Restaurant Review: Talula’s Daily/Secret Supper Club

Talula’s Garden is one of those restaurants that is so charming that I want to move in. What can I say, I’m a sucker for twinkly lights, pretty flowers, and pastel colors. I would happily pull up a chair in the garden and keep ordering cheese and cocktails for as long as they would let me stay (which probably wouldn’t be very long. Those of you who have seen me after a cocktail or two know what I mean).

Now, I’m similarly smitten with the new addition to Aimee Olexy/Stephen Starr’s empire, located right next door. By day, the space functions, as market/café called Talula’s Daily where patrons can grab a cup of coffee and a pastry or a take-out lunch to eat across the street in Washington Square Park. At night, the lights dim and it transforms into Talula’s Secret Supper Club, serving a five-course, seasonally inspired menu.

With its farmhouse tables and chairs, floor to ceiling shelves filled with gorgeous dishes, and country-inspired décor and linens, the place looks like something out of an Anthropologie catalog. And, that’s because it kind of is. All of the dishes, glassware, and utensils are from the retailer (It was fortunate that I wasn’t carrying a large purse or else some items may have found their way into it).

The food is prepared in open kitchen at the back of the restaurant and seating is limited to about 20 or so. There is a communal table for 8 in the center of the room, where there seemed to be a couple of unrelated groups eating together. I suppose that being thrown together with complete strangers, à la a random dinner party in someone’s home, is part of the charm, but I was glad that Chester and I had our own little table for two. The menu changes monthly. So, unless you make it over there this evening, you will be enjoying something totally different than Chester and I did over the weekend.

Our meal started off on a high note, with Parker House rolls and creamy, salted butter. We don’t use real butter at home, so anytime I get my hands on the good stuff, I tend to overdose on it in a way that is probably impolite. I don’t care, particularly when it melts into a light, feathery roll that has just come out of the oven. Bliss.

Next up were the risotto croquettes with mushrooms. Normally, these are one of my favorite dishes, but I found Talula’s version a bit lacking. They were a little too heavily fried (to the point of being a bit burnt) and the interior lacked the creaminess that is characteristic of risotto. The accompanying balsamic glaze was a nice change from the tomato based sauces that I usually see this appetizer paired with, and a nice complement for the mushrooms.

The asparagus soup was my favorite dish of the night.  A small piece of spiced, poached salmon floated in the middle like a little island, when our server poured the creamy soup into our bowls. The dish was simple–with just a bit of salt, pepper and onion and a dollop of mild crème fraiche to flavor the soup–but captured all of the best flavors of springtime.

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The main course was spring lamb, three ways—a medium rare chop, shredded neck and lamb belly. The latter, rich and fatty, with a smoky flavor, was my favorite of the three preparations. The other two styles were more traditional. In other words, I thought they were tasty, but not entirely memorable.

The cheese board was creatively presented, as deconstructed baked brie. Brie is one of the few cheeses that I don’t like, so this wasn’t my favorite dish. But, it was tolerable when spread on a bit of puffed pastry and topped with sweet strawberry rhubarb compote.

On the other hand, I was thrilled to see carrot cake on the menu! It’s one of my favorite non-chocolate desserts, but I have it so infrequently. The incredibly moist cake had just the right balance of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The highlight of the dish was the tangy cream cheese ice cream (note to self: learn how to recreate this) and garnished with candied pecans. I liked the deconstructed nature of this dish, as well. Letting each element stand alone was a great way to experience to the different flavors.

The price point for dinner is $55 per person, which makes it kind of a bargain when compared to other tasting menu concepts in the area. There is an option to add on a beverage pairing for $35. The fact that the server will top you off your glass if you find it nearly empty during a particular course is a nice touch. Our waitress was very sweet and attentive throughout our meal, even giving me a complimentary glass of Prosecco for putting up with a wobbly table.

The Secret Supper Club is a nice little place for a night out. Overall, I think I enjoyed the food a bit more at Talula’s Garden, but I think most of my complaints are based on my own personal preferences.  The May menu looks delicious, so check it out and let me know how it is!

