At 7 p.m. on a recent Friday, Talula's Table closed its market doors for the night as usual.
The lights still glowed through its cafe windows, beckoning cheerfully from beneath a yellow-striped awning at the central crossroads of downtown Kennett Square. And I can only imagine the disappointment of some poor hungry soul, arriving too late to sneak in for one of the day's last lobster pot pies (all sweet crustacean, peas and tarragon-scented bisque beneath its buttery crust), a sugar-dusted pumpkin scone, or one of the house-smoked salamis that hang near the rear, where a glass case brims with farmstead cheeses.
But Talula's Table was all ours now. At 7 p.m. precisely, our party of eight strolled into the quiet market and headed toward the back, where a broad wooden farm table beneath a rustic chandelier was ready to host a private eight-course feast to be remembered.
A vibrant new market like Talula's, opened in March by Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora - last seen two years ago when they sold Django, their beloved Center City BYOB - can turn even the most far-flung agricultural hamlet into a must-stop destination. And I know more than a few denizens of Chester County's horse country who've suddenly begun making daily pilgrimages to this mushroom-growing town for Italian coffee, cream puffs and crusty bread, rare cheeses, creamy duck rillettes, house-churned butter, house-made sausages, and other handcrafted delights from Sikora and pastry chef Claire Shears. A recent series of cooking lessons and cheese classes has also caught on.
But word of Talula's farmhouse-table tasting dinners, served to just one group of 8 to 12 a night, four or five nights a week, has wafted far across the foodie grapevine like a very warm and tempting breeze. Kennett Square is a long hour's drive from Center City at the height of evening traffic. Could it possibly be worth the anticipation of a reservation made nearly two months in advance?
Olexy and her staff immediately began pouring from the bottles of chilled Sancerre brought by one of my guests. (All the wines are BYO.) And as I nibbled hungrily on warm puff pastry breadsticks perfumed with butter and a whiff of anchovy, I took an eager glance at the artfully printed menus laid at our place settings.
One of the best meals I've eaten all year was about to unfold.
Talula's September tasting began with an ode to tomatoes, an original Sikora poem on the menu and a five-part riff on the plate that celebrated the versatile fruit from every angle.
From conical shot glasses we drank the steeped amber elixir of tomato consomme topped with a peppery pouf of whipped olive oil. Deep-fried morsels of tart green zebras were streaked with the sweet spice of homemade ketchup.
Meaty tomato fillets were pressed into a square terrine, the sweet red flesh ribboned with salty white anchovies, then wrapped in a sheer ribbon of saffron pasta. Miniature crocks of baked buffalo ricotta custard came dolloped with the clove-scented jam of tomato fondue. And fresh, ripe slices of raw tomato "crudo" were laid atop a crouton coin beneath a froth of basil bearnaise dusted with powdered prosciutto.
The road from Django to Talula's Table was hardly as seamless as Olexy and Sikora make it look. The two stunned the Philly food scene when they left Django at the zenith of its popularity in 2005, when the intimate Society Hill bistro was setting the gold standard for a generation of ambitious BYOBs. Its detailed service and sophisticated, seasonal cooking had earned a rare four-bell rating - the first and only time a BYOB has achieved that status.
But a pair of talented restaurateurs can only grow so much with 38 seats and no liquor license. So they looked at larger venues. But Olexy, 36, didn't want investors, and she worried about landing nearby only to compete with the "magic" of their original space. Sikora, 37, craved a bigger kitchen and a more rural setting to raise their young daughter, Annalee Talula Rae Sikora. So they sold their business (they never owned the real estate) at the height of its value, and headed for the Brandywine Valley. A different kind of food adventure awaited.
But there was a catch. A non-compete clause from the sale prohibits them from opening a restaurant within 40 miles of Django until 2009.
What they've created at Talula's is not a full-service restaurant, but a market and cafe, a sort of gourmet update to the general store. It sits, not coincidentally, a mile or so inside that radius.
But these dinners, treated more as private catered events with a fixed menu (for $85 per person), have allowed Olexy and Sikora to stretch their culinary chops with elaborate tastings that convey their passion, their attention to details, and their ability to creatively channel the seasons and ingredients of their bucolic new home.
Local produce from the Friday market across the street makes frequent cameos. A nearby farm raises lambs. The menu changes entirely each month.
