A FILMMAKER WOULD OPEN with a bird’s-eye shot of the mushroom pâté en croûte. The camera would linger for a moment on the centerpiece—a broad slice of pepper-flecked ivory trimmed with crimson ribbons of speck and pale gold pastry—before panning slowly across the plate to a perfect little quail egg perched sunny-side up. Then it would abandon those pretty sights to zoom in (past the deboned, crisp-fried chicken wing) until a dun-colored garnish filled the screen. “Nothing to see here,” you’d think. “Just a bit of mustard. Barely enough to fill a tablespoon.”
Cut now to the kitchen four hours earlier, as the cooks at Talula’s Garden start in on this unassuming condiment. Someone takes the leftover scraps from the wild mushroom gnocchi—maitakes, pioppinis, royal trumpets, morels—and gets them roasting in a pan. A few strips of bacon are rendered. A handful of shallots go in. Some thyme. A little garlic. After a while, it’s time to hit this with pickled mustard seeds and a micro-dice of pears. Not perfect yet; it needs a little creamy Dijon. Ah, there it is. Now somebody can take it away and work it with pecan oil until it glistens.
All this for a single garnish, on an appetizer that’s already got three very good things going for it. If you feared that Aimee Olexy’s partnership with Stephen Starr would tarnish the magic she’s spun at Talula’s Table in Kennett Square (or at Django before that), it’s time to get over it. This restaurant is the real deal.
The soaring Art Deco interior, newly rusticated with weather-beaten timbers, window-box lighting and other intimations of agrarian nostalgia, has become a temple rechristened for our farmstead-worshipping moment. Comely young servers in blue-pinstriped aprons glide past botanical drawings of horsetail and brambles and black ink-cap fungus. A cheesemonger lays gooey rounds of Époisses on slate shingles next to jars of raspberry butter, his broad worktable dramatically aglow beneath an overhead expanse of reclaimed redwood planks. You’ll still want to wear your fancy shoes for the posh bar, but you could get away with flip-flops in the courtyard. Raw shipping pallets form one wall, random spigot fixtures sprout from another, and plantings leaf out over a yard-sale fantasy of mismatched chairs. It’s like an Anthropologie mock-up of Sanford and Son.
Olexy floats from one zone to another on some evenings, dispensing post-dessert chocolate-caramel shortbreads to the lucky. Backstage, it’s executive chef Michael Santoro who keeps the train on the rails—and Olexy and Starr could hardly have found a better conductor. Santoro has been through the kitchens of Mugaritz in San Sebastián (where the chefs forage for morels and sorrel on-site), the Fat Duck near London (occasionally accused of being one of the best restaurants in the world), and Washington, D.C.’s Blue Duck Tavern. Here, he’s turning out dishes whose rustic presentations belie the exacting attention to detail that makes almost every one riveting in a different way.
As spring gave way to early summer, he was marinating whole goats in yogurt spiked with cardamom, allspice, orange zest and apricots. The slow-roasted meat, tender as osso buco, went into svelte tortelloni submerged in a jus whose tang got a sweet lift from muscat grapes. There were rhubarb-glazed sweetbreads with a palate-cleansing dome of gelled asparagus (whose texture explored the spongy middle ground between aspic and flan), the whole thing counterpointed by baby kale leaves seared to shattering crispness on cast iron. The vanilla-like perfume of tonka bean wafted up from a lobster tail swimming in grapefruit—its surf getting some serious turf in the form of pork belly cured with juniper and thyme, then sizzled on a plancha to an unusually crispy and lean finish.
It is not a perfect restaurant. There have been hiccups in the pacing. The wine pricing is extortionate. The icy cocktails are more reasonable, if a step or two behind the city’s best.
But from the most exquisitely curated cheese plates in town to the rustic gorgeousness of a delicious rhubarb gâteau (or the sweet-salty alchemy of a banana-toffee mille-feuille, punctuated with an exclamatory bitter-chocolate sorbet), Talula’s Garden gets so much right. The service is laid-back but well informed. The background sound doesn’t drown conversation. From the stylish bar to the casual garden, the restaurant’s varied atmospheres create a climate that can be elegant or informal, but is always comfortable.
And from the centerpiece of each plate to the homeliest garnish, the food is, while not simple at all, simply as good as it gets.