Restaurant Review: Amis

Amis

Chester and I have been trying to go out, sans Little B, once a month. We were excited that we were able to plan one of our date nights to coincide with a recent visit from Old Original Big Bridget and Bill (Obviously, I’m still working on a new nickname for my BFF. None of these seem to fit).

I sent Bridget a list of restaurants to choose from for our double date and she ranked Amis, as her first choice. I was pretty excited, because I have been dying for more of Marc Vetri’s signature handmade pasta ever since our visit to his namesake restaurant over the summer. Fortunately, Amis provides the opportunity to do so at a considerably more comfortable price point than Vetri.

Amis is Vetri’s take on a Roman trattoria. As such, the menu is relatively simple and the vibe is pretty casual. The interior of the restaurant, however, was more industrial than homey, with modern, wood and metal furnishings, an open kitchen and dim lighting. I loved the pink vases filled with daisies, that provided pops of color on each table.

While sipping our drinks and snacking on olive oil focaccia bread, we perused the menu to select a few small plates to share. Our server recommended one or two per person, but we erred on the smaller side to save room for pasta and dessert.

The arancini, served in a short rib ragu, was the universal favorite. The inside contained creamy aborrio rice and cheese and was fried to a crispy, but not greasy, golden brown.

The next two appetizers were simple, but solid. I would have eaten the avocado bruschetta with pecornio and pancetta with a spoon, but avoided embarrassing myself and my friends by spreading it on the accompanying toast like a normal person. The third dish, creamy buffalo mozzarella, with sweet persimmons and earthy chestnuts was an unexpected, but pleasant combination of flavors.

Our final dish, the sweetbreads, were a real “miss” for me. I know that many people can’t get past what they are (animal pancreas or thymus), but I have had them before and actually liked them. When they are prepared correctly, they have a mild flavor and soft interior. Unfortunately, Amis’ sweetbreads seemed tough and had a greasy aftertaste, as if they had sat in the frying pan for too long.

That’s okay, though, because it gave me more room to overdose on carbs.

My pappardelle pasta, with guanciale and parsnips, was reminiscent of a carbonara. The cured pig cheek has less salt, but more fat than, pancetta, which is traditionally used in the dish. The fat acted as a substitute for egg, in coating the pasta and lending a rich flavor to the dish.

Bridget chose the bucatini with almond pesto and jalapeno. The heat from the peppers, the creamy sauce and the crunchy almonds worked surprisingly well together. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything like it. Bill had one the evening’s specials–rotini with chicken. I didn’t try it, but it looked delicious.

Chester was torn between an entree and a pasta dish, so he asked the server if the cacio e pepe was available as a smaller pasta course. She ended up bringing us a complimentary, full portion of the dish so that we could all share it. It’s such a basic dish–just pasta, black pepper and pecorino cheese–but the key is getting the balance of the ingredients just right. Too much pepper overpowers the dish and too much cheesy makes it kind of gluey. Amis got it just right.

For those looking for something other than pasta, there is a short list of “secondi” or entree dishes, featuring seafood, steak, pork and lamb. Since he ended up with a smaller pasta portion, Chester also ordered the roasted lamb shoulder. Pan searing gave it a crispy exterior, but kept the inside tender. It was simply seasoned and very tasty.

How we had room for dessert after all that food, I’ll never know. But, I’m glad that we didn’t pass it up!

I chose the semifreddo sundae, which was another example of a seemingly random grouping of ingredients complementing each other perfectly. The semifreddo, with its buttery flavor and mousse-like texture, was topped with salted almonds, a sweet orange marmalade and a slightly bitter chocolate sauce, for an interesting combination of flavors and textures.

If I go back again though, I’m definitely copying Bridget and ordering the belgian waffle. The waffle itself was light and airy and topped with a generous helping of nutella, vanilla semifreddo and hazelnuts. I mean, really. You just can’t go wrong with that combination.

waffle

Stolen from Bridget’s Instagram

Although we had an early reservation, the restaurant filled up rather quickly during our visit. I’m not sure if this is because our visit took place over Valentine’s Day weekend or if it’s always that way on a Saturday night. Either way, service was on point throughout our meal. Our server checked in with us frequently, but allowed us to take our time with each course.

