THE MERE MENTION OF OLEXY sends Philly’s fine-dining elite into effusions of breathless adjectives. Marc Vetri admires her business savvy. Jose Garces marvels at her attention to detail. Starr has been a fan since 1999, when she launched and managed the Blue Angel, his late, lamented French bistro on Chestnut Street. “I was struck by her intelligence,” he recalls. “In my business, you don’t often see that kind of intellect.” When Olexy left the Starr system in 2001 to open Django, the Blue Angel lost its focus and customers, finally closing in 2003.
To Starr, Olexy is part editor, part director, part stage manager. “Aimee has an intuitive grasp of script, camera angles, decor,” he says. “Before we even discussed the concept of Talula’s Garden, she knew exactly what the smell and look and feel should be.” A former concert promoter, Starr is first among local restaurateurs in profits but a distant third — behind master chefs Vetri and Garces — in acclaim. In 13 years of reviewing, LaBan has only awarded his highest four-bell rating to one Starr restaurant — the now-defunct Striped Bass.
On LaBan’s inexact scale, food, service and ambiance are weighed with longevity. Netting four bells typically takes at least two years, which is all Django needed to become the first and only BYO to be so honored. “Craig gave it the most gushing review in restaurant history,” says Starr, with more than a hint of envy. Gourmet magazine named Django one of the 100 finest restaurants in the country. The wait for a reservation was eight weeks.
Talula’s Table is a critical sweetheart, too, having garnered a two-page rave in the New York Times Magazine and a spot on Saveur magazine’s coveted Top 100 list. The tiny storefront has been the toughest-to-get reservation in the country — a year ahead, to the numerical date. “Each dish was a separate love affair,” declaimed actor John Turturro after an eight-course banquet that featured egg custard with Jonah crab, exotic-mushroom risotto, and snails in rigatoni farci. “It was the kind of a meal you’d request before your execution.”
Curiously, Starr has never dined there. “I guess I don’t know the right people,” he cracks. In a sense, Talula’s Garden is Starr’s attempt to gain credibility with the dinerati. “The expectation is that this will be a high-end, super-ambitious dining experience on a level of intimacy and personality that’s been missing from his restaurants,” LaBan says. “Stephen is shooting for some serious fine dining here, and with Aimee involved, I expect it’s going to be serious.”