Thursday, April 17, 2008

Spring 2008 at Talula's Table

It will be another few weeks before the ready availability of local produce really kicks into gear. Area farmers markets are prepping to open even as we speak. But if you have a really well thought out garden or perhaps are up for the adventure of doing a little searching in field, stream and forest, there’s plenty of tasty stuff rearing up from the ground here in the Mid-Atlantic, even this early in April.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you have the best local farmers and just about every professional forager in the region knocking at your door, hoping to find a place for their goods (and their name) on your table. Under the ownership of Bryan Sikora and Aimee Olexy, Talula’s Table has become just such a beacon for the farmers in the Brandywine and Delaware Valleys, much as at Philadelphia’s Django when it was still their purview. With the help of those local purveyors, the latest farmhouse table menu at Talula’s is brimming with the new flavors of spring. I stopped by on a recent evening, nabbed a seat at the kitchen table and checked out what was cooking.

Warm Smoked Scallop and Lobster Terrine, Foamy Fish Broth and Russian Osetra Caviar

If expectations of terrines run from the rich and creamy to the light and mousse-like, this delivered on another level of texture and weight, with the firmness picked up by the scallops during the smoking process echoing the substantially fleshy feel of the lobster. Counterpoint to that density came from both light, airy fish broth foam and from a sprinkling of snappy, saline caviar. Hearts of celery braised in wine and fish stock, along with a drizzle of refreshingly herbaceous tarragon and chive oil provided light opening touches, setting one’s appetite up for more.

Brandywine Watercress Bisque, Clam and Sweet Pea Parmesan Risotto, Black Pepper Crackers

A creative, seasonal take on New England clam chowder? The intense green hues of Bryan’s bisque say no, yet the parallels are all there. A lightly smoked clam, served in the shell, sits anchored atop a dollop of creamy, parmigiano rich risotto, all a swim in a vibrantly pea green pool of watercress bisque. The base for that bisque is essentially vichyssoise, thinned with just a bit of clam juice infused stock. Locally foraged watercress provides the greenery as well as an ever-so-slightly bitter and peppery hint that offsets the richness of both the risotto and the soup. The pepperiness of the cress is echoed playfully by the black pepper “oyster crackers” that adorn the plate. If the creamy potato base and the oyster crackers aren’t enough to convince you of the tie-in to clam chowder, the soup was also studded with additional morsels of clam, while the clam centerpiece has a smidgen of unadulterated vichyssoise spooned into its shell. The fact that I was trying to figure out a delicate way to get every last drop of that creamy goodness out of the clam shell once my plate was cleaned is a testament to the chef’s understanding of the importance of placing quality foundations beneath more impressive details.

Hand Cut Pasta Carbonara with Asparagus and Foie Gras, Sunnyside Quail Egg and Black Truffle Bird Jus

There’s always something on the menu at Talula’s that I could easily imagine eating by the heaping bowlful. It’s rarely the most complicated dish; rather, it’s generally that with the greatest comfort quotient. This is one of two such hits in the April lineup. In this case, it may have something to do with the pasta – fresh, tender and egg-rich yet snappy to the tooth, perfectly al dente – and my past days as a carbo-loading bike racer. In spite of its homey elements, it may be unfair to call this dish uncomplicated. Foie gras makes an appearance, lending an obvious decadence factor. Even without it, there’s plenty else going on. A single sun-up quail’s egg gives credence to the term “carbonara” in the dish’s name. Spring asparagus is shaved, blanched and commingled with the ribbons of pasta. The single green asparagus tip adorning the plate may be the best I’ve ever tasted. All that said, it’s the chicken jus, black truffle and thyme infused broth that really elevates this to the plane of deliciousness.

Chickpea Crusted Alaskan Halibut, Sautéed Ramps, Glazed Baby Carrots and Turnips

Alaska meets the Middle East meets the specialty vegetable grower in this multi-influenced dish. “Chickpea” is an understatement, as it was really falafel – homemade – forming the crust atop a seriously meaty, wild caught halibut filet. A yogurt and chickpea purée completes the Persian influence on one side of the plate. On the other, baby turnips and carrots, fresh from a specialty purveyor, are braised and glazed in an intense combination of honey and chicken stock. Fresh, peppery sautéed ramps, dressed with the brightness of mustard oil, complete the picture. I’d like to try this with a slightly oilier, more voluptuous cut of fish such as sea bass. Still, the sweet/earthy interplay across the two sides of the plate works.

