Monday, July 21, 2008

Early Summer at Talula's Table

The phone at Talula's still rings off the hook at the crack of dawn each day, as eager diners-to-be wear out their speed dial buttons hoping to be the first caller -- the phone is answered at 7:00 AM sharp, not before -- for the elusive year-out reservation in Talula's main "dining room." Question the veracity of that year-long wait as much as you like; it's for real. The farmhouse table remains one of the country's most sought after bookings. Over the last few months, though, owners Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy have been opening the doors to their kitchen, making dinner at Talula's a possibility for an increasing number of lucky diners.

A pinch of that luck was with me as I recently headed out to Kennett Square for dinner at Talula's, beckoned by the lure of their new seasonal menu and an open seat at the kitchen table.

A large, butcher block counter in the center of Talula's spacious kitchen can be set to accommodate two-to-four diners, while still being utilized as one of the cooks' central prep areas.

The kitchen table places diners in the midst of the action. It's certainly less elegant and buttoned-up than at the main farmhouse table, but it's every bit as fun. Arriving a few minutes prior to the 7:30 dinner bell allows a few minutes to settle in, relax and observe. We caught Paul and Tyler in the midst of prepping some baby squash (above).

At the other corner of the table, Aimee Olexy worked on the evening's flower arrangement, centered around blossoms from her home garden. Our first course arrived not long after she delivered her finishing touches.

Snapper Crudo, Cucumber, Olive Oil, Exotic Pepper
With its light, crisp and refreshing interplay of textures, the first dish of the night highlighted Sikora's gift for crafting beautiful expressions of seasonality. Watermelon radish, watermelon gelée and citrus accents brought a shower of summer flavors to play.

Summer Squash Tart, Buttery Lobster, Lobster Emulsion and Fennel Jam
Another perfect expression of the season. The simplicity of squash played off against rich, tender morsels of butter infused lobster, while a jam of diced, braised fennel brought out the best in both. Piquant and rich, yet still light on its feet.

The action continues throughout dinner, always making for a lively feel in the kitchen. Bryan, Tyler, Robert and Paul were hard at work all night, composing each course at one of the room's main workstations.

Organic Local Mushroom and Goat Cheese Papusa "Authentique," Wild Epazote and Sweet Corn
Smoked whiteheat and bell peppers brought an unexpected, haunting finishing flavor to the soulful earthiness of local mushrooms, all grounded by the starchy sweetness of fresh corn.

My only problem with eating in the kitchen is that it's so engaging that I occasionally get distracted from my record keeping duties. On this night, I somehow managed to neglect snapping a picture of the fourth course. Warm Tartine of Smoked Alaskan Sable, Whipped Turnip and Chorizo Oil. I certainly enjoyed it though.... A much more subtle dish than the description had me thinking; again, it's all about interplay, discourse and depth of flavor. The smokiness of the chorizo and sable were brought to earth by a creamy purée of turnip and potato.

My chief partner in crime for the evening was Natale Caccamo, pictured here along with Talula's Tasting Menu Chef, Robert Lhulier. Nat is an all around good guy with a passion for food who's also an aspiring blogger, though he's yet to take his work public. Robert joined the staff at Talula's Table about a month back to support Chef Sikora's work on the nightly tastings. His local background includes stints at Wilmington institutions Deep Blue and Harry's Savoy Grill, as well as a run as chef/owner at the regrettably short-lived Chef's Table at the David Phinney Inn in New Castle, DE.

Also contributing to my shutter-forgetfulness were Maggie and Franz Lidz, who are both market regulars at Talula's. Maggie is the Estate Historian at Winterthur Museum, a spot well worth visiting if you're looking for additional justification for a trip out to Talula's location in the Brandywine Valley. Franz, author of Unstrung Heroes and formerly a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, also writes about food from time to time. He's now a Contributing Editor at Condé Nast Portfolio, where he penned the piece that stoked the flames of the national press' frenzy regarding the rarefied nature of a reservation at Talula's Table.

