History can tell us only so much.
For example, I've long loved the artichoke-infused Italian liqueur known as Cynar. But when I took a sip of the Weeping Fig cocktail at Talk made with "house Cynar" — and coughed so loudly from the bitter burn of thistles abused in grain alcohol that our server came over to ask if everything was OK (it wasn't) — I knew all presumptions were off. How many artichokes were harmed for a cocktail so out of whack with rye and floating bits of inedible raw spice pods?
I literally couldn't drink it. "It's OK," he said graciously, "it happens all the time."
I'm not sure whether he was referring to everyone at Talk or just me, considering I rarely made it past a few sips of any of the half-dozen cocktails wittily named for poisonous plants (Lily of the Valley, Wolf's Bane) that I sampled over the course of three visits. But the ambitious-yet-misguided mixology was only one of many aspects about Talk, the latest creation from co-owners and chefs Tim Lanza and Andrew Kochan, that did not quite meet expectations.
I know from the history of their work at Marigold Kitchen, which I had awarded three bells and which they still own, that Lanza and Kochan are capable of producing beautiful plates of progressive, inventive food. And certainly there are instances at Talk, their first venture in Center City, where their modernist touch is in artful full bloom. The dish called "mushrooms," for example, a two-part study of mushrooms in sky and earth: a flaky warm tartlet filled with a soil-dark mince of creminis that sits on a white plate polka-dotted with sherry agrodolce across from a terrine of mushrooms suspended in a rolled cloud of goat cheese. You taste the texture and intensity of the 'shrooms in different ways, triggered further by the umami crunch of a maitake cracker. And there's even a throwback hint to that terrine rolled in pine nuts, recalling, but improving upon, the cheese balls of yore.
That yearning for nostalgia is everywhere at Talk, from the truffle-covered revamp of steak and twice-baked potatoes to a decor that tries, awkwardly, to evoke a Roaring Twenties mood with murals of imaginary scenes from early talkie films. They're a flat embellishment to the noisy black box of a room that my architect dinner guest said reminded him of a themed room painted "for a Radisson hotel."
To be fair, there are starter budgets to consider for this duo, whose first ownership venture, at Marigold, was a turnkey BYOB with a long reputation. Talk is their first full-service restaurant built from scratch, crafted inside the rehabbed bones of an old photo studio. A sizable chunk of resources were dedicated to the "dream kitchen" in the basement, where Lanza, primarily, is turning out an a la carte menu of modern American plates.
I can continue to quibble with elements of the decor, including black leather chairs that seemed comfy until I sat in one that swayed perilously near the top of an open staircase to the basement. But that was nothing compared to the young couple beside us, whose table both wobbled and swiveled to the point that it looked like they were eating in a rowboat.
But the prime concern here, and where that Marigold track record doesn't translate seamlessly, is to witness how difficult it is for a crew that's refined the predictable exercise of serving small-plate tasting menus to a BYO crowd to consistently execute an a la carte menu with larger plates where little flaws can undo what seems like a good idea on paper.
I loved the notion of reinventing steak and potatoes, and they've got the grilled filet mignon down. But aerating potato foam into the hollowed crisp of a potato skin (rather than traditional mashed potatoes) doesn't work when the service isn't swift to the table and those airy potatoes become sticky and gummy. The flavor combo of a black pepper pasta with lobster mushrooms, figs, and prosciutto was appealing. But this Parmesan cream-soaked dish was sloppy compared with the other beautiful plates, and the fresh pasta was overcooked.
The smaller dishes had issues, too. Like the savory éclairs glazed with sour cherry preserves and stuffed with chicken liver mousse. It's a fabulous idea — unless the choux pastry isn't delicate enough, causing the liver puree to squirt out onto the plate (or worse, your shirt) when you take a bite. A smaller pastry, say a one-bite gougère, would work better.
There were some genuine successes, like the Briny Piney oysters on the half shell splashed with tarragon oil and pearl-sized scoops of sweet-tart pickled cantaloupe. And the yakitori of grilled quails speckled in black-and-white sesame over tart and crunchy Napa cabbage. The grilled "zucchini steak" was also a satisfying vegan option over a chunky puttanesca sauce bolstered with piquant olives, fingerling potatoes, and artichokes. I'd be even more enthusiastic if I could only figure out how a dish built around a single zucchini — which sells, at most, for $2.50 a pound on Whole Foods Instacart — adds up to a $20 entrée. ("That's a good question," Lanza conceded, before elaborating on the labor to prep artichokes.)
