My second weekend back in the US of A my friend Ghislaine and I decided to take a road trip to Philadelphia to check out Talula’s Garden, which was recently named the #6 best new restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit magazine. We made a day out of it and took the Bolt Bus arriving at 10:30, took a self guided walking tour of the downtown and historic districts and visited the Philadelphia Art Museum before hitting Talula for what turned out to be a delicious and highly enjoyable 4 hour dinner.
But before we get to that, I want to share two other culinary gems that we discovered on our wanderings.
First: Miel Pâtisserie where we grabbed a latte made with Stumptown beans and shared a ham and gruyere croissant. The croissant was really superb – nice and flaky with lots of melted aged gruyere and a healthy portion of ham. Thus fortified we set out to explore.
Downtown Philly was at first a bit of a let down – think Daffy’s in the old Bonwit Teller building – mostly populated by chain stores and Starbucks. But when we reached the Old Town things started looking up with a few beautiful architectural specimens (Christ Church and City Hall, among others), short, brick buildings and picturesque shops.
On a shady street lined with interior design and quirky clothing stores, we happened upon Wedge + Fig, a darling cheese store and cafe. We took a seat in their back garden and ordered iced tea from Harney & Sons and two delicious sandwiches.
We had planned to have a “light lunch” in order to save ourselves for dinner, but the menu got the better of us and we ordered the Blue Figs sandwich – fourne d’ambert blue cheese, fig spread and prosciutto on pretzel bread, toasted – with a side of “Modern Waldorf Salad” which featured a greek yogurt dressing and dates and figs in addition to the usual suspects, plus the Tamenend sandwich – turkey, brie, mango, arugula and walnut mustard aioli on brioche, again, toasted – with a side of truffled egg salad with capers.
Oh, also a pickle, which Mike, the resident pickle expert, informed us came from Weaver’s Way Co-op.
Fun historical fact: the Tamenend sandwich is named after an Indian chief of a clan from the Lenni-Lenape nation of the Delaware Valley, purportedly because he was a prodigious turkey hunter.
To help work up our appetite for dinner we then set out for the Philadelphia Art Museum on the other side of town. They have a fantastic permanent collection that ranges from contemporary to Renaissance, including some very nice period rooms and a cool ceiling installation by Sol LeWitt.
There is also a Zaha Hadid exhibit in their Perelman building, featuring two of her super cool chandeliers, a few sofas and even some plastic shoes.
And then at 4:30pm we caught the Phlash bus – an old wooden trolley car turned into a bus – back downtown for our 5pm reservation at Talula’s.
Located on the west side of leafy Washington Square, the real estate for Talula’s Garden is owned by Stephen Starr. You enter through a small garden full of unruly plants and plastic deck chairs that lend an air of ramshackle southern homeliness.
We had reserved for an early seating, thinking we’d get back to New York at a reasonable hour (so much for that idea, we stayed four hours and got back to the city at midnight) and when we arrived at 5pm the dining room was mostly empty.
We were seated at what we considered one of the best tables in the room, with a nice view of our fellow diners and in very close proximity to the – wait for it – dedicated cheese bar.
Josh presides over this dairy extravaganza and indulged us in talking about his wares for a good half hour while we sipped grapefruit-elderflower champagne cocktails – called The Artist – and watched him compose artful cheese plates on slate slabs.
We asked Josh to design a custom cheese plate for us to eat after our meal, and returned to our table to turn our attention to the rest of the menu. We also perused some of the cookbooks ranged on the shelves behind us – including this gem, “75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden” by Jack Staub.
So as to ensure stomach space for said cheese and be able to sample at least two desserts we opted for two appetizers and one main course to share. We began with smoked sturgeon rilletes served with a bit of creme fraiche, a garnish salad and slices of crispy baguette and braised rabbit served with homemade handkerchief pasta, fava beans and shaved pecorino. We decided to go with wine by the glass, and paired our first courses with a Grüner Veltliner from Austria – Schlosskellerei Gobelsburg “Gobelsburger” 2010.
Both dishes were really well done. The rilletes were lightly smokey and smooth – great on the crunchy baguette – and came with a super fresh wholegrain mustard that introduced a nice tang with a little heat. The rabbit was juicy and gamey and the combination with the fava beans (a favorite food of mine), cheese and fresh pasta felt like a very grown up comfort food dish.
For the pasta, we chose “SOCab”, a California Cabernet Sauvignon from Eden Stuart, 2005. As with all our courses, we were guided and somewhat indulged by our terrific waitress Marina who brought us tastes of various wines so we could choose our pairings, didn’t seem to mind our glacial dining pace one bit, and generally made us feel at home.
We chose well, but we did have some food envy when the couple next to us ordered the duck, which came two ways: rosy pink breast and a confit leg over chestnuts and pears with mustard greens. Ah well, something to come back for.
In any case we didn’t have much time to brood because our custom cheese plate arrived shortly thereafter. It featured four American cheeses and one French, each paired with a yummy condiment:
- Homemade ricotta made from two day old cow’s milk with quince jam
- Vermont Butter and Cheese Company’s “Cremont”, made from a mix of goat and cow’s milk, accompanied by candied walnuts
- “Eden” – a hard cows milk cheese from Sprout Creek Farm served with dried apricots
- Our only foreign selection: Vacherin that came with candied bacon (=heaven) and guanciale (also delish but a bit overpowering for the cheese we found)
- And finally the fabulous, creamy “Crater Lake” blue from Rogue Creamery in Oregon that came with pear two ways: fresh and puréed
Cheese side bar: many people do not know that there are really great artisanal American cheeses. Actually, in my opinion the best cheese on the market in the US are in fact domestic, although I must admit that this is partly due to the fact that the best stuff doesn’t leave Europe, or if it does it just isn’t the same after the transatlantic journey. Conversely, American cheeses don’t make their way across the pond either. Good luck exporting cheese to France, especially with the CAP, but that’s another story altogether. In any event, if you are in the US and a lover of cheese here are a few of my favorite dairies, many of whom also deliver:
- Jasper Hill (you just can’t go wrong, but the Bayley Hazen Blue and Constant Bliss are really stellar)
- Mecox Bay (the Mecox Sunrise is my personal fav)
- Nettle Meadow (try the Kunik, a triple creme made with goat and cow’s milk)
- Cypress Grove (goat’s milk cheese only – Humboldt Fog has a layer of vegetable ash down the center)
AND, added bonus, October 2011 is the first annual American cheese month. $10 buys you a Cheese Passport which entitles the holder to 40% off the cheese of the day at a range of shops around town. Basically it pays for itself if you use it two or three times, plus you get to discover new fun cheeses. What’s not to love?
End cheese sidebar.
Because we had taken it easy on the “real food” we felt a) justified and b) hungry enough for two desserts. Although, who are we kidding, we probably would have ordered them anyway. We decided on the steamed fig pudding with goat cheese ice cream and sherry syrup, and the dark chocolate cremeux with smokey chocolate crumble, marshmallow and bacon.
The winner was the fig pudding. Served in a glass jar, it was warm and gingery, and the goat cheese ice cream added a refreshing, savory element. The chocolate was a bit too cloying for my taste – although the bacon and smoked bits added a nice crunch and were very interesting.
Four hours after beginning, we rounded off the evening with drinks at the bar – one old fashioned, one “Loner” (cranberry smash, rye, black walnut bitters) and one taste of a delicious aged bourbon courtesy of our barkeep who was excited about two blond girls drinking masculine drinks.
Altogether a highly successful day.