[ review ]
When you walk through the Garden, you better watch your back.
That would have been the message sung to whomever was responsible for the darkness that dropped like a black-velvet theater curtain on Talula's Garden last week. For seven hours, the power was out, and the only light was the natural kind, filtering through the crepe myrtle and sugarplums of the iron-gated courtyard and into the restaurant. The temp was in the 80s and there was no air conditioning.
Fortunately, PECO got the power back on in time for dinner, but the mishap wasn't without casualties, like the foie gras parfait. Sitting at the al fresco bar, to where I'd been apologetically directed by the dewy hostesses, I pitied all the evening's diners who wouldn't get to slip a spoon into that square of livery luxury, as I did a week earlier. I pitied the career gals sipping sparkly cocktails. I pitied the couple discoursing on Founders Centennial IPA, Rogue's Crater Lake blue and how Stephen Starr's second turn in this space compares to his first, Washington Square.
For the record, there is no comparison.
I even pitied the medusa-haired lady sitting next to me, a difficult feeling to muster as she prattled on about her friend who was running late because she'd just had her eyes done. These guests, my banished-from-the-A/C comrades, would not know chef Michael Santoro's smooth-as-Cool Whip foie this night. They might go on to enjoy their food, but to go to Talula's Garden and not eat this first course would be like going to Baltimore and not eating crabs.
The internationally schooled Santoro cures duck livers with salt and late-harvest pinot gris, furthering their intoxication by puréeing them with port, Madeira and brandy, plus garlic, shallots and thyme. Employing a French technique he learned working at the Fat Duck in England, he emulsifies the mix with eggs and enough clarified butter to entertain thoughts of liposuction. (I bet my new friend at the bar knows a guy.) The parfait is terrine-molded and baked, sliced and plated with pistachios, cherries, brioche and stupefyingly good apricot butter scented with summer savory that Santoro grows just a few feet from where I was sitting.
That foie is the breakout is doubly ironic. The place is called Talula's Garden, for one, not Talula's Abattoir. And second, wasn't it Starr in 2006 who caved to animal-rights activists and instituted a company-wide embargo on gavaged goods?
Here, the notoriously meticulous restaurateur doesn't make decisions about what is and isn't on the menu. (Barclay Prime still serves foie, too, for the record.) He didn't select the goose-fleshed cotton stationery on which the menus are printed, or the floor lamps that arch over the banquettes like curious ostriches. He didn't pick out the garden chairs or even the construction crews, including one assembled by Delaware's Challenge Program, which teaches carpentry skills to troubled youth.
When Washington Square was being transformed, the decision-making fell to Starr's partner in the venture, Aimee Olexy of Kennett Square's Talula's Table. "Singular visions are something Stephen understands pretty well," says Olexy. "I think he wanted to allow that to happen and not muss it up by interjecting ideas."
The restaurant that has resulted from this unusual anti-collaboration is a testament to them both.
Right now, the list of Philly restaurants I'd rather eat at is thinner than Santoro's lovely fazzoletti pasta tossed with braised, bacon-wrapped rabbit spiced with vadouvan. From the bread service (house-baked sourdough) to the dessert (doughnuts with lavender-scented strawberry sauce), he's cooking at the level of all my favorites.
I thought the halibut showed every minute of work that had been sunk into it — brining the fish, foaming saffron, braising oxtail and artichoke hearts, one stuffed with the other in a prep-intense barigoule setup — but offered little pleasurable reward. It's the Avatar of the Talula's Garden menu, and the only dish over two visits I didn't love.
Haunting and visceral, the lamb shoulder is more District 9. Juniper lingers on the meat like perfume on a man's collar, mace on the sweet Thumbelina carrots sunk like treasure into a quicksand of Anson Mills polenta. There are squash-blossom fritters filled with chèvre and ricotta, and a chilled purée of golden beets sweetened with moscato. The tortelloni of braised spiced goat, inspired by Santoro's Indian in-laws, in powerful goat jus studded with peas and spherically smooth "gnudi," is already the Pasta Dish of 2011, and the year's only half over.
The dessert list is a fanciful assembly of sweet curios, but you'd have to be vegan or lactose-intolerant to miss the masterful cheese menu Olexy has curated. There are six plates served, seven if you count the omakase house 'mongers Josh Kaplan and Jessica Muller can fashion to order on the pink-granite cheese bar.
Served on reclaimed-slate boards dotted and streaked with date purées, rhubarb chutneys, artisanal honeys and candied nuts, the choices are as trim as a twosome and as large as the eight-count Master Collection. But you should get the Not Your Granny's, "six new takes on tradition," if only for the Tumelo Farms Fenacho, a butterscotch-y goat's-milk Gouda freckled with whole fenugreek seeds.
A long time ago, back when Olexy was the manager of Starr's Blue Angel, she lived at Seventh and Pine and would walk by Washington Square on the way to work. "I fell in love with the spot then," she says. And now, the rest of us can, too.
Talula's Garden | 210 W. Washington Square, 215-592-7787, talulasgarden.com. Dinner Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. Appetizers, $9-$16; entrées, $25-$34; dessert, $7-$10.