Archive for March, 2008

I am Veruca Salt with a Golden Ticket in my hand. I am Jack Whittaker, clutching my Powerball ticket. I have won the Delaware Valley’s culinary jackpot.

Yes, I secured a last-second seat at the most famous table in Pennsylvania’s mushroom country, Talula’s Table, and have lived to blog about it. For those who don’t know, Talula’s Table has become part culinary experience and part burgeoning myth. First, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Craig Leban nearly gave himself lateral epicondylitis from the stroking he gave Talula’s in this review. The subsequent hype has spiraled to the point where there is now a year waiting list to dine at one of the table’s 12 nightly seats.

But this is not about the hype. This is about the food. And thankfully, the food is damn good. Is it life-changing, wait-for-a-year good? Who knows. Living up that expectation for the restaurant is probably as difficult as securing the reservation is for the diners in the first place. But rest assured, Talula’s Table serves tremendous food in a completely unique, personal setting.

First, we arrived to an empty store, rather than a restaurant, which immediately foreshadowed the unorthodox dining experience that followed. Before Talula’s Table was a phenomenon, it was a market, and each day, it still is a market. But each evening, the shelves of freshly prepared treats and cases of cheeses take a back seat, and the lone, hand-carved table moves to the forefront. We took our seats at that famed table and settled in for a long night of gullet stuffing. We immediately met Aimee Olexy, one-half of the husband/wife duo behind Talula’s, who couldn’t have been friendlier or more enthusiastic about the experience. My friend Kyle, who got the reservation, had been emailing with her for the days prior, finalizing the menu that you see below, prepared by her husband Bryan Sikora.

Yeah, we were pretty excited. Through eight courses, we would be consuming animals large and small, we had a small arsenal of wine, and an entire restaurant to ourselves.

Our dinner was in January (I apologize for not writing about this earlier, but the birth of my daughter took precedent), so it interestingly began with a light, summery dish like the salmon terrine, with a vibrant, lemony sauce. I’m not a huge salmon guy, and I found the roasted part of the terrine a bit overpowering, but the Meyer lemon winebroth was a nice start to the gigantic feast that followed.

In a menu filled with a plethora of culinary fireworks, the second course was the simplest and possibly the most delicious. Making use of the nearby fungal bounty of Kennett Square, the mushroom risotto was earthy, creamy and utterly addictive. At this risk of sounding like a pompous bag of douche, the only risotto I’ve had that was better was at Le Petit Zinc in Paris. Several people in our group (dudes, even) wanted to run back and kiss chef Bryan Sikora for this amazing bowl of rice.

One of the great facets of Talula’s Table is the interaction with the staff (though kissing them is out of the question, I would suppose). Our servers were all enthusiastic and knowledgeable, enhancing the experience with a passion for the dishes that kept emerging from Sikora’s kitchen. On top of that, they were fun. Because we were the only people in the entire market (and the aforementioned stockpile of wine), our group got comfortable. And loud. And slightly rowdy. Yet the staff rolled with the punches, not missing a beat even when one member of our group told a joke whose punchline involved sodomy. That’s a sign of a good dining experience: servers who can wax poetically about artisan cheeses and also roll with a well-crafted butt-banging joke.

The meal kept churning along, with a solid salt-cod fritter that I don’t really remember that well, and an interesting take on Beef Wellington that substituted rabbit for steak. The meal may have hit its peak, though, on the fourth course, a chorizo stuffed quail. With an aromatic broth that tempted us all when they first put down the plates, the dish featured a (thankfully) de-boned quail with a spicy sausage unearthed after a few bites. It was creative and delicious, and actually overshadowed the next course, which would have been a tremendous hit any other time. It was a smoked short rib and beef tenderloin dish where the smoke was pronounced and delicious. But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t still thinking of that quail.

It’s worth noting that at this point, we were all getting full. You don’t get shortchanged on courses here, as each dish would be similar to a nicely-sized appetizer at most restaurants. So the cheese course, which is hand selected by Aimee, and thoughtfully presented from lightest to most flavorful, might have been more appreciated had I not been re-adjusting my belt at the time. But I sucked it up and had the dessert, a steamed lemon cake, which was a tasty and interesting bookend to a meal that also began with a light, lemony dish.

After the meal, we were able to buy things from the market, speak with the chef and soak in a wonderfully unique experience. It was unlike being at a restaurant, and more like attending a friend’s dinner party. If, you know, you had a friend who was a world class chef. The meal takes over three hours, which has apparently aggravated some diners, the staff told us. Those people, frankly, must be assholes. Because the Talula’s experience is about taking time to savor things, whether that means the hand-selected ingredients and Sikora’s thoughtful cooking, or simply savoring three hours of fun with friends, escaping a world where most things are too rushed, too processed and too un-delicious. So is that worth waiting a year for? You’re damned right it is.

*Unfortunately, because I only found out I would be going to Talula’s the day of my visit, I had no camera to document it.


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