Small plates range in price from $8 to $14, pastas from $14 to $16 and entrees from $20 to $26. I think this is in line with most restaurants in the neighborhood, but the nice thing about Amis is that dishes are sized pretty well for sharing, so that might be an option if you are budget conscious. You could easily make a meal out of a couple of small plates or a small plate and one of the pastas, too.

Portions were extremely generous and we all left completely satisfied. And, as always, it was wonderful to spend time with great friends, who don’t mind that we’ve turned into old people and like to eat at 5:15.

Restaurant Review: Serpico

Last fall, word began to circulate that Stephen Starr was working on a new project with Peter Serpico, James Beard award-winner and second-in-command chef of New York’s Momofuku empire. The two spent the last year refining the menu and concept in the kitchens of some of Starr’s other Philly venues and Serpico (604 South Street) opened for dinner at the end of June. Originally, the restaurant had not intended to take reservations, but Chester came across it on OpenTable during a random search and we snagged a table for dinner before the long Fourth of July weekend.

Upon stepping into the restaurant, the general “blah” feeling that I’ve come to associate with South Street quickly faded away. The decor is sleek, with lots of clean lines and black and white tile. The centerpieces of the restaurant are its open kitchen at the back and bar along the windows at the front. A few of the walls have been turned into chalkboards to showcase the food and extensive bar menu. Modern light fixtures at each table help to show off the food and keep the space from feeling too dreary. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful space used to be a Foot Locker!

Serpico drew inspiration from all around the globe in developing  his menu, with dishes incorporating Asian, Latin, Italian and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients. Our server noted that although there would be some staple items on the menu, most of the dishes will change with the seasons. The first half of the menu consists of plates that would be the appropriate for appetizers (salads, ceviche, pasta) and the second part of the menu leans toward the heavier, entrée options. Most of the plates on the menu can be shared and our server suggested choosing three to four.

First up was the deep fried duck leg.

duck slider

The duck was coated in a smoky-sweet hoisin sauce and perfectly cooked—tender and moist on the inside, with a crunchy exterior—and was served slider style on a potato roll. A side of spicy sriracha ketchup and cool pickled vegetables made excellent accompaniments, as you could add as much or as little as you wanted based on your flavor preferences. If Serpico offered these as full size sandwiches at lunch, I predict that there would be a line out the door every day.

Next, we chose the ravioli, which was probably my favorite dish of the night.

ravioli

The pasta was incredibly light and filled with a velvety, sweet white corn filling. With its delicate sour cream sauce, lime and bits of chorizo and cojita cheese, the dish was reminiscent of Mexican grilled corn, one of my favorite dishes to enjoy in the summer.

The lamb ribs came out next.  This is the only dish on the menu that is specifically noted as “for two,” and the portion of six ribs definitely made for a substantial entrée.

 lamb ribs

The ribs had been marinated and rubbed with cumin and were cooked until they were so tender that only a fork was needed to break them apart. A yogurt sauce is a traditional accompaniment for lamb and Serpico’s version had just the right balance of mint and garlic. The addition of Japanese eggplant to the sauce provided a hint of sweetness.

We opted to each make a selection from the dessert menu to finish our meal. I chose the Rocky Road, which featured bittersweet, frozen chocolate pudding, was topped with a dollop of marshmallow crème, shards of marshmallow meringue and walnuts. Chester chose one of the menu’s semi-sweet dessert offerings, the foie gras (which is a nod to one of the most talked about dishes at Momofuku). The foie gras had been transformed into a powder and frozen. Chester described the texture and melt-in-your mouth quality of the dish as being similar to Dippin Dots ice cream. Grapes and candied peanuts provided a sweet balance to the savory dish.

 dessert

Overall, the desserts were the only dishes that I was not all that impressed with. I appreciate that they were trying to offer a unique twist on traditional dishes by incorporating elements of molecular gastronomy, but I thought that the presentations were messy and lacked the same attention to detail that the main dishes had (for example, the walnuts on the Rocky Road were toasted to the point of being bitter).

