Rick Nichols: Intimacy writ large

How does Talula's Garden grow? With Washington Square greenness, and Aimee Olexy's homey soulfulness in menu and milieu.

Aimee Olexy at Talula's Garden on Washington Square. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

The mechanics of the thing were falling into place last week - the flocks of daffodils jump-started in their beds, the wall of vintage spigot fountains trickling and, inside, the last of the drapes getting draped from the 20-foot-high ceilings.

But at the edge of Washington Square, Aimee Olexy was still chewing over an intangible, even as her ambitious restaurant Talula's Garden opened last Wednesday, serving up its first oven-warm brioche (with a lick of spring-ramp-infused butter), its first soulful bowls of oxtail consommé with bone marrow dumplings, and pots of French press coffee, which the menu instructs are, of course, from single-origin beans from Haiti, and "earth conscious" to boot.

The intangible - beyond Olexy's trademark farmstead cheese courses, beyond the cutesy cocktail names (the Cobbler, the Cook, the Cheesemaker), the sustainably produced wine list, and a rigorously drilled staff salted with Olexy loyalists - was this: How do you scale up an iconic small-town cafe into a 150-seat urban "garden" without losing your signature intimacy and homey ethos?

Aimee Olexy's claim to fame has been in creating intimate settings; resolutely farmer-friendly ones, too, even as a tide of corporate steak houses, in Center City, at least, was becoming the flavor of the month.

A decade ago, the intimate cafe was Django, the foodie mecca at Fourth and South, launched with her then-husband chef Bryan Sikora, the most gushed-over BYO in town; the only small fry, in fact, to crack the charmed circle of four-bell review winners. (There the brioche came baked in little clay flower pots.)

Then in 2007 after the couple moved to Kennett Square, it was the rustic prepared-food shop and bakery Talula's Table (named for their daughter Annalee Talula), which serves a single farm-sourced dinner each night around its folksy 12-seat pine farm table, a meal so exquisite, so personal, and so tuned to the beat of the season that it would become, and remains, the toughest reservation in the land - an extraordinary one-year wait for the $100 seat.

At that cafe, you might have had wild strawberries picked from Olexy's backyard, or short-season rock shrimp from Alaska, or eggs from Mrs. Wickersham down the road: Talula's Garden, on the other hand, Olexy says, "is more farm-to-table-inspired. We don't quite have eggs from the neighbor or three [local] lambs hanging in the walk-in like we do at Talula's Table."

Truth be told, the farm-to-table shtick is getting a little tiresome. A new venue seems to open weekly. But clean, original food, mindful service, a room with a narrative, a leafy park out front?

It's hard to get too much of that.

There has been a lot of water over the dam since the move to Kennett. There was a false start to open a second restaurant in mushroom country. A tentative deal to come back to Philadelphia and revive Stephen Starr's late, lamented Blue Angel, which Olexy once general-managed. Then Aimee and Bryan split in a divorce - cheating husband, wounded-wife story worthy of a country music ballad.

But here she was in clogs and ponytail, faded jeans and seagull-gray sweater on opening week, back in town, back on her feet, back with her peppery machine-gun delivery, giving a cheese tutorial: "It works best if we sell a ton of cheese," she told the servers, "not just to make more money, but so we can move it, rotate it with the season. . . .They have a time of their life when they need to be eaten."

Talula's Garden was making its debut southwest of Independence Hall in the bones of another Starr space, which once housed the short-lived Washington Square restaurant in the art deco N.W. Ayer Building, the hive once of ad men circa the Mad Men era.

And this time around Starr (with more than 20 restaurants under his belt) would be her official collaborator, and her uncharacteristically deferential partner.

It can seem an odd power couple, a bit of Beauty and the Beast about it, but Starr now had the horse (along with new chef Mike Santoro) that might take him to the serious-food winner's circle; and Olexy now had the horsepower to make her dreams come true.

This time around, the frosted-glass panel that had blocked views of the serene, historic square had come down, replaced by Olexy with a wrought-iron gate, its garden path paved in Pennsylvania bluestone and brick to make it seem an extension of the park itself.

She'd acted as her own general contractor, recasting ceiling planking from old Vlasic pickle vats in Milford, Del. She'd hired ex-convicts to do some carpentry. She'd rescued the rolled-glass cottage windows from the Chester County farm that was the set of the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village, backing them with soft-glow lighting and whimsical bird patterns from the Manayunk textile-printer Galbraith & Paul.

She'd installed, as part of the homey look, unwieldy floor lamps hovering over tables (a detail that drove the maintenance-conscious Starr operations guys nuts). Candles were set in jelly glasses. Crunchy cookbooks propped here and there. Bent-spoon napkin rings. A garden-loving quote from Alice Waters, the seasonal-foods guru, is stenciled around the ceiling.

Enumerated, the details sound like a Bucks County B&B gone wild. And in the full afternoon light, the 80-seat dining room, and even the 60-some-seat adjoining garden, can feel chockablock and overthought.

But as evening falls, the space transforms, the seed packs and jelly glasses, the dramatic drum lamps and wood flooring muting and blending, losing their identities, becoming background music.

In the classic, tall-ceilinged space, the room rises a short level or two under the drum lights toward an altarlike, 2,000-pound salvaged stone counter - the stage for Olexy's star performers, her pet artisanal and farmstead cheeses.

And at twilight in the garden, painted porch chairs set around cafe tables, candles lit in the jelly glasses, pinpoint lights peeking like fireflies on the wall, you can spoon into a veloute of sweet peas poured over Long Island squid, or contemplate a curl of glazed lobster tail with pork belly, and take in a vista of spring budding in the square.

Or you can consider, at shorter range, a massive slab of polished sycamore in the garden that has been fashioned into a table.

It is surrounded, in echo of its famed forebear, by 12 seats.


Rick Nichols, former food columnist at The Inquirer, will be sending in occasional dispatches. Contact him at richard.nichols@comcast.net.