surprise course!  The kitchen sent us the foie appetizer.  How thoughtful of the Garden!  It had been probably two months since had visited last, and even though Aimee wasn’t there that night, someone had remembered us – we did have some table visits by servers we had had in the past (or maybe we’re just flagged on opentable or something).  Now I have to admit – g’s not a huge fan of foie, and I’m not a huge fan of cold foie.  So when this hit the table, we flashed each other looks of despair, as it’d be rude to not try this gift horse.  The dish was foie “parfait” that came looking like a large hunk of soft cheese flanked by a mini-salad, some sort of apple-y chutney concoction, and some bread.  We loaded up our bread and hoped for the best.  Holy crap.  This was the best cold foie I’ve ever had – it reminded me of Fond’s “Apple Pie Foie” I had some time ago.  The foie flavor was mild (which die-hard foie fans might not like) and, like the texture, oh-so-creamy. Furthermore, when coupled with that apple “thing” (really, I have no idea what else was in it), it was truly sublime.  The dish wasn’t about “I am foie”, rather, “We are foie and more” – kind of like comparing a super-funky cheese alone versus a not-as-pungent cheese with the appropriate accompaniments.  We ate every bit of it (actually, I was a bit greedy and ate more than g).  It was yum.  I’d actually order it again!

We then finished he meal with some familiar-but-new-ified dishes.  We did the oxtail tortelloni which had beefy broth and tender pasta/meat as well as the new scallop presentation (g was there – we obviously did the scallops), which were once again beautifully seared and accompanied by some good veggies (in the past, they were accompanied by a puree).  These were par-for-the-TG-course (we’ve written about similar dishes before, so we’ll stop here).  And, of course, we ended on cheese – if you’re at Talula’s, you gotta have some cheese.

g and I feel that the “new” menu at Talula’s (or at least what we had of it) is just as good as the original, if not a half-step-or-two better.  The new appetizers and the new-esque scallops that we had were delicious and showed a little less subtlety than I had seen from the Garden in the past, which I enjoyed.  It was as if the songs are sung a little louder and with more harmony.  Also, it seemed like there were fewer purees and more actual foods (or maybe it was so dark I couldn’t see them?) – but I’m not sure if this is a reflection of the new chef or the new season.  At the very least, the new chef is able to keep Talula’s going at the same pace it was going when it received its first accolades.  That said, we look forward to his future dishes, as if you really think about it, the dishes that were the newest to us were the most impressive.  Are McPaul/Aimee/Starr going to be able to change Craig’s mind?  Your guess is as good as mine – in the same review he went from “fussily precious” to suggesting it’s a contender for “restaurant of the year”.  We’ll see.

Written by afterdinnersneeze

10 October 2011 at 8:40am

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