The other night I had the pleasure of dining with a group of well-heeled food writers, photographers and bloggers at the coveted and highly elusive Talula’s Table in Kennett Square. This was not for review purposes, but merely a social gathering of industry acquaintances wanting to get to know each other on a more personal level.
Our hostess for the evening was Mary Bigham, creator of WCDish.com. Now that I think of it, I still don’t know the particulars of how and when the table was procured—the most important detail to me was that I made the guest list. I am beholden to Ms. Bigham for the opportunity to experience Aimee Olexy and Bryan Sikora’s now-legendary farm-table dinners, and to chat up such a wonderful, passionate and down-to-earth mix of people that included owners Olexy and Sikora.
Photos by Sugendran Ganess
(In case you’ve never heard of Talula’s, it is the second culinary venture by Olexy and Sikora, former owners of Django—one of Philly’s most celebrated BYOs, which is still up and running. After taking a hiatus, the Olexy-Sikora team resurfaced in Kennett with a restaurant named after their young daughter. You can go any day for a rich and frothy cappuccino, homemade pastries and quiches, delightful specialty groceries like whimsically shaped pastas, canned sardines, jarred truffles and other dried mushrooms, flavored oils and vinegars, apricot preserves, granola, house-made sausages, jars of pureed bean and caramelized onion, fig jam, flavored honey, and so much more. You can also sit at the community table for breakfast or lunch, take home a bag full of prepared dishes, or call ahead to set up an early-evening cheese tasting—Talula’s staff wants everyone to have a farm-table experience, and this is a good way around those year-ahead reservations. During the day, the crowd is very diverse, and the atmosphere is an inviting mix of homey, almost Southern comfort and rustic European countryside flair. It’s equally charming in the company of Olexy’s brawny mac-and-cheese as it is with a plate of Sikora’s delicate wild blackfin tuna. With or without the table’s hype, Talula’s is a soothing place to hide from the constant chaos of life, and despite its high status as one of the most coveted culinary destinations the likes of Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan and French Laundry in Napa, it’s humbler than, well, humble pie. Talula’s history is laid out well on its website, so be sure to give it a read.)
While I know you are all dying to hear about the food (June’s menu is posted below), which was worthy of just about every positive culinary descriptor you can think of, my take-away extends well beyond an “elite,” “over-the-top” or “highbrow” dining experience. Breaking bread in this pastoral, serene and communal setting is about celebrating the essence of life—friendship, laughter, intoxicating aromas, pristine ingredients, a full belly and, more importantly, the all-too-rare joy of existing in the “now.” (By the way, a meal at the farm table costs $90/person, so yes, having enough money to afford such a special event is also on that list.)
There’s no doubt that Olexy and husband Sikora take the culinary arts seriously, but their creativity genuinely seems to flow from ingredients (and a strong appreciation of the land), not ego. Each is incredibly down to earth, and visibly at peace and in sync with each other and their vocation. They share a common glow that says quite clearly, “Life after Django suits us just fine.”
One of the things Olexy enjoys about Talula’s is the freedom to make last-minute decisions, along with the unbridled freshness that comes with cooking on a much smaller scale. Just like you or I would start cooking only a few hours before a meal, Olexy and Sikora do the same. Dining at Talula’s (or toting home their prepared items) is on par with having a personal chef.
Olexy and Sikora are conscientious grocery shoppers. Local is the cornerstone of their menus, as are sustainable and artisan, but they’re not shy to fly fish in overnight from Alaska or Tobago. If there is an unusual and wonderful product out there, they want to cook with it. And they don’t want to destroy the world doing it. June’s eight-course tasting menu features a number of specialty ingredients, such as the spot prawns, salmon and tuna (descriptions below), and Kashmir saffron—considered the world’s most potent saffron and not easily obtainable outside of its native India—intertwined with unusual creations like stinging nettle basil, wild rice frites (a simple yet explosive bite filled with superb, crunchy notes), and a lettuce-wrapped crépinette filled with veal cheeks and escargot. (This last one is in the soup that’s listed first on the menu. Olexy called it “lettuce soup,” but it is far too decadent for such understated nomenclature.)
And of all the things we tried, I absolutely loved the soup. If I properly understood Olexy’s description of the dish, the lettuce purée was beefed up with a potato velouté that accounted for the soup’s ultra-creamy texture and subtle, but distinct, potato flavor. I was also smitten with the Royal Trumpet Lasagnetta, which was wonderfully chewy and earthy, the best forkfuls laden with a chunk of mushroom, handmade pasta and foamy Taleggio cream sauce. I’m already daydreaming of a winter day and a plate of this, with a side of Sikora’s smoky, lean and crimson-hued smoke-roasted lamb and a nap of the stinging nettle pesto. (I could have licked my plate on that one!)
Every dish delivered in presentation, creativity, portion and taste, down to the artisan cheese plate arranged by age and cleverly named “The Ripening.” Alas, I missed the descriptions, but I did get a tour of the kitchen, an in-depth look at Sikora’s smoker, and some serious scoop on a pending project between Sikora and a handful of the city’s best chefs. Mum’s the word—unless, of course, you can get me another seat at Talula’s …
Talula’s June Menu
» Crépinette, green garlic scapes and lettuce purée
» Salad of poached wild Alaskan spot prawns, licorice root, new potatoes, our garden herbs and fried almonds
» Royal Trumpet Lasagnetta, with our Nottingham raised Berkshire pancetta and warm Taleggio
» Hot oil poached Stikine River Wild Salmon, Lucques olive remoulade, bean purée, preserved lemon and true Kashmir saffron broth
» Line-caught Tobago Wild Blackfin Tuna, braised beef cheek and wild rice frites, red burgundy reduction
» Roasted Chester County leg of lamb, stinging nettle pesto, warm Highland Farm sheep milk feta and baby beets
» The Ripening: Quintet of cheeses young to old, honeysuckle, blueberry jam and walnut toast
» Wild strawberry “Spumoni,” layered Armagnac and wild strawberry ice cream terrine, dacquoise, chocolate-almond Jaconde and fresh, little local berries
» Hausbrandt-style coffee
Talula’s Table, 102 W. State St.; (610) 444-8255, talulastable.com.
Ice Cream, Ice Cream, We All Scream for Ice Cream
If you’re looking for something fun to do tomorrow night, West Chester’s Ice Cream Tattoo Quest—sponsored by West Chester Guerilla Drive-In (guerilladrivein.com) and WCDish.com—should fit the bill. Participants are invited to meet at the Lincoln Room’s outdoor courtyard (28 W. Market St., 610-696-2102) at 6:30 p.m. to receive an airbrushed tattoo of an ice cream cone, plus a scorecard and map to local ice-cream shops. At each shop you buy ice cream, share it, jot down some notes, and receive a “Magic Star” sticker. Scoring five different colored stars allows you to amp up your plain-Jane ice-cream-cone tattoo with an “Awesome Magical Flame Buff.” At HQ, foodies will turn in their scorecards and the WC Dish Award for favorite shop will be calculated. The challenge lies in locating the fifth shop, described as a “moving target.” The tattoo will last through the weekend.
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