Aimee Olexy still vividly remembers that nervous call more than a decade ago. She picked up the phone at the host stand at Pod, where she was the manager, and called her boss Stephen Starr to tell him that she and her then-husband, Bryan Sikora, were quitting to open their own little place.
"He told me I wasn't going to make any money," recalls Olexy.
"And I was right," Starr said recently, pointing out that he remained a fan of hers, supportive enough to give them feedback on names and locations. "But she didn't really make any [serious] money."
Of course, Olexy and Sikora went on to achieve something perhaps even more elusive - universal acclaim - with two intimate destinations that rank among the most influential dining icons of this region over the last 10 years. Django set the bar high for the BYOB scene (four bells!) before they sold it. Then their move to Kennett Square produced Talula's Table, where diners wait an entire year for a seat at the private farm table's exquisite nightly tastings. Based on my recent meal at Talula's still vibrant Kennett chef's table - 10-plus memorable courses of early-summer magic - it's worth the wait.
So it should only follow that Olexy's spirited return to the city to create a much larger second restaurant at Talula's Garden - now partnered with Starr in this million-dollar parkside domain festooned with twinkling garden vines, with organic wines and an airy dining room and a bar just for her beloved cheese - should be that perfect union of art and commerce.
It should. And it most likely will be someday soon, as the Garden has nearly all the traits of a three-bell pedigree, with clear potential for more. The well-trained and personable service is what you would expect from a place with entrees priced in the high 20s.
Starr, who has still not dined at Talula's Table, gave Olexy free rein to design and conceive the operation, and she has deftly brightened the brooding chic of the former Washington Square and opened its previously cloistered patio into the breezy indoor/outdoor dining space of our farm-to-table dreams. There are herb boxes hanging everywhere, botanical prints on the warm red walls, and dangling silk lamps from Galbraith & Paul that warm the reclaimed-wood tables and green couches with an elegant yet homey glow. A warm and fuzzy "garden" quote from Alice Waters scrolls around the walls like an incantation from the patron saint.
But one nagging factor is still holding this grand new venture back from reaching its natural place in the three-bell realm - an overeager kitchen so caught up in complicating the dishes with flourishes, it has yet to find a consistent groove. If the Table's seasonal meals seem so effortlessly sublime (though the chef there, Matt Moon, unfortunately just left recently), my early meals at the Garden were so laden with overlabored fuss that they often felt contrived. That magic is still elusive. Undress one or two superfluous elements from each ornate dish, and the essential good cooking here would come into more memorable focus.
There were no doubt moments of great soulfulness, as when chef Mike Santoro slow-braised Indian-spiced goat into tender fillings for hand-folded tortelloni, which came dabbed with tart yogurt, fresh green peas, and marble-smooth rounds of warm ricotta gnudi that crumbled back to salty curds when I took a bite. There were great ingredients put in striking combinations, as with the lobster tail glazed in a reduction of sweet-tart grapefruit alongside meltingly soft pork belly.
But often, too many precious curlicues become a distraction.
Only in the farm-frenzied dining scene of Philadelphia 2011 would a restaurant scatter soup with dark brown crumbles of "beet dirt." It's actually crushed shortbread with pureed beet, but little more than a clever diversion from the fact that the cool soup itself tasted like just about everything (chardonnay, oranges, lemongrass, pecan oil, buttermilk) but the golden beets it was supposed to feature.
And what, I wondered, was that stretchy, translucent sheet covering the overmixed peekytoe crab salad like a veil?
"That's an ocean gelée," said our waiter.
Tasted as bland as jellied water to me.
Make no mistake. Santoro, 34, is a genuine talent with an artful sensibility for flavors that work. A light, tart glaze of rhubarb lightened up the crispy sweetbreads while kale chips tapped their earthy notes. A rillette of smoked sturgeon whipped with herbed fingerling potatoes, then glazed with a lid of crème fraîche, was a luxurious yet light twist on the traditional pork. Pulled shreds of bacon-braised rabbit touched with exotic French Vadouvan curry tumbled over hand-cut pasta sheets with fresh favas, Castelvetrano olives, wild mushrooms, and cippolini onions for a starter that was satisfyingly rustic.
Santoro's earlier kitchen experiences, meanwhile, at London's Fat Duck, Spain's Mugaritz, and Gilt in Manhattan before running the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, have given him a repertoire of cutting-edge techniques to put those seasonal ingredients in contemporary relief.
That doesn't mean they should all be used together on a single plate.
How about a tiny morsel of glazed lobster knuckle hidden beneath a ribbon of shaved baby courgette and fronds of silver queen sorrel beside dabs of geleed curd of lemon peel and a pinch of powdered olive oil? That's a lot of culinary kung fu for not much kick. And since this complimentary little gulp was delivered to break up what seemed to be an interminable half-hour-plus wait between our appetizers and entrees, it only intensified our hungry impatience.
I might have attributed the delay to Olexy's rare absence that night, while a half-dozen mini-Aimees (willowy women in jeans and long tresses, blousy shirts, and linen aprons, with high cheese IQs) glided about the room. But in fact, the drag between courses at my first meal was even longer.
For the most part, it was worth the wait. An absolutely gorgeous breast of coriander-brined and hickory-smoked duck with seared foie gras came alongside beets and a crisply pressed square of confit leg meat. Perfectly seared Maine scallops retained a sea-sweetness beside kohlrabi puree and the surprising snap of a coarse pine-nut paste. Santoro highlighted halibut's natural meatiness with an artichoke heart stuffed with braised oxtail shreds, then echoed its ocean flavor with briny sea beans and an herbaceous foam of dill and lemon barigoule.
Santoro's beef loin is a seared rail of Lancaster strip posed beside smoked potato puree, tiny turnips, and a tender cube of short rib glazed in dark sassafras sauce like a chocolate gateau. It may well be the best beef entree now in the city.
Still, a few of the dishes were not yet quite there. The foie gras terrine was so creamy, but the flavor of the actual liver was dull. The lamb shoulder with polenta was surprisingly chewy, despite its slow confit. A smallish slice of ($28) wild striped bass was ringed by a dry salad of quinoa and clams so painstakingly arranged into a perfect halo, I'm sure it took longer to decorate than it did to eat.
"I'm starving!" exclaimed my guest, an out-of-town food critic, after dispatching of every crumb on her plate within moments of its delivery.
There were plenty of lovely desserts to come - an unconventional "cookie" plate (carrot cake whoopee pies; chocolate-caramel sea salt bars!); a toffee mille-feuille shingled with bruleed bananas; strawberry mousse sandwiched between pistachio-dusted pastry; a rum baba topped with too-strong cardamom ice cream that unfortunately tasted like shaving cream.
But save room for the cheese: At least 30 varieties here are divided among six composed plates grouped by pungency, style, or other vague themes, like the grassy-flavored "Roll in the Hay." Artisan cheeses, of course, have been Olexy's infatuation since the days of Django, when she'd age them in shoe boxes under the stairs in her tiny first restaurant. In her big-ticket big top at Talula's Garden, though, Olexy's passion finally gets its shrine - a long marble slab topped with glass bell jars displaying those perfectly aged, ready-to-devour curds in all their downtown splendor. It's at least one case here where bigger actually is better.
Hopefully by my year-end revisits, this kitchen will refine its focus and help Talula's Garden finally grow into its real potential - as the restaurant of the year.