Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Talula's Garden growing beautifully into its own

Gallery Image
Signage at entrance to Talula’s Garden. (David M Warren / Staff Photographer)
Gallery Image Gallery: Talula’s Garden
About the restaurant
210 W. Washington Sq.
Philadelphia, PA 19106
215-592-7787
Rating:
Neighborhood: Old City Parking: Valet: $16
Hours: Dinner Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11.
Reservations: Recommended
Open Table
Prices: $$$
Payment methods:
American Express
Discover
MasterCard
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Cuisine type: American
Meals Served: Dinner
Style: Aimee Olexy makes a spirited return to the city with benefactor Stephen Starr, revamping his Washington Square into a breezy garden and airy dining room with a homey touch that feels like Django writ large. Between the lovely setting, organic wines, artisan cheese bar, and personal service, this urban sibling to intimate Talula's Table in Kennett Square has potential for greatness. After some early kitchen shuffles, it has recovered nicely under current chef Sean McPaul, whose seasonal ingredient-driven plates hum with a sensibility that prizes harmony over precious compositions. With a little more consistency, and another season cycle under its belt, one of the city’s most ambitious newcomers should continue to grow.
Specialties: Sturgeon rillettes; celery root soup; beef tortelloni; braised veal with pappardelle; gnocchi with Buffalo Taleggio; tuna appetizer; duck breast; leg of lamb; scallops; winter radishes; braised leeks; mushrooms; cheese platters; ricotta doughnuts; chocolate cremeux; steamed date pudding; cookie plate.
Alcohol: A modest but well-chosen international selection focused on biodynamic and sustainable bottles. The triple-plus markups aren’t great, but there are several good choices around $50 (Ostatu Rioja Alavesa Blanco, $46; Schlosskellerei Gobelsburg grüner veltliner, $53; Eden Stuart Mendocino cab, $52) plus some worthy splurges, including\ amini-Barolo in Eugenio Bocchino’s Langhe Nebbiolo “Roccabella” ($76) and a sweet Italian Pacina vinsanto del Chianti ($14 a glass) that’s fantastic with cheese. There’s a small but good craft beer selection. The cocktails have appealing botanical twists, but lacked some crispness in craftsmanship.

If Stephen Starr has been bitten by the challenge of alliances with elusive out-of-town chefs, his more recent collaborations with established local stars are reassuring. And none has stoked more hopefulness than his reunion with partner Aimee Olexy at Talula's Garden.

They have created one of the city's loveliest spaces in a sunny room with homey touches that looks out onto a gracious garden beside Washington Square. Capturing the vivid seasonal delicacy of tiny Talula's Table in this far larger venue, though, has proved a difficult task.

Ultimately, the Garden - with its sustainable wine list, larger a la carte plates, and expansive cheese bar - needs to craft its own identity. But three head chefs into the adventure, I think Olexy has found a promising kitchen steward in Sean McPaul. A return visit in December produced a meal that was inspired by pristine ingredients first, not clever techniques, though most were rendered with elegant precision and focus: tortelloni stuffed with braised oxtail; duck with chestnuts in Madeira sauce; rustic leg of lamb with squash and olives; and tender gnocchi tossed with oozing Quadrello buffalo's milk cheese and charred Brussels sprouts.

There were plenty of small details that needed tweaking (out-of-register cocktails; a couple of flat entrees). But if this kitchen can take root and cook through the season cycle once more, I expect this Garden to grow beautifully into its own.

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