Much of the criticism that I’ve seen about Serpico so far seems to relate to the price point. When you consider what is currently in the area (greasy pizza shops and dirty looking bars, mostly), I have to agree. The current menu features dishes that range from $9 to $55 (with an average price of $20). The bar pricing is also steep. Wines by the glass ranged from $12 to $21 (and pours were not all that generous) and cocktails were in the $12 to $13 range. Mark-ups on bottles are ridiculous, with selections that run $15 at a liquor store priced at more than $70. Depending on what you order, dinner for two can be pricey!

This is why I wonder if, even though, the food is delicious, creative and well executed, Serpico will be sustainable after the initial buzz wears off. I am sure that people will see it as a fun, one-time experience for a special occasion, but I wonder if it will develop a following among area residents who are looking for a new go-to place for dinner. I hope that I’m wrong and that Serpico will be a success, which will in turn encourage other restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to bring their creative concepts and ideas to a neighborhood that desperately needs some revitalization.

Restaurant Week Round-up

Food is pretty much the only thing that makes winter bearable, so it’s helpful that Center City District schedules one of its twice-yearly Restaurant Weeks for late January/early February. I hit three different spots for this season’s festivities, all of which are definitely worth a visit at any time of the year.

Russet

russet

The very name of this restaurant conjures expectations of simple, comforting foods and that’s exactly what Chester and I found on the menu for dinner on a chilly Friday evening.

A relatively new addition to the city’s BYO scene, Russet features farm-to-table dishes with French and Italian twists. It’s location in an old brownstone on Spruce Street, outfitted by the owners (a husband and wife team) with vintage tchotchkes and furniture and tables made of recycled wood, adds to the homey feel. There is a lot of attention to detail given to the menu, right down to rustic, fresh baked breads (lemon-oatmeal on the night we visited) and house made sodas.

Some of the highlights from our visit included melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with crispy pancetta and a sweet gorgonzola sauce, halibut in a buttery saffron sauce and a rich, chocolate budino with tart cranberries. However, the menu changes daily to take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients, so you might find different options when you go. Featured ingredients and daily menus are posted on the restaurant’s website so that you can get an idea of what to expect.

Lacroix

Lacroixlogo

A group of co-workers and I took advantage of the $20 lunch menu at this swanky French restaurant in the Rittenhouse Hotel. This is probably one of the best deals around for Restaurant Week, as I imagine that lunch on a normal day would probably set you back a bit more.

The restaurant was featuring a handful of dishes from their regular menu, including two kinds of salads, a soup, duck, pasta and scallops. I can vouch for the Caesar salad, (which was one of the prettiest that I have ever had), with grilled Romaine, bits of preserved lemon and a paper thin Parmesan cracker as well as the light-as-air hand-rolled tagliatelle pasta, topped with poached egg and a generous helping of earthy truffles. A trio of miniature desserts, including a cinnamon cream puff, blueberry tart and chocolate mango cake were the perfect finish to the meal.

Bistro 7

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I hadn’t even heard of this French BYOB in Old City before Chester and our friends Matt and Lara decided to try it out on a Friday night double date. The elegant and simple ambience and the food made this one of the best restaurants that I’ve tried in awhile.

Gnocchi seems to be a popular appetizer at the moment. Bistro 7‘s version was served in a sage brown butter sauce and topped with bits of crispy shallots and tender butternut squash. The gnocchi were light and delicious and the ingredients were perfect for the winter time, but the dish was just a little bit too salty for my taste. The short rib entree, on the other hand, was just perfect. The two generous pieces of beef braised in red wine and rosemary came apart easily with a fork. I also really enjoyed Chester’s lamb tagine. The meat was seasoned with a perfect combination of flavors, including cinnamon and nutmeg.

Many people complain that menus and service can be hit-or-miss during Restaurant Week. But, in doing my research, it seemed that most restaurants were offering really interesting menus this time around (i.e dishes directly from or similar to their everyday menus so that you could really get a taste of what the restaurant was all about) and the service and experience at all of the places I visited was top notch. Hopefully, restaurants have discovered that many people, like me, use Restaurant Week to discover new favorite places and this trend will continue in the future.

While Center City Restaurant Week is over, I was excited to learn that East Passyunk Avenue is set to host its first Restaurant Week from February 24 through March 2. This neighborhood has become a restaurant mecca and many of the old favorites and new hot spots are participating, with menus ranging from $15 to $35. Make your reservations as soon as you can; since some of these venues are tiny, tables are sure to be snapped up quickly!