“Spring Chicken” with Toasted Lancaster Cornmeal Spoonbread, Homemade Berkshire Ham in Potato Velouté with Green Garlic Shoots and Radish Salad

I’ll do my best to keep words to a minimum with this course. Local produce takes center stage, all built around the poussin from Griggstown Farm. The spoonbread, from cornmeal ground at a nearby Lancaster mill, puts this right alongside the carbonara course in the comfort camp. Fresh, flavorful veggies just help make the whole experience feel good. For me, this is simply the most delicious and soulful course on the April menu.

Crispy Veal Sweetbreads, Grilled Marinated Flank Steak, Petite French Onion and Morel Soup

This is essentially a de/reconstructed take on the bistro classic, French Onion Soup. Assertively peppery and richly earthy onion and morel soup is adorned with a crisped round of toast topped with melted Gruyère. The vertical exercise continues with layers of perfectly crisped sweetbreads – a staple in Sikora’s arsenal and one that he seems to have mastered – and medium-rare medallions of veal flank steak. As solid as all the component parts are, there’s a flaw in the dish’s execution. I think the idea is for the toast to crack and crumble at the flick of a fork and for the proteins and bread to meld with the soup, all forming a cohesive bowl of yumminess. However, the toast, between the melted fat from the cheese and the steam from the soup below, takes on a chewy texture that refuses to comply with the mission. The result: difficult and messy work for the diner, albeit with a rewarding payoff.

“The Masters” – Quintet of Artisan Cheeses from the World’s Most Renowned Producers and Affineurs

The menu description says it all here. The lineup, from left to right: St. Maure de Touraine, an ash-covered Loire Valley goat’s milk cheese; Lamb Chopper, a goat’s milk Gouda from Cypress Grove; Délice de Bourgogne, the epitome of triple crème creaminess; Santa Rita Parmiggiano Reggiano, from an organic, artisanal producer; and Shropshire, an annatto colored, cow’s milk blue from the UK.

Poached Rhubarb, Apple/Fennel Crisp and Lemon Verbena Gelato

For dessert, my picture will have to be worth its weight in words. As my last minute arrival hadn’t provided enough time for pastry chef Claire Shears to adjust her production quantities for the day, I had to appreciate this course from afar. Somehow, I managed to survive….

* * *

If you’re still with me, perhaps wondering how I just happened to have “nabbed a seat at the kitchen table,” there’s the possibility of good news in store.

For those doubters out there, it really is true that the farmhouse table – remember, it’s just one table, limited to one seating of 8-12 per night – is booked a full year out. You can call tomorrow to try to secure a reservation exactly one year later for you and seven to eleven of your most steadfast friends. Of course, you can also add your name to the mile long waiting list in hopes that your name will rise to the top the next time a party cancels.

Or, and here’s the glimmer of hope for a shot at a seat, you can call and inquire about a reservation at Talula’s kitchen table. Seating availability is limited to parties of two to four on nights with full staff in the kitchen and smaller groups of diners in the front of the house. Due to the intimacy of the scene, reservations are essentially by invitation only. Translation? Regular customers of the market at Talula’s Table stand a pretty good chance. Cold callers – not so much. Of course you can always try plying the owners with gifts, as suggested by local writer Franz Lidz when he spilled the beans on the kitchen table reservations in his recent piece for Condé Nast Portfolio. And who knows, it may even help to say you read about it here.

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

Additional visits:


Anonymous said...

dude,wtf, no wine notes? c'mon!

David McDuff said...

What makes you think I drank any wine with dinner?

Anonymous said...

well it is mcduff's food and WINE trail.duh.

Anonymous said...

You made my mouth water with the mention of the word "Ramps". I ordered some last year from here

Your post reminded me of that, now I am going to have to order some more because my mouth is watering!

Joe Manekin said...

It all looks pretty tasty at Talula's. Any murmurings of new ventures outside of 215-land for these folks?

David McDuff said...

Thanks for stopping by. I've yet to do any foraging of my own but ramps are just on the young side of full swing around here.

The owners of Talula's are pretty down-to-earth. I can't rule out the possibility of expansion plans but I don't think they're overly eager to try to build a national empire. They do/will, however, ship some of their signature prepared products, such as lobster pot pies and house-made sausages and cured meats.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, oh man, I must check out that place.

David McDuff said...

It's more than worth the trip, JOEy. If you go for dinner, make sure to arrive a little early so you can do some shopping while the market is still open.

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