Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Harvest Tasting Menu at Talula's Table

In the wake of the recent glowing write up by Craig LaBan in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the pace at Talula’s Table, already high, quickly accelerated from sixty to ninety. Private dinners at their farmhouse table are booked just about solid all the way into early Spring 2008. And they’re suddenly turning out huge batches of lobster pot pies to fulfill a growing mail order demand. It seems that the combination of decadence and comfort food is quite contagious. In the midst of this controlled chaos, Bryan Sikora, Aimee Olexy, Claire Shears and their dedicated staff are keeping their heads, maintaining a sense of fun, and continuing to produce one of the best all around dining and gourmet market experiences available in the Philadelphia and greater Delaware/Brandywine Valley areas.

Witness the focused, subtle yet soulful flavors of their October 2007 tasting menu, a cornucopia of dishes built around the flavors of the fall harvest season in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Venison Carpaccio, Roasted Beet, Black Trumpet Mushroom and Cranberry Vinaigrette

One could easily expect this dish, given the inclusion of game meat, to be a hearty, high-volume starting point. Quite the contrary, the flavors on the plate are all about the bright, fresh interplay between acidity, earthiness and sweetness provided by the beet salad, beet micro-greens and cranberry vinaigrette, while ribbon thin slices of lean, pepper spiked venison tenderloin provide a warming protein balance along with a fiery finishing snap.

Trout Salad Lyonnaise, Poached Egg, Caramelized Bacon and Potato with Boiled Cider Dressing
Fresh trout can provide one of the simplest yet most satisfying examples of the range of fin fish flavors. Bryan sources farm raised trout from a sustainable fishery in South Carolina. The fish is quickly seared to give a golden crisp to its skin and then finished with a quick roast in the oven. Served over a bed of delicately bitter frisée interspersed with tender nuggets of potato, the Lyonnaise elements are finished with a couple of shards of house-cured bacon and a single poached quail egg (yolk broken by yours truly – rest assured, the other diner’s dishes were more pristine in presentation). The fresh perfume provided by a sprinkling of tarragon, chervil and thyme subtly heightened the dish’s overall impact.

Canella Scented Squash Broth, Foie Gras Raviolini, Smoked Duck, Dried Cherry, Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil
This was by far the most complicated dish of the evening, both in terms of the labor intensity of its preparation and the layering of distinct yet harmonious flavors. An intense aroma of cinnamon arose from the kitchen, the canella deeply infusing the duck, rabbit, chicken and roasted Cinderella pumpkin stock that formed the core of this course. Foie gras and duck confit stuffed raviolini, macerated cherries, tender slices of hickory smoked duck breast, and succulent little cubes of roasted squash were suspended in that richly aromatic liquid. A drizzling of toasted pumpkin seed oil – this reminded me of some of the best dishes I encountered during a trip last year to Vienna, where pumpkin seed oil reigns supreme – delivered a colorful, nutty finishing touch.

Autumn Vegetable Risotto with Walnut Pesto and Crisp Sweetbreads
This is the dish that’s received the most tweaking since Bryan rolled out Talula’s harvest menu in early October. Starting with the double decadence of lobster and sweetbreads, it then morphed into a richer, earthier preparation driven by a red wine and black truffle sauce. The final evolution of the recipe takes the dish back to a lighter, fresher expression of autumn, highlighting the last green flavors of fall and keeping the palate alive and ready for the rest of the meal. A small scoop of firm, cauliflower studded risotto was offset by the cool crunch of shredded lettuce and a dusting of freshly grated parmiggiano. Little nuggets of flash-fried, panko-crusted sweetbreads were light and sweet enough to be enjoyed by even the most offal averse of diners, while an herbaceous splash of late-season pesto provided contrast and palate refreshment.

Roasted Bass, Celeriac Puree, Prosciutto Fish Jus, Frothy Mustard and Black Olive Oil
Chef Sikora’s knack for keeping rich flavors afloat was demonstrated in textbook fashion with this course. A thick, perfectly crisped yet moist filet of roasted bass perched atop a bed of celeriac purée, amplified in flavor by celery sprouts and a slash of mustard oil. Black olive infused olive oil brought a pungent richness, doubling up the salty/smoky influence of the prosciutto scented fish jus. The subtle flavor of his mustard “froth” when tasted alone was intensified when combined with tender morsels of fresh broccoli. The final layer, a sprinkling of caviar harvested from the trout served earlier in the evening, delivered a briny contrast to the rich, buttery texture of the bass.

Wild Boar Cassoulet
I’ve never encountered a tradition for wild boar in Cassoulet, whether it hails from Toulouse, Carcassonne or anywhere in between. But hey, Talula’s Table is in Kennett Square. And wild boar not only looks good on a menu, it’s also pretty damn tasty. True to the traditions of Cassoulet, this was the heartiest, most soulful yet least clearly defined dish of the evening. Bryan handles that by letting the name of the dish speak for itself on the menu – no flourish, no sub-ingredient listings, just “Wild Boar Cassoulet.” It’s a more than appropriate name, as the traditional pork and duck fat/meat components of the dish are completely replaced by boar. Braised boar shoulder is broken down and added, along with boar bacon, to Corona beans which are then cooked down to a near purée consistency in the boar stock and braising liquids from the shoulder. Wild boar sausage is added during the slow cooking process before the dish is oven-finished in individual earthenware crocks topped with a crust of herbed breadcrumbs. Medallions of roasted boar tenderloin – one atop the crock, the other on the plate – add the finishing touches.

Nut Coated Goat Cheese Truffle, Poached Orchard Pear and Basque Blue, Creamy Camembert and Our Apple Butter
This one somehow managed to evade my camera so I’ll have to attempt justice with words alone. A departure from the plated progression of farmstead cheeses for which Aimee was justly famous during the Django era, tonight’s cheese course consisted of a trio of classic, composed pairings. The plate opened with a truffle of fresh, mildly grassy Pipe Dreams goat cheese – produced in nearby Gap, PA – rolled in caramelized nuts that would make for an ideal mid-morning snack. Oozing, perfectly ripe Camembert was well matched to a dollop of Talula’s own apple butter, a classic pairing given Camembert’s origins in orchard-rich Normandy. Finally, crumbly, creamy, sheepy Basque Blue was matched to crisp orchard pears, poached – rather insanely, I might add – in Château d’Yquem which had been left behind by a recent diner.

Apple Pumpkin Poffertjes, Spiced Ice Cream and Cardamom Scented Caramel Sauce
Poffertjes are traditional Dutch treats, not unlike little yeast-raised pancakes that have been slightly crisped outside, leaving a soft, airy interior. In keeping with the harvest menu theme, the version at Talula’s is produced with apple and pumpkin batter. Accompanied by a scoop of spiced ice cream sprinkled with Hawaiian pink sea salt and served atop a bed of ginger cookie “soil,” the little pastry puffs made for a light and lovely sweet ending to the evening’s adventure in dining.

Talula's Table
102 W. State Street
Kennett Square, PA 19348

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Luke Boland said...

Hey, I helped make all that. It's a good menu. I'm glad you enjoyed everything; hope you join us again sometime soon! Having your company and all those other people in the kitchen really livened up the night.
-Luke Boland

David McDuff said...

Good work, Luke. It was a pleasure being there. Thanks for stopping by.

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