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Talula's Garden has a chef

And Sean McPaul was right under everyone's nose.

Cheers erupted in the kitchen at Talula's Garden on Washington Square just before Saturday's dinner service as Aimee Olexy and Stephen Starr named Sean McPaul, the chef de cuisine, to the vacant exec chef's job.

Talula's Garden, which opened in mid-April, has undergone a stressful breaking-in period. Opening chef Michael Santoro and the owners parted company in late July, shortly after a tepid Craig LaBan review. Next in, for a moment, was a reluctant Matt Moon, who had run the kitchen at Olexy's Talula's Table in Kennett Square; though Moon certainly shined at the tiny Kennett Square restaurant and had a wonderful handle on the whole farm-spun aethetic, those 200-plus nightly covers were simply too much.

So the new No. 1 has been there all along.

McPaul, 30, locally raised and Culinary Institute of America-trained, won his spot after an audition meal that showcased in-season vegetables and fruits. The tasters sampled sardines and cucumber; a trio of soups (Brandywine tomato, sweet corn, and summer squash); and duck and peaches. He made a ravioli of Talula's Garden's housemade ricotta with oozing egg and tomato water, and bluefish with romano beans and stewed tomato that happens to be on the menu now.

McPaul bested several other chefs who also demonstrated for the restaurant's brain trust.

McPaul, a vet of San Francisco's Bacar and Quince, had the inside track because he has been with the project since its early days. He was working at Starr-owned Parc when he heard about it last winter, "and basically told me that he wanted to be involved," Olexy told me.

"He's been the engine here," she said.

They plan to introduce seasonal tasting menus.