I’d called Aimee Olexy, co-proprietor – along with chef and husband Bryan Sikora – of Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, to confirm dinner reservations for Saturday night. Already eagerly anticipating the meal, my excitement ratcheted up a notch when I realized our party would be the first to grace the chef’s table. I’d been missing Bryan’s cooking and Aimee’s touch in the front of the house since their days as original owners of Django in Philadelphia. This promised to be a special evening.
Our party of eight arrived in smaller groups just before 7:00, as the market was going through its final moments of regular business. As the shop staff swept up and performed the usual closing rituals, we mingled around the table, sharing some Blanquette de Limoux and sparkling Montlouis to kick start our palates. Those who had not yet visited Talula’s were offered a tour of the kitchen by Bryan while the rest of us talked shop with Aimee, caught up with each other and tried our best to be unobtrusive.
Just past 7:30, we were asked to take our seats. I poured everyone a glass of Riesling in anticipation of the first course: House-Smoked Salmon Profiteroles with Smoked Scallop Sausage and Highfield Dairy Yogurt. My hunger got the better of me and I took a bite before remembering to snap a picture. Eye-opening and delicious as a starter, this dish could really be a shining star on a brunch menu. Bryan’s been experimenting, to good effect, with the smoker in his new kitchen; he perfectly dialed in the flavor and texture components of the salmon and scallop duo. I fought the temptation to wish for more, knowing that there were another seven courses to come.
Wine note: Saarburger Rausch Riesling Kabinett, Zilliken 1994. A simple wine yet it was still showing lovely petrol and peach tones along with the broadened, softened yet still refreshing acidity of a mature Saar Riesling. A particularly dry style for a Kabinett, it paired well with the smoked seafood.
After a brief pause and another round of pouring, Aimee and her service team brought out course two: Fish Soup with Paprika and Cod Fritters. One of the things that made Bryan’s food at Django so special was his ability to take what was essentially European influenced comfort food and bring it to a high culinary level through sourcing top ingredients, applying a deft hand at the stove and making subtle, creative twists. As soup may be the ultimate in comfort food, it was apropos that this dish leaned clearly toward the straightforward end of the spectrum. Rich, flavorful fish stock highlighted by small chunks of seafood provided float for a crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside bacalao croquette. A hint of Spanish influenced seasoning tied everything together.
Wine note: Soave Classico “Carniga,” Cantina del Castello 2001. Common wisdom would have it that Soave, one of the classic white wines of Italy’s Veneto, should not be age-worthy. Arturo Stochetti is out to prove that wisdom wrong. His 2001 vineyard designated Soave, golden in the glass and only slightly oxidative on the nose, was carrying its age beautifully. One of the most subtly satisfying matches of the evening, it handled the hot liquid base of the soup with its rich texture and nutty, orchard fruit flavors.
Up next, our third course of the evening: Duck Terrine with Foie Gras. A classic of the French farmhouse table, elevated to a more elegant level, this was a lovely terrine presentation, a country style duck pate with foie gras at its center, all wrapped by a thin layer of fig gelée. On the side, a dollop of decadently rich foie gras “pudding” added a touch of grace – and a strong temptation to utilize pastry chef Claire Shears’ fantastic mini brioche as a dipping tool. The flavors and texture of the terrine itself could, I feel, have been improved by coming to the table a bit closer to room temperature. Served on the chilly side, perhaps for the benefit of the gelée, the textures were just a bit too firm and the flavors just short of perfect harmony.
Wine note: Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese, Joh. Jos. Prüm 2005. Yes, Riesling again. There are few wines that can provide such versatility on the table or that can handle the rich flavors of a dish like this so well. This time, a fresher, sweeter style was called for, so we reached for a Spätlese from a classic producer and one of the finest sites in the Mosel. Though this wine will easily last another 20 to 30 years in a cool cellar, it was already stunningly good.
Moving from antipasti to the primo of the evening, the fourth dish was House made Tagliatelle with Spicy Bolognese Sauce and Wild Mushroom “Meatballs.” Though I might split hairs and call its width more akin to fettuccine, the in-house pasta, if a bit on the soft side, was flavorful and stood up well to its light coating of sauce. The “Bolognese” was a ragout of ground beef and pork, brought beyond the traditional by a spike of chipotle seasoning which provided a subtle tingle of heat on the finish. The woodsy flavors of the wild mushroom “meatballs” were echoed and amplified by a sprinkling of fresh, lightly sautéed pom-pom and oyster mushrooms.
Wine note: Valpolicella Classico Superiore “Vigneti di Ravazzol,” Ca La Bionda 2000. Another older yet still sound entry from the Veneto, Alessandro Castellani’s middle-tier Valpolicella has developed into mature flavors of dried red cherries, leather and a certain spicy earthiness. Though not a stunning wine on its own, it did provide a good foil to the hearty flavors and prickle of spice in the pasta course.
