Talula’s Garden

What better way to celebrate a birthday than at one of Philadelphia’s most acclaimed restaurants? I’m talking ultra-fresh ingredients in flavorful, straightforward dishes. Co-owner (with Steven Starr), Aimee Olexy’s claim to fame has been in creating intimate settings; resolutely farmer-friendly ones as in Talula’s Table, an infamous, iconic small-town café in Kennett Square.

If you’re not familiar with it, Talula’s Table (named for Aimee’s daughter Annalee Talula), “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.” ~ Rick Nichols, Inquirer Columnist, April 21, 2011

Anyway, I just wanted to set the stage for the meal we were about to experience at Talula’s Garden, southwest of Philly’s Independence Hall. In the classic, tall-ceilinged space, the room rises a few short levels under the drum lights toward a 2,000-pound salvaged stone counter—the stage for Olexy’s top players, her coveted artisanal and farmstead cheeses check out the list here. The cheeses we sampled, the “altar” we didn’t see…

Talula's agrden interior
A stock photo depicts the modern, yet rustic interior.

It had been a brutally hot day and we were debating about dining al fresco in the city, but once we parked (no easy feat in that vicinity) and entered Talula’s garden oasis, there was no doubt where we wanted to be. Nestled between two towering buildings, the narrow garden dining room beckons patrons with charming vistas that draw the eye upward. Luckily, due to an earlier heavy downpour that cooled things down, it was actually pleasant, with a nice breeze even!

Our extremely pleasant and knowledgeable waitress, Abigail, went over the dining options then left us to ponder the wine list, the Cheese Sampler menu, the Chef’s Tasting menu and the A La Carte menu. Allowing us time to review the selections, Abigail returned to answer any questions, and took our beverage request for a wonderful French Côtes du Rhône, Mistral Domaine Coulange.

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Daylight was quickly turning to dusk as the twinkling lights and hanging lanterns came to life.

To sum up the atmosphere, there were soaring rusticated weather-beaten timbers, twinkling lights intertwined in vertical landscaping, an artsy collection of lanterns hanging in trees and from beams, and romantic table candles—all with sound that didn’t drowned out conversation, and service that was laid-back and well-informed. From the stylish interior to the casual garden, the restaurant’s varied ambiances created an intimate climate that was elegant yet informal, and most definitely comfortable.

IMG_6572Neighboring diners offered to take our picture. Our waitress Abigail is shown in the background just to the left of Russ.

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One of the exterior walls by the serving station displayed a vertical garden of hanging greenery that soared many feet up the building.

Now about that food… I can only describe the meal as a well-tuned orchestra of flavors that played a melodic symphony on my taste buds without ever missing a beat. No imperfections noted—the juxtaposition of flavors, textures, and temperatures was nearly flawless. Even the next day I couldn’t stop singing its praises when I indulged in my leftovers! Yes. It was THAT GOOD!!

The feast began when presented with a plate of two of the most heavenly brioches rolls I have ever had the good fortune to indulge in. Looking innocent enough when they arrived tableside with a lightly seasoned melted butter topping, I popped a piece in my mouth and swooned. Not one to eat much bread, I slowly savored each bite until the entire roll disappeared, as did Russ (he threw caution to the wind by allowing himself to eat wheat.) Yes. They were THAT GOOD!!

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For starters I just had to have one of those acclaimed cheese platters (Paula Graham I’m thinking of you here.) My choice, Not Your Granny’s – Six New Takes on Tradition, with goat, cow and sheep varieties from Spain and the USA. Gorgeously plated on a piece of slate, the samples were accompanied by swipes of tasty spreads, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

One odd looking item we overlooked, until Abigail appeared and asked which one of us was going to enjoy the “ground cherry,” so I swooped it up and ate it immediately. Abigail was amazed that I didn’t even give Russ a chance, at which point he explained it was OK, since it was my birthday celebration. Happy wife, happy life 😉

In case you’ve never heard of them (which we hadn’t), ground cherries are sweet and look like a cross between cherry tomatoes and tomatillos, and are wrapped in a papery husk (notice the beige colored round fruit to the right in the picture below.) Some say they taste like pineapple, others talk gooseberry. Whatever the case, they can be eaten raw, added to salads or cooked into jams, jellies, salsa, condiments or pies. I will definitely be on the lookout for them in the future.

