LaBan’s Talula’s Garden Review Surprises Everyone, Even Himself

More than 75% of Foobooz voters thought Craig LaBan would drop three or more Bells on Talula’s Garden. LaBan himself seems to have expected such a rating. He even reserves hope that it will be the restaurant of the year by the end of December. Now though, it’s too dang precious.

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.

Two Bells – Very Good

Delicious but fussily precious [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Talula’s Garden [Official Site]

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  • h

    methinks mr. laban knows people thinks his reviews are predictable and decided to “surprise” everyone

  • jay

    Jeez, the Laban haters will say whatever they have to in order to rationalize their hatred. No matter what he does, he can’t win with you can he?

    He saw a lot of potential but couldn’t pull the trigger on three bells. He did that just to keep things fresh?

  • h


  • Buckethead

    He may just be laying the ground work for giving it 4 bells later on.

  • Max

    I, for one, love overlabored fuss on my plate

  • lilpit

    I agree that this may be the prelude to a 4-bell review in 2012. LaBan himself says as much in the review.
    Imagine the outcry if he had given them 4 bells out of the gate? Now he can point to this initial review as an example of just how fair he really is.

  • jay

    Jesus you people are cynical. And who’s benefitting here exactly? Cus I can guarantee you that the Starr Olexy team aren’t jumping for joy at a 2 bell review with the possibility of better later.

  • Josh A

    The theory presupposes Laban lurks on Philadelphia food sites, reads the comments, and cares what they say.

    So I’m going to go with no to all of those and guess he didn’t like he was getting.

    I am, after all, a commentor on the internet.

  • Snake

    So should I skip it for now because the kitchen is “trying too hard”?

  • barryg

    Two bells hardly means “skip it.”

  • Buckethead

    Don’t skip it, it’s pretty good.

  • Joe

    2 bells is good, and what it deserved. It was an accurate review

  • Lord Chesterfield

    This review is baffling. He notes a variety of deficiencies (slow service, tiny portions, and a technical style of cooking which for him misses the forest for the trees), and accordingly rates it a two beller, but then ends with this crazy phrase that I just can’t figure out: that hopefully by year’s end the “kitchen will refine its focus and help Talula’s Garden finally grow into its real potential – as the restaurant of the year.” If he said that if it could grow into its potential and thus be a contender for restaurant of the year, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. But that final turn of phrase just seems like he’s decided it is THE restaurant of the year based on what the food hasn’t proven yet!

    I get what he’s saying that they’ve got at least the makings of all the things a three or four bell place ought to have, and that they have yet to live up to the potential… but that last sentence is just weird and nags at you and why I imagine some of the folks here read it as he’s already decided its a four beller / restaurant of the year and is just waiting for a perfunctory next visit there to confirm it.

  • CEF

    I’m not sure if @Snake was being facetious, but basing our dining choices on one reviewers opinion is a problem that’s gone on far too long in Philly. With our culinary identity ramping up quickly as a national presence, it becomes more important than ever to read multiple critics opinions to get a well-rounded view of our food scene. I believe the Craiger would agree with that sentiment, too.

    I have enjoyed most everything I’ve eaten thus far at Talula’s Garden. I am a shill for the Sweet Pea Veloute, and thought the chicken, of all things, was splendid. Prices are a bit high, but I didn’t expect anything less.

    While LaBan is always thorough and ridiculously knowledgeable, his opinion is still subjective. Cooking is art, and we don’t all like the same stuff. If you look at his review, LaBan has issues with “overly precious” food, not flavorless and dangerously undercooked fowl. His high expectations weren’t met, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad food.

    We are willing to go toe-to-toe with one another over the best burgers, chicken, and pizza in the city, but we shy away from admitting love for “white collar” places that don’t meet the Three Bell Approval. Trust your tastebuds with the grapefruit reduction on that goat the same as you would a pepperoni slice from Mack and Manco’s. What you like is what you like.

    We’ve got great critics and writers here in town (you know who they are) and have had a few folks who have moved on that we miss (Nichols, Joy Manning, Dave Snyder) that didn’t always agree with one other. And that’s what makes Philly such a great food town: passionate people who love to eat.

  • @CEF

    I think my main conceptual problem with him is that he gives out bells based on expectation, rather than actual accomplishment. That’s how you end up with Catahoula and Talula’s Garden both having two bells. I love both of those places, but I don’t think anyone at Catahoula would seriously disagree with the idea that Talula’s Garden is operating on a different plane with their food.

    That’s not to say there isn’t some virtue in grading restaurants based on how well they accomplish their mission (that how Ebert rates movies, I think), but you can only take that so far.

    My other issue is that Craig doesn’t wrestle very much with why he doesn’t like things. The beet dirt, for example, is obviously in that dish as a textural element (like the croutons in the veloute). Maybe he didn’t like the taste, or didn’t think the soup needed that crunchy texture, but it’s not “superfluous”…it clearly brings something to the soup. Saying a Beet Soup doesn’t taste like beets is a good reason to dislike calling it “Beet Soup,” but not necessarily a very good reason to dislike the actual dish.

    Plus he didn’t like the foie terrine. That’s….impossible?

  • jay

    Alex, with respect to Catahoula/Garden, the component your missing is value.

    Yes, the food I eat at Talula’s Garden may be, objectively, of better quality than what I could have at 3-bell John’s Roast Pork, but I’ve also spent 10x doing so. So actually, I appreciate that Laban does it the way he does given the constraint of a 4 star system. I want to know what the BEST cheesesteak/roast pork shop is and John’s 3 bell helps me with that, whereas Talula’s is not the best fine dining place in the city even if the food is nice.

    PS – obviously when I use the term best, it’s all in Laban’s view, so no need to quibble with the actual names, the point about value remains the same.

  • ScallopLover

    I think he hit the nail on the head with this article. I thought it was two bell food, and I expected much more from it. Who cares about foam and gelee if those components taste bland. Just because you can make something it does not mean you HAVE to make it. Talula’s table has has delicious food without all the fancy stuff. Leave the foam for Alinea. I think they have allot of potential and I hope they find there groove and some salt.

  • Greg LeBlond

    My tip envelope was a little light this time Aimee. Next visit let Stephen fill it.

  • Alex

    Been there twice.

    Between the outdoor seating area and the spectacular food, I love this place.

    Service second time around was a bit awkward, but otherwise I think this is one of the three or four best restaurants in Philly.

    I agree with LeBan that the technique and presentation can be a little bit precious, but it doesn’t away from the deliciousness of the cooking.

  • cleevus

    as much as it pains me, i have to give props to leban and his balls. he called it like it is. anyone with a discerning eye (and tongue) could see what is happening there, and he nailed it. the softening blows at the end of the article are what I despise leban for–the tethered emotion he brings to reviews. i understand the human part, and its hard not to like what they are trying to do there, but, c’mon, bro, whats with the practical boot strapping at the end?? who gives a fuck what you think they are trying to do, or, better yet, what you think they are capable of?? what are you, their coach? they id’d you every time, have every corporate dude there for your entire meal, soigneed every bit of salt and acid they forgot to use, and they still fucked it up. because it wasnt that great to begin with. i still like the place, though.