A good chef knows how to build. In an eight course tasting menu, it’s a required skill. The next plate provided an ample stage for Bryan’s talent for continuing to escalate flavors and complexity without dulling or tiring the palate of the diner. Dish five consisted of Striped Bass, Crisp Capicola Chips, Saffron Mussel Sauce, and Sweet Pea Risotto. A medallion of perfectly cooked, moist, crispy-skinned striper sat atop a bed of risotto redolent of springtime. The mussel sauce – essentially bisque – was sublime in texture and had just the right touch of saffron, a seasoning all too often applied with a heavy hand. Two or three small, succulent PEI mussels were brightened by a scattering of fennel fronds. The dish was perfect without the stack of capicola, genoa and salami chips crowning the fish. Though a minor distraction from the harmony of the plate, they made for awfully tasty snacking.
Wine note: Wien Pinot Noir “Select,” Wieninger 2003. This one found its way home with me from a trip to Vienna (Wien) last fall. As a group, we fought the temptation to veer back to white with this course. And boy was I glad. Pinot Noir with fish is not an instant recipe for success. That said, the ripe, spicy red fruit, lively acidity and supple texture of this Austrian Pinot worked really damn well with the fresh flavors of this course. I wish I’d brought more bottles home with me.
The culmination of work on the hot line came with the next course, a Petite Pot Pie of Slow Smoked Angus Short Ribs, Homegrown Spring Vegetables, and Vintage Balsamic Tomato Sauce. Not many dishes epitomize the comfort food ethos more than pot pie. In Chef Sikora’s kitchen, it rises to another plane. The essence of beef flavor and richness, brushed by just a subtle hint of smokiness, ensconced in a buttery, dense yet flaky pastry shell, all brought to life by the tang from the balsamic/tomato sauce. As if not already rich enough, the addition of a smidgen of Edel de Cleron under the top pastry layer added a little cheesy goodness. Free of vegetables within, balance was provided to the robust pot pie by the grounding crunch of just barely roasted baby carrots and turnips.
Wine notes: This course, once we got started, called for two wines: Barolo, Luigi Baudana, 1997; and Saint-Éstèphe, Chateau Cos d’Estournel, 1993. On its own, the Barolo was one of the wines of the night. It was sublime, drinking at its peak, aromatic and long. With the beef, however, the ’93 Cos made the better match. Surprisingly youthful wine from a difficult vintage; its dark, brooding flavors and solid structure were not as fine as those of the Barolo but were right on with the short ribs.
If Aimee was known for one thing above all else during her tenure at Django, it was her passion for the cheese course. The passion isn’t gone. Scaled down to single-serving size, Aimee presented us each with a plate of eight cheese selections culled from the offerings at the market.
Wine notes: Oporto “Quinta do Bomfim,” Dow’s 1989; and Savennières, Domaine Baumard 1997. Eric, one of my workmates, had decanted the Port when we first arrived at Talula’s. We kind of had to drink it, so what better place than with the cheese course. Because Port can be a bit heavy handed with non-blue styles of cheese we felt it necessary to reach into the Savennières as well. The Port gave credence as to why 1989 was not a generally declared vintage. Though still sound and quite tasty, it was rather four-square and showed little promise for further development beyond its current stage. The Savennières, on the other hand, was doing what Chenin Blanc based wines can do only when from the Loire – maturing beautifully, emitting ethereal aromas and sucking everyone’s palate dry. That said, it was an awkward pairing with the Port (no surprise) and worked well only with the mildest, freshest tasting cheeses.
Finally, it was time for the ultimate course: a Tasting of Petite Sweets. Dessert was the second offering of the evening from the arsenal of Talula’s pastry chef. We’d already enjoyed, early on, an assortment of small breads baked in-house by Claire Shears, including one of the best examples of brioche ever to pass these lips. This night’s dessert was not a creation for the evening but rather a sampling from Claire’s current offerings in the pastry department. A Hazelnut Torte provided simple, satisfying richness and lovely texture. The Rhubarb “Napoleon” with Rhubarb Mousse, Strawberry Compote and Crispy Cinnamon Phyllo was the most adventurous item of the trio. And the plate was rounded out, with an entry into high classical pastry art, by a Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Rum-Soaked Dried Cranberries. The cake was moist and fork-friendly, with just the right level of sweetness.
Wine note: Tokaji-Aszú “5 Puttonyos,” Royal Tokaji Company 2000. If not with dessert then as dessert…. Viscous, honeyed and dangerously tasty, drinking this now was a worse crime than committed earlier with the Prüm Riesling. It was worth it.
In summation: wow! At $85 per person (plus tax and tip) for a meal like this, you’d be hard pressed not to consider it a culinary steal. If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the offering evolve over time into a slightly smaller number of courses. I can seriously eat but many of my dining companions began to struggle with finishing their courses at about round five or six. The atmosphere at Talula’s is wonderfully pacific, like a cross between an elegant country inn and the comfort of your own dining room. The drop ceiling, framed with rustic wood panels rescued from a Lancaster County barn scrap yard, and its Arts & Crafts chandelier form a snug cocoon around the table area. Service, particularly for a first time effort, was excellent: friendly, quiet and smooth, though I suppose it may have helped that Eric and I did all of the pouring (at our own insistence). I considered it a privilege, at least a great stroke of luck, to be one of eight at the first supper at Talula’s Table. Call and schedule a date for yourself. Eat. Enjoy. Just don’t go so often that I won’t be able to get another reservation.
102 West State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348