Squabs at rest, post-fate, pre-destiny.

Barbecued Squab, Creamy Squab Risotto, Quick Pickle Summer Vegetable Salad
One of the most memorable dishes of the night, the squab's gamy flavor profile was offset by spice imbued during a slow turn at the barbecue. Bryan's risotto is always a treat. This version was enriched with cheddar and squab broth, with palate refreshing zing provided by the bright snap of quick-pickled kohlrabi and carrots.

Beef Tortellini, Early Girl Tomato Sauce, Fried Eggplant
Even with hearty ingredients, the kitchen always seems to deliver delicacy and a light touch. There was amazing depth of flavor here, with the braising liquid from the beef shortribs added to enrich the tomato sauce, which was in turn brightened by oregano and basil fresh from Aimee and Bryan's garden.

World of Cheese... Seven Countries, Seven Tastes, Talula's Charcuterie and Condiments
Dinner is never complete without a sampling from the cheese monger's case. Aimee and her staff have cultivated close relationships with some of the best small dairies and specialty distributors in both the neighborhood and across the country. The selection for the evening included: Old Kentucky Tomme from Indiana's Capriole Farm; Tomme Crayeuse (Savoie, France); Comté (from the Swiss side of the border); Manchego (La Mancha, Spain); Testun al Barolo (Piedmont, Italy); Isle of Mull Cheddar (Scotland); and Stitchelton, a raw milk blue in the style of Stilton (England).

How I managed to neglect snapping another shot, this time of the dessert course, I don't know. But the Vanilla Crepe Terrine, White Chocolate Granite and Cherry Coulis was ethereal. Truffles from West Chester chocolatier Éclat put the finishing touch on a great meal.

Chef de Dégustation, Robert Lhulier relaxed, deep in thought it would seem, at the end of the night.

What about wine? It would have been way too much to include tasting notes from the evening in the context of this piece but you can find them, along with photos, in my subsequent post, Wines at the Summer Table.

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

Previous visits:


Nat said...

Great post Dave! I can't think of too many people who, with words, can make me feel as though I'm experiencing this meal all over again. The photos, naturally, are great as well. I especially like the shot of the Snapper Crudo-my favorite dish of the night...or was it the squab...? I've been fortunate enough to dine at the big table a couple of times, but being in the company of Bryan, Amy, and staff in the thick of it definitely heightens the experience. Sharing it with you and the Lidz's made it that much more a treat!
There's an Italian word that comes to mind, which applies both to the Talula's gang and yourself-
Sprezzatura-the art of effortless mastery.

Cheers! Nat

Anonymous said...

Nice post. One small correction: Franz Lidz is a Contributing Editor at Conde Nast Portfolio. He's actually on staff, writes for the magazine and a bi-weekly column. He left Sports Illustrated in 2007 after 27 years as a senior writer at the magazine.

David McDuff said...

I have no response for your very kind words other than to say thanks. It was my pleasure, indeed, to share the meal with you, Maggie and Franz.

And to my Anonymous editor,
Thanks for the correction. The main post has been duly corrected. For those just stopping by and digging into the comments, I had originally cited Franz as a current writer at SI and an occasional contributor to Portfolio.

Anonymous said...

That's funny. I didn't know the Web had fact police. Anyway, yet another staggeringly great meal at Talula's. I enjoyed the food and drink almost as much as the company. While I am not yet a very mean old guy, I am moving in that direction. I view with increasing distaste those guests who can leave an inch or so of good wine in their glasses. Happily, at the end of this particular feast, not a drop.

David McDuff said...

Indeed, Franz. Indeed. I'll have the wine notes posted soon.

Anonymous said...

We loved eating at the Chef's table and talking to Amy and Brian!
Still wish they were in Philly!


David McDuff said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Craig. I too miss having them closer to home.

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