Restaurant Review: Del Frisco’s

The twice yearly Center City District Restaurant Week, in which restaurants offer three course meals for $35 per person, is probably the best known restaurant deal in Philly. But, various restaurants in the city also run promotions throughout the year. Keeping an eye out for these is a good way to discover a new place or to try out places that might otherwise be out of your price range on the average day. Summer is a good time to take advantage of these promotions because restaurants are looking to keep their tables filled, as locals spend more time on vacation and less time in the city.

For example, it’s no secret that Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse (1426 Chestnut Street ) is one of the fanciest steakhouses in the city, with a price tags to match. But, Chester and I recently discovered that summer is a great time to visit, since it is celebrating the season with a variety of special menu offerings.

Through September 3, Del Frisco’s is offering the “Power Couple” a three-course menu, including a salad, dual-entrée and side, and a choice of dessert. Priced at $99 for two people, this represents a savings of nearly $40 per person than if these menu items were ordered a la carte.

The meal begins with a choice of Caesar or Del’s salad. The latter features iceberg lettuce with tomato, onion, carrots, and croutons and is topped with two large slices of crispy bacon and an avocado vinaigrette dressing. For me, the dressing servings were a bit heavy-handed, so be sure to request it on the side if you prefer it a bit lighter.

The entrée plate, from which the “Power Couple” derives its name, features a crab cake and a tender, eight-ounce filet Mignon, seasoned with salt, pepper and clarified butter. Although these are simple ingredients, the mixture was applied so generously that the peppery flavor was just a tad bit overwhelming, in my opinion. Since Del Frisco’s wet-ages its steaks for 28-days, a lighter application of the seasoning would have let the flavor of the meat itself come through a bit more. The crab cake was a standout, when compared to similar offerings at other steakhouses in the city, because it is comprised of a generous helping of jumbo lump crab meat, with minimal bread crumbs or other fillers. A spicy Cajun-style lobster sauce was a nice complement.

Side dishes are served family style for easy sharing. I had the broccoli, which was simply prepared with salt, pepper, garlic and butter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, were Chester’s rich chateau potatoes, smashed with butter and cream. Other side options include from included sautéed mushrooms, baked potato, creamed spinach.

Dessert choices include cheesecake, bread pudding or chocolate mousse. The mousse, made with a high-quality dark chocolate, was rich and smooth. It was topped with sweet whipped cream and strawberries and was a light finish to the substantial meal. The banana and nut laden bread pudding has an incredibly fluffy texture. It is served warm so the accompanying butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream melts right in.

In addition to the “Power Couple” feature, Del Frisco’s is also offering several Father’s Day specials through the end of June. These include a 16-ounce bone-in filet Mignon ($65) and a 20-ounce boneless prime ribeye ($52). Bourbon peppercorn sauce or lobster butter can be added to these dishes for $6 and $8, respectively. During Father’s Day Weekend itself (June 15 through the 17), the two featured sauces will be complimentary when you order one of the featured steaks and the restaurant will also offer an eight ounce filet and eight ounce lobster tail ($79).

If you are up for more of a spluge, Del Frisco’s is still offering its regular menu throughout the summer, including its specialty cut—the Wagyu “Longbone”, a domestic version of kobe beef ($89). Seafood fans will enjoy the Shellfish Plateau, featuring chilled Alaskan king crab legs, iced jumbo shrimp, fresh oysters on the half shell, chilled crab claws and assorted garnishes ($77 for two people/$148 for four guests).

Del Frisco’s impressive décor and attentive customer service alone make it worth a visit. The restaurant is located in an old bank and many of its features, including iron gates by renowned blacksmith Samuel Yellin, high ceilings, marble columns and the bank vault (which has been converted into private dining space on the ground floor), were all preserved in the renovation of the space. The large bar area on the main level of the two-story dining area boasts a wine tower housing the offerings from Del Frisco’s impressive wine list. At the very least, a stop at Del Frisco’s for a glass of wine or a cocktail on a hot day would be a wonderful summer time treat.