Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Talula's Table "Pop-Up" at Washington Square

Thanks to some quick action on Lauren's part, we were able to score an opening-night reservation for the three night only Talula's Table "pop-up" event. Orchestrated by restaurant behemoth Stephen Starr, this is the first in a proposed series of events that would bring experimental and new-to-Philly chefs into the underutilized space that was once Washington Square. The lure of being able to experience the wildly acclaimed cooking of Talula's Table without a year-long wait for reservations (and an hour's drive out to Kennett Square) made this a no-brainer, and we were suitably impressed with the experience.

Aimee Olexy is the brains behind Talula's. I give her enormous respect for being a part of the original Django on Fourth Street, which was perhaps the first BYO in Philly to really hit the sweet spot of innovation, really fine execution, and a moderate price point. From what I gather, at Talula's, the focus is shifted a bit more to the farm-to-table idea, which is a natural given its location in mushroom capital Kennett Square. There were reminders of this pastoral setting in the antique farm implements scattered about the high-ceilinged Washington Square space, and in the small potted vegetables placed on each table (a tiny brussels sprout plant for us; we resisted sampling a leaf).

Rather than the multi-course, prix-fixe model of Talula's, this menu was set up with five courses, each with three or four selections, all priced and served a la carte. To start, I had the eggplant soup. It was somewhat reminiscent of a thinned-out baba ghanouj (without the tahini and garlic), though with an additional celery flavor. It was garnished with tiny "frites" of eggplant and some crumbles of Purple Haze goat cheese, which added a lovely creamy component to the experience. Lauren had the mushroom soup, which was rich without being overtly creamy, like "cream of mushroom soup without the cream". This was garnished with a bone marrow fritter. (Little breaded and fried garnishes were a recurring theme.)

Then ... we waited. There was quite a long delay between our first and second courses, but hey, it was the first night in a new kitchen, so we understood. Our very knowledgable and enthusiastic waitress offered us another gougere while we waited and worked on our drinks (a glass of Grenache for Lauren; a "pickled martini" for me; this was simply a chilled glass of Belvedere garnished with a skewer of two homemade pickles). We also got a visit from the sommelier, who recommended a glass of an Austrian red (St. Laurent) to go with Lauren's main course.

Finally, the second course arrived. Lauren was thrilled to see fried squash blossoms on the menu. ("Picked yesterday!", fawned our waitress.) Unlike the typical preparation, these were not stuffed with cheese or anything else, for that matter: simply small, crisp blossoms, very lightly fried and served with green tomato ketchup. I had the chicken sausage with "oozy cheese", mustard and assorted pickles. The sausage was gloriously aromatic with smoke, but overall, I would say the course was pleasant enough, though a bit inessential for both of us.

For the mains: creamy risotto made with aged cheddar, topped with braised beef cheeks and gremolata. The beef was amazingly beefy-tasting, if a little salty for me, but the combination of that with the creamy risotto and fresh-tasting gremolata was awesome. We switched midway though, so I had the second half of Lauren's sous vide duck breast, served with a fresh cherry sauce and a duck confit "tater tot". The duck, being cooked the way it was, retained a lot more of its fat than if it had been traditionally seared or roasted, but it was tender and delicious, with little specks of salt on the surface that made for tiny explosions of flavor in the mouth. The cherry sauce was nice and not too sweet, and the tater tot tasted uncannily like the "real deal" in a way that was almost too authentic. Overall we were very pleased with the entrees.

Next up was "Cheese 301", a course that we shared. This was two-bite portions of seven or so cheeses served with sparse accompaniments (candied nuts, a fruit paste) that cascaded like a spectrum down the side of the plate. Some outstanding cheeses in here with really big flavors, like the Truffle Tremor, the Cabot Clothbound and a very sweet and creamy gorgonzola, all served at the perfect temperature. The course came with a card asking us about our "desert island" cheese, how we like to eat our cheese and what our favorite milk is.

We shared a dessert as well, the salted chocolate-caramel shortbread bar. If you go, GET THIS. Unbelievably creamy caramel and rich chocolate, set off by just the right amount of salt, and some bitterness from the cacao nibs sprinkled on the caramel whipped cream that was served alongside. Absolutely magical.

With tip this all came out to just over $100 each, but it was worth it. It was a great idea, apparently a huge success (booked solid in two days), and hopefully a harbinger of more to come. Mr. Starr himself was floating around tables, and I overheard something about a Greek-themed "pop-up" next on the agenda. Unless he lands Zeus himself, it might be hard to top the Talula's experience.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mother's Day 2010

OK, so we haven't posted in a while, and it's now closer to Father's Day than it is to Mother's Day. In any event, here's the belated report on what we made for our annual culinary extravaganza.

Gravlax with whole-wheat blini

Not too much new here; it's the same simple gravlax recipe from last year, plus some tasty little whole-wheat blini to serve them on.

Torte d'omelette

This idea came from watching an old black-and-white episode of Julia Child where she discussed the proper way to make an omelette. As part of a show, she made this seldom-seen dish, which is nothing more than a stack of plain egg omelets with some piperade between the layers. The piperade was made with roasted tomatoes, bell peppers, and leeks. We added some goat cheese between some of the layers as well. Making that many omelets and stacking them without ripping them was a little nerve-racking, but we got the job done.

Smoked potato and duck confit hash

For some reason I had this crazy idea that I should smoke some potatoes. So I got a bunch of the baby Yukon Golds, rigged up a makeshift stovetop smoker out of two aluminum pans, covered the whole thing with foil and let them smoke up for an hour or so. Ultimately, not too much smoke flavor was imparted into the dish, but the duck sure was tasty, and rendering the duck fat for the confit means duck cracklins for the cook.

Spring vegetables in prosecco beurre blanc

This ended up a bit disappointing. After blanching asparagus, peas, and carrots so that they achieved Technicolor brilliance, once they were reheated in the sauce, everything went a little gray. It still tasted OK but was a little lacking in punch.

What was for dessert? I will let Lauren tell you all about that ...