LaBan chat: Shore standbys; more on Talula's Garden

Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:

Reader: Enjoyed your reviews of the newer spots at the Shore. Curious if you ever consider doing reviews of old standbys to give folks a heads up whether they are treading water on reputation. For example, is 410 Bank as good still? Is the Lobster House worth visiting? How about a little-mentioned restaurant, Karen and Rei's . . . got hype when they were in Avalon, and then they moved and no one mentions them . . . is there a reason?

Craig LaBan: It seems there are so many new places each year that it's hard to squeeze the oldies in. But since I've been visiting the Shore for over a decade, I got the urge at the end of this round to revisit some old favorites. Maybe next year I will. I don't think the Lobster House would be on that list, though. I've been a few times and never really liked it. I would like to revisit 410 Bank St., Steve and Cookies, Knife and Fork (which turns 100 next year), among others. Karen and Rei's - I reviewed them twice - once in Avalon, and then when they moved to the mainland. Not sure they are still open - the number is disconnected.

Reader: So, honestly, you think the food is better at Adsum than at Talula's Garden? Seriously?

C.L.: This is a two-part answer. 1. I did not find the food I ate at Talula's G as memorable as the food I ate at Adsum. The flavors and ingredients were good, but the compositions were so overdone I don't think the best ideas on each plate were really done justice. 2. Your question assumes that every rating is based on a horse race between one kitchen and another. That's a false premise, as my meals at these two restaurants were about a year apart. I don't approach these reviews that way. Talula's G got the rating based on my meals there, not my meals at someone else's restaurant. Clearly, I liked much of my experience there. But the food on the whole just didn't consistently excite me enough to hit 3 bells.

Reader: Comparing Talula's Table to Talula's Garden, do you think that the fact that TG is a Stephen Starr Organization property influences what comes out of the kitchen? Or is it that a restaurant needs to dial the fussiness up when it's in Center City?

C.L.: The answer is tricky, as I don't know what goes on behind closed doors. I do know Starr has obviously been very involved, providing the resources and support, and offering strong opinions on the kitchen (he told me that Michael Santoro was no longer cooking there), but my impression is that the dining experience was very much created under the vision of Aimee Olexy. I don't think we should underestimate that Talula's Table originated as a collaboration between Olexy and her former husband, Bryan Sikora, who is a fantastic cook. His successor at the Table, Matt Moon, carried on that aesthetic (polished, focused, seasonal) until his recent departure. Aimee was starting this kitchen with a new crew - and executing at this level is very hard, and often takes a lot of refining. A lot of Starr places come out of the box fully formed - and never change (i.e. Buddakan). This is a seriously ambitious restaurant that needs to evolve to find its voice. Starr, who told me he'd been considering a change in chefs for a while (that is, before my review), obviously wasn't patient enough to watch it happen under Santoro. I'm disappointed Santoro won't get the chance. He is a talented young cook, who definitely could have brought the restaurant to the next level. How much of that fussiness on the plate was a function of debuting Talula's as a big-ticket entry into the city scene, or just a young chef trying (too hard) to trot out all his chops on every plate, is hard to tell.

Reader: Just to clarify . . . are you reporting Starr fired Santoro? Other reports have made it sound more mutual.

C.L.: Starr told me very specifically it was "mutual" as well. Whatever that means. I always take personnel transitions with a grain of (sea) salt. That's not a job I see an ambitious young chef just walking away from.

Reader: Have you heard anything about the logistics of DiNic's move within the RTM? I hope they don't close down for a few months. I might have to go vegetarian.

C.L.: Yes - we had a story in the paper Sunday on the coming renovations at the RTM. DiNic's is moving into the larger space formerly occupied by Harry Ochs . . . . They need the extra space if you've seen the lunchtime lines. And rightfully so, since they easily make one of the best two 2 or 3 pork sandwiches in town. I just hope they manage to keep the counter seating, which makes it seem so personal. My understanding is that the move will happen later this fall, and hopefully, it should be seamless . . .

Reader: DiNic's will definitely not close down for a few months. Knowing them, they probably won't close at all, but if they do, I can't imagine it would be for a few days. They've been meeting with kitchen designers. They are actually expanding their counter space - almost doubling.