As the evening began to flow, our second course brought the essence of setting summer in a bowl. A handful of butter-steeped lobster knuckles were stacked atop a silky square of sweet-corn custard and September succotash. Tenderly braised shreds of house-cured bacon added a touch of smoky pork to the fresh snap of green beans, favas, corn and local edamame.
The following dish was more spare, but even more striking. A trio of delicate scallop tortellini - their pillowy white stuffings so subtly sweet - posed between a lemony puree of earthy eggplant and a pan-crisped chip of salami laid on top like a rosy halo. The chip didn't quite shatter, as promised, but it lent a rustic zest to the elegant dish.
As the tasting progressed into meatier flavors, Sikora somehow managed to keep the balance light. A luxuriously thick fillet of wild striped bass came over a Mediterranean swirl - orange-tinted fennel stew and milky green whipped olive oil - that undulated across the plate like moving marble.
Unbelievably moist loin of poached rabbit paired with thyme-scented links of homemade rabbit sausage, morsels of confit-stewed leg, piquant green olives and creamy white tarbais beans that exuded the intoxicating perfume of truffle.
Sikora evoked a solidly American spirit, though, with his savory finale, a ruby-rare strip loin of Pennsylvania bison smoked over hickory and served with a creamy chip of tangy Vermont blue cheese and the sweet reply of caramelized onions with fig compote.
A flight of different breads was served with every course, from baskets of mini-brioche to warm gougere puffs filled with Gruyere steam and chewy twists of Bavarian pretzels studded with fragrant seeds.
Olexy and her servers, meanwhile, kept our tall-stemmed glasses replenished with judicious pours of the guest-brought wines, many of which were matched to Olexy's pre-suggested pairings.
The couple built Django, and inspired a movement of independent young restaurateurs along the way, with a government loan of $45,000 and nothing but mountain bikes for collateral.
Their success and sale of that bistro would help pay the $250,000 it took to gut a vacant shoe store and transform it into the food lover's oasis of Talula's Table. But it wouldn't be easy.
The inevitable construction delays had dragged on and on. Sikora got permission from Django's current owners simply to work in someone else's kitchen 38 miles from Center City while the grocery was being built. But then Sikora lost that line-cook job.
The Django nest egg began to drain. Olexy and Sikora maxed out credit cards. And Olexy, one of the region's most passionate and knowledgeable cheese people, began to look for work at local supermarkets. To her chagrin, she couldn't land an assistant's job behind the cheese counter at the Whole Foods in Devon.
"The girl who interviewed me had never even worked in cheese," Olexy says. "She'd just moved over from fish."
Olexy elevated the cheese course to performance art during her days at Django, and she has collected well over 120 artisan cheeses for sale at Talula's. Our plates this night brimmed with little tastes of 10 champions from a recent American competition. From Capriole's mushroomy Old Kentucky Tomme to the creamy Green Hill from Georgia's Sweet Grass Dairy, the fenugreek-scented Fenacho from Tumalo Farms in Oregon, and a cave-aged Marisa from Carr Valley Wisconsin, Olexy narrated the details of each with breathless enthusiasm.
By the time I polished off dessert, a striped frozen terrine of concord grape sorbet and goat's milk gelato, it was hard to believe we'd spent nearly four hours at Talula's Table.
It was 11 p.m. and I could have kept eating.
As if they'd read my mind, the servers handed each guest bags of leftover brioche and a tiny gift-wrapped box as they guided us toward the door. I peeked inside to find a fresh green fig, plucked from just behind Olexy and Sikora's Chester County home. It was a sweet memento of their pastoral new life. A home-grown gesture of "good-bye."
Talula's Table was ready, at last, to close for the night.
102 W. State St., Kennett Square, 610-444-8255; www.talulastable.com
Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora, the original owners of Django, have traded their Center City BYOB for a gourmet market in the heart of horse country. The store features stellar artisan cheeses, fabulous baked goods, and standout prepared foods, from awesome lobster pot pies to Sikora's homemade sausages. The private tasting dinners served at the market's farm table, though, are among the region's most special dining experiences.
Note: Talula's farm table dinner is not formally rated because it has not been visited multiple times.
Market open daily, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Farm table dinners available for 8-12 people almost any night with a required reservation (reserve about two months in advance for a weekend, one month ahead for weekdays).
All major cards.
Street parking only.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Ida Mae's in Fishtown.
Contact Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.