'I'm having a Korean scientist clone me soon," says Aimee Olexy.
She's pondering her strategy for maintaining quality control in her ever-expanding Talula's empire. And it's become an even greater task now that her airy new market-cafe - Talula's Daily - hums from early morning through night in a rambling bilevel space on the opposite side of the Washington Square building where she also runs the restaurant Talula's Garden.
And she's joking. I think. But then, Olexy has already done a fine job in the cloning department.
Servers at the Daily, not unlike waitresses at the Garden, stride in crafty colored aprons amidst the farm tables and evening light of the market dining room with such a familiar breezy gait, I wonder if Olexy's gone brunet or put her hair into pigtails before I realize she isn't even there that night.
They drop off flowerpots blooming with warm bread, triggering a Django flashback to 2001. They effortlessly repeat Aimee buzzwords to describe the menu's "harmonious" seasonal flavors and the oozing cheese-board gems as having "that haylike quality we love." Sometimes, the earnestness is simply too much for the understudies, and un-cued dissertations on the ingredients' virtuous, sustainable origins spin out into tiresome spiels best left unspoken.
But the enthusiasm is undoubtedly genuine. And it's hard not to share. And not simply because a walkabout here is rewarded by nibbles of cuminy beet-infused hummus or baskets brimming with impulse-buy trimmings of Tarentaise and juniper-rubbed Pecorino. Or even the mushroom-studded frittatas and decadent mac-'n'-cheese wedges that whisper "devour me" every time I try to walk by.
It's because with the Daily's opening, Olexy has finally managed her most elusive cloning trick of all - capturing the intimacy, personalized experience, and casual magic of her original Talula's Table in Kennett Square. It's a feeling that's always been just-missing from the Garden, good as that is, a Stephen Starr-partnered juggernaut that often serves 300 diners a night.
The market's concept flummoxes some who have not yet figured out how its complex layout serves many divergent uses. A businessman at my community table one lunch groused about the "confusing logistics" of separate registers (one for coffee and pastries, another for prepared foods) before launching into a loving recitation of the many "grilled cheese of the day" variations he'd managed to sample. A pair of bejeweled young women on the other side of me had skipped straight to a lavish cheese board for lunch, chosen from the 100-plus artisanal selections. One confessed she'd made a dinner there recently of a hunk of Truffle Tremor and "two bottles of wine."
"Only one grilled cheese a month for me!" piped in another distinguished older woman eating solo across the table, lowering her Wall Street Journal to say she lived upstairs in the building, but had yet to eat there for dinner.
She should. Because the dinners are where things at the Daily really get interesting. Whereas the market is conceived to serve the Square's previous lack of a good soup-and-salad cafe, the "secret supper club" that takes over the space's 30 seats after 7 p.m. is destination-worthy.
For one thing, with small tables available, there's no need to wrangle a large group or join the year-in-advance reservation scrum that has kept Kennett Square's Table so exclusive. The set tasting menu, which changes completely once a month, is also less precious in presentation and less than half the price. At $50 for five courses, it's easily one of the best values in town for an experience that doesn't rush, and channels the seasons with Olexy's signature Alice-Waters-ian touch.
Her collaborator here is chef de cuisine Scott Megill, a Mount Holly-born, C.I.A.-trained alum of Napa's Ubuntu, Supper, Terrain, and Talula's Table. And the two Megill menus I sampled were truly inspired odes to fall.
October's meal began with tiny lamb meatballs with cumin and preserved lemon, snugged onto skewers between cubes of Carr Valley's bread cheese roasted soft and toasty like American haloumi. A salad of shaved celery root, roasted chanterelles, and blistered brussels sprout leaves tangled with juicy Anjou pears and smoky lardons of Benton's bacon.
One flaw: I struggled to find a fairly priced wine from the small, appealing list ($15 a glass for a Poggio-Anima Primitivo that costs $15.79 a bottle?!). Such markups are typical of Starr restaurants. But the Daily's craft beer list is a smart alternative, with local stars (Fegley's Brew Works, ShawneeCraft) to balance national names like Green Flash and Founders.
A bottle of tart, complex Russian River Damnation golden ale was the perfect companion to a plate of luscious, sea-sweet scallops, glazed with reduced cider and set over an exotic coconut-and-squash curry infused with the fragrant lemongrass, fennel, Ceylon cinnamon, and cardamom of Megill's own Vadouvan blend. The night's cheese platter brought a creamy choir of leaf-wrapped sheep's-milk beauties and an earthy New Hampshire Landaff tomme, among other delights. The evening's true star was a sublimely rich bread pudding soaked in maple custard, presented in the warm pan tableside and spooned over a cold scoop of maple ice cream. Even better? They left the pan of leftovers on the table.
November's menu has been just as inspired, but with different virtues. Megill mastered early-season goose into a charcuterie trio of country pâté, apple-smoked breast, and tangy shred of rillettes turned silky with creamy foie gras mousse. A simple but soulful parsnip soup was sparked with the contrasts of crispy fried parsnip strips and tart drops of persimmon syrup. The cheeses (Kunik, Harbison, Rogue River Blue, Époisses) were in usual spectacular form. And a rustic, à la minute tatin with ginger-clove caramel did the Winesap apples justice.
My favorite dish of all my Daily meals, though, was the paper-wrapped surprise of skate en papillote. Almost always seared, the flesh took on an unexpectedly luxurious quality in a tangerine-scented steam, and concealed beneath its butter-glossed wing a trove of root vegetable treasures. Each was cut and cooked to a unique shape and texture, from weird and squiggly little crosnes, to earthy soft Jerusalem artichokes, snappy shaved ribbons of multihued raw carrots, bittersweet marbles of tender baby turnips, and crunchy cubes of al dente kohlrabi.
It's just the kind of delicately timed dish, Olexy says, that's hard to replicate for the Garden's larger scale. Then again, never underestimate this woman's will to clone a hit. No scientist necessary.
Aimee Olexy discusses Talula's Daily at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Little Nonna's, 1234 Locust St.