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Russ, an oyster aficionado, chose to start with the Cornmeal Fried Chesapeake Oysters with charred corn and chili remoulade, pickled green tomato, baby bib lettuces and fresh dill. Since he was also enjoying my cheese platter, he felt generous and offered me a taste of his oyster dish. For the record, I HATE oysters. But, feeling adventurous after that ground cherry, I acquiesced and he carved off a piece. I sheepishly admit, it was very good…

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There were four options under the “Pasta” category, with a choice of an appetizer size or larger dinner portion. We noted our neighboring diners splitting the smaller share between them and decided that was the way to go. Light and delicate, our preference Sweet Onion Top Scented Pappardelle with creamy fennel and pork shoulder ragu, summer squash and fragrant fennel pollen arrived artfully plated in a small bowl. The lime green of the pappardelle was striking!

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At this point I was basically full, but knew my main entree would be making an appearance soon. To be fair, there were a good number of seafood dishes on the menu, but we both had a hankering for red meat. In my case, I chose the ‘Steak & Tomato,’ entree with sliced and charred rib-eye, breadcrumb baked heirloom tomato, spiced eggplant, tomato, and Shishito peppers.

Wowser, it was almost other-worldly in how the array of quality elements united. This is one of those dishes where you eat with your eyes first, take a bite of the perfectly sublime rib-eye, and are transported to a place you never want to leave. YES. It was THAT GOOD!

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My man, staying true-to-form, ordered the Roasted Rohan Duck Breast, a hybrid of several duck breeds produced by D’Artagnan that includes the Heritage Mallard and the Peking. The dish consisted of silky smooth slices of medium-rare breast meat complemented by a lavender-infused duck sausage made by hand in the restaurant’s kitchen. This taste of duck heaven was accompanied by buttery farro, black garlic, charred pickled radicchio and garlic scapes. 

Black garlic was something totally new to us. We learned that it’s an Asian treat made by heating whole bulbs of garlic over several weeks at low heat until the cloves turn black. This makes roasted garlic look like fast food! The earthy flavor of the garlic and the tang of the pickled radicchio provided a pleasing undertone to the richness of the duck. The only disappointment was the garlic scapes, most of which were too tough to eat.

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Dessert not being my thing—not even for my birthday—Russ of course had to take on the difficult task of having dessert for me. (His suffering was immense, I’m sure!) The dynamic duo of chocolate and mint melded together in his choice of Chocolate Crémeux, a creamy, dark chocolate custard that rested, unmolded, on a luscious fresh mint sauce accompanied by homemade, intensely minty ice cream sprinkled with a white chocolate crunch and vanilla salt. Need I say more? By the look on his face as he tasted each element of his dessert, I knew I had to give it at least a taste. It was truly amazing.

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While I excused myself to go to the bathroom, I later found out that our neighbor suggested the waitstaff bring me one of those brioche rolls with a candle due to my earlier praises. Instead, they thoughtfully presented me with the above plate with a lighted candle and hand-written birthday sentiment.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that bathroom. Inside behind a large door, one enters into a chicly decorated unisex vestibule with a long trough sink. Each of four or five gender-neutral stalls were ultra-clean, nicely appointed and well sound-proofed. I believe this to be the footprint of future bathrooms to be.

One final note on the mark of a superior restaurant according to Mr. Hartman is the coffee. Well there was no failure in his expectations here. Russ said the La Colombe Fresh Locally Roasted Organic Bleu Coffee was probably one of the best cups of Joe he’s ever sipped. High praise indeed!

Our culinary bar has now been raised. Talula’s Garden dining experience will be what all future adventures will be compared to. YES. It was THAT GOOD!

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