The fact is I wouldn't question it if the rest of our meal had gone smoothly and this prime real estate along the reviving western end of Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square didn't feel so close yet so flawed as an experience. Too many decent dishes were held back from being great by tiny details of execution. The neat idea of a fish sauce caramel for the daily crudo stumbled over hamachi that was raggedly cut. A yellowfin tuna crudo from late summer was a bit more successful, but pairing it with trompe l'oeil chunks of look-alike watermelon had the unintended effect of canceling out the tuna's delicate flavor and reducing the fish to a texture.
The seared foie gras with peaches and brioche was another temperature casualty — not hot or oozy enough by the time it arrived at our table. The beef tartare was minced too coarsely, then layered over bread that wasn't toasted quite enough, with a texture that was soggy. The nightly special of a "salt cod" cake was overfried to a dark brown, and actually made from halibut scraps, which were unpleasantly stringy. (The smoked paprika chips, however, are a keeper touch.) Even the dessert promise of Lanza's mom's excellent pecan pie suffered the indignity of arriving cold and hard straight from the fridge.
Two entrées, meanwhile, were close to great. I could eat a mountain of the warm mixed grain salad of farro, wheat berries, and quinoa tossed with baby kale, chanterelles, and pickled cherries. But the tender and juicy roast chicken beside it was achingly salty (twice) from an overzealous brine. A scallop dish was as near as this kitchen got to complete success, the gorgeously seared rounds of Jersey sea flesh paired with a corn succotash of country ham, corn and diced green zucchini ringed by dramatic dots of bright red bell pepper puree and shiny black earthy huitlacoche.
If only the kitchen had resisted the urge to blend that vibrant dice of summer produce with a pureed vegetable gravy cooked down from shaved corn cobs and scraps from that zucchini steak, a move that turned the colorful confetti into a drab olive scoop of slurry mush. Hey, I get it. No zucchini guts shall be left behind! And I tipped my glass of Slovenian orange wine — a solid choice from the esoteric wine list that offered far more satisfying options than the cocktails — toward the frugal chef-owners' best instincts.
But one place a restaurant should never, ever skimp is in a made-to-order French press coffee. Knock, knock! It's La Colombe, wondering who turned their proud dark coffee beans into weak brown tea. Repeatedly. Lanza assured me his front-house staff, who were friendly enough but not exactly firecrackers, have since been given a fresh lesson in how to brew a proper pot.
Next on the to-do list should be a call to the handyman to come lighten the vintage facade's heavy glass door action. Just as the hostess was cheerfully bidding me farewell, the door seemed to slip from her hand, catch a gust of wind and smack me on the backside, catapulting me onto the sidewalk. I know, I know … a restaurateur's dream device to eject a grumpy critic, right? But I'm not walking away from Talk so quickly. History tells me this duo has the ability to get back on track. Let's hope I'm right.
2121 Walnut St., 215-515-3608; talkphl.com
The transition from running a BYOB tasting menu to an a la carte restaurant with a bar has proved tricky for partners and co-chefs Tim Lanza and Andrew Kochan. Their success at Marigold Kitchen, which they still own, has not translated smoothly to their first Center City venture, an awkward black box of a space near Rittenhouse where the creative modern American plates are beautiful — but consistently flawed in the cooking details. The ambitious cocktail program is a mess, full of craft ingredient pretense but with none of the finesse needed to connect the humor in noir-themed drink names like Wolf's Bane and Deadly Night Shade. Hard pass on those.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Crudités; savory éclairs; oysters with pickled cantaloupe and tarragon oil; mushroom duo; yakitori quail; zucchini steak; filet mignon; chicken (when not too salty); scallops; lemon semifreddo.
DRINKS There's a genuine attempt to make unique cocktails here with house-crafted bitters, limoncello, herb-infusions and liqueurs, plus a witty wink to a poisonous plant theme with names like Lily of the Valley that would be charming if any of these drinks were good. But the consistent lack of balance in the cocktails — some virtually undrinkable — puts more emphasis on the wines. The small but eclectic list offers a solid collection of Euro-style wines by the glass, including some favorites — Portuguese Quinta do Crasto red; New York's Dr. Konstantin Frank grüner; Vincente Sanz verdejo; Cline viognier; and a Slovenian orange pinot grigio from Makovec Manus that I'd drink anytime.
WEEKEND NOISE The black box space has some acoustic panels, but they don't work. At 84 decibels when busy, it can be hard to talk at Talk. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)