Saturday, June 11, 2011

Talula's Garden, Urban Eden

Living in a city, as we do, you may have a tiny back yard--or none at all--and it's easy to blame one's lack of horticultural creativity on space constraints.  The upscale restaurant, Talula's Garden, a newbie to the Philadelphia dining scene, instead celebrates urban gardening.  Owner Aimee Olexy (formerly of the late, lamented Django) takes the concept of 'Garden to Table' Dining quite literally, creating a vibrant green oasis on Washington Square.

Starting the meal off right--cheers!

Peek through the birdhouses and nasturtiums lining the decorative railings to glimpse the secret garden within:   planters are crammed with fennel, basil, tomato plants, edible flowers and even salad greens.  We spotted dandelion, butter lettuce, and mizuna leaves growing sprouting on our visit - these later morphed into a house salad.

With the doors thrown open, the restaurant at Talula's Garden feels like you are dining at a friend's house - well, that is, if you had friends with amazing taste, a beautiful garden courtyard, a world-class cook, and award winning designers.   (We need to find some friend like that.)  The restaurant feels casual, yet special.  But there's nothing casual about the food--the ingredients, the preparation, the flavor medleys or the presentation are all top-notch without being overly fussy.
Lobster and pork belly by Chef Michael Santoro

Prepare to be surprised by some of the combinations.  Highlights of our meal were the roasted goat stuffed ravioli with fresh peas, scallops with kohlrabi puree and watercress salad, spiced lamb shoulder with polenta, a sublime baby beet and almond salad, and a to-die-for "flight" of cheeses.

Talula's cheese course--a highlight of our epic meal.

Our cheese server cooed over the cheese board, as did we.   We picked the "Master Selection" - eight cheeses drawn from European and local farms.  Our cheese expert explained the reasoning behind each selection and recommended wine pairings; the wine list is extensive and spotlights organic wines.  At Talula's, cheese is a religion, in part because it is Aimee's enduring passion, having traveled extensively, researching French and Californian wine and cheese before settling in Philly.  Says Aimee:  "Our menu is most influenced by the restaurants of Northern California, where the emphasis is on the purity of food and chefs showcase the seasons."

Aimee is passionate about both the art and craft behind the making of food and also the dining experience.  She describes herself as a Maitre d' rather than a chef (Michael Santoro is the inspired Executive Chef at Talula's).  Aimee's attested aim is "to slow the whole experience down.  We want people to linger and enjoy the food - whether they come in early for appetizers at the bar, drop in for dessert and drinks to round out their evening, or are here for the full four courses.  I have an old world approach to dining - like New York's Le Cirque restaurant in the old days when you had a meticulous Maitre d' in the front of the house and an avid chef in the kitchen.  I want to encourage the slow enjoyment of food.  I want people to savor their experience."

Rhubarb Gateau, a fine finish!

The menu at Talula's is designed to encourage this leisurely approach.  It features appetizers that hover around $12 and main courses ranging from $25 to $35, with sides all priced at $6.  At  around $15, the cheese course, though pricey,  is not to be missed.   The cheese is prepped and served from a special cheese station, reminiscent of a food 'altar' surrounded by more herb filled window boxes; it makes for a dramatic focal point in the restaurant.

We interviewed other friends and patrons about their dining experiences at Talula's.  Here are some of the choice quotes:
  • "Everything was perfect; the food was perfectly cooked, seasoned and presented.  It was just perfect.  The menu was really interesting, each item was surprising."
  • "I would trade my firstborn for a steady supply of these chocolate salted caramel bars." 
  • "This is the type of place where you can just as easily bring your biggest New York client or your mom to dinner.  The client will be impressed and your mom will be comfortable and happy."  
  • "Top to bottom, this place beautiful--all five senses are positively engaged." 
Needless to say, the Philly Food Lovers are in love.

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