Talula's Garden growing beautifully into its own

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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