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.

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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: Vetri

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The weekend before Little B made her entrance, Chester and I celebrated our impending parenthood (and last date night for foreseeable future) with dinner at Vetri.

It was pretty amazing.

So, although I can barely remember what day of the week it is lately, let alone what I ate for dinner nearly a month ago, I feel I should at least tell you a little bit about it.

In 1998, Marc Vetri opened his 30-seat namesake restaurant in the townhouse that was once home to Le Bec Fin (yesterday was actually the restaurant’s 15th anniversary, according to an article on Philly.com). The rustic Italian fare, handmade pastas and spectacular service made him a fixture in the Philadelphia restaurant scene and one of the most lauded chefs in the country.

A couple of years ago, Vetri did away with its a la carte menu and now only offers a chef’s tasting menu. Dishes change with the seasons, with the exception of  several signature items. When I have chosen the tasting menu at other restaurants, dishes have usually been served family-style or everyone in the group is served the same dishes. But, Vetri does things a bit differently.

The menu, which is divided into four sections (fish, vegetable/pasta, di terra, meat/poultry and dessert) is presented in advance and diners can make special requests for dishes that they would really like to try, as well as those they would prefer to avoid. In addition, each person is served a different dishes during each course. I liked this approach because personalized the experience a bit more and allowed us to try about half of the items on the menu.

Our meal started off  with stuzzichini (hors d’oeuvres), including olives, cured meats, a rich foie gras pastrami on crostini and raw vegetables with balsamic crema.

After that came 12 other dishes, including:

Lorighittas with Frutti Di Mare: Delicate ring-shaped pasta and a simple white wine sauce allowed fresh scallops and squid to be the stars of this dish.

Conchiglione with Lobster Dumpling: Shell shaped pasta, stuffed with perfectly poached lobster, in a light tomato broth.

Corn and Tomato Tortino: A tiny pie, filled with a creamy corn custard and topped with roasted tomatoes. Both vegetables were perfectly sweet, just as they should be in the summertime.

Sweet Onion Crepe with Truffle Fondue: This dish had the best parts of French onion soup–caramelized onions and melted cheese–without the broth. It’s no wonder this is one of the signature dishes that always remains on the menu.

Spinach Gnocchi with Brown Butter: Another signature dish, these dumplings have a more intense flavor than the traditional potato variety. But, they had the melt-in-your-mouth quality that is essential to good gnocchi.

Almond Tortellini with Truffle Sauce: This dish was one of my special requests and is another signature menu item. The earthy truffle sauce provided a savory balance for the sweet ricotta and toasted almond combination (although if the sauce were omitted or something with a sweeter flavor profile was used instead, this could be an amazing dessert pasta!).

Agnolotto with Pistachio Vellutate: Agnolotto is basically a rectangular ravioli. All of the elements of this dish–the toasted pistachio filling, the sweet, julienned zucchini that was perched on top of the dumpling like a salad and the creamy sauce worked very well together.

Piedmontese Carpaccio with Figs: This was the only dish that I didn’t try because raw meat and pregnancy don’t go together. Sad face. Chester enjoyed it though!

Duck Stuffed with Chorizo: I’ve mentioned before that Chester has bad luck when it comes to ordering duck in restaurants, as it always seems to be overcooked. Not so in this case. Vetri’s duck was cooked to a perfect medium rare, with a pink center, and got just a little kick of spiciness from the chorizo.

Roasted Lamb: This was Chester’s special request. Like the duck, the lamb was cooked to a perfect medium rare. The cut was so thick that it looked more like beef. The use of Nebrodini (a type of oyster mushroom) and tuma persa (a sheep’s milk cheese) made this a very earthy dish.

Capretto with Stone Milled Polenta: I was a little apprehensive about this dish when the server set it in front of me. The only time that I’ve ever tried goat was at an Indian restaurant and I thought it was terrible. Fortunately, Vetri’s version had none of the gamey taste and tough texture that I remembered from that experience. It wasn’t my favorite dish, but at least I ventured out of my comfort zone and gave it a second chance.

Dessert: The sweet portion of the evening started with a plate of miniature pastries and cookies and a small scoop of mango sorbet. I could have easily been satisfied with that, but of course couldn’t pass up the chocolate polenta soufflé. It had a rich, pudding-like texture, that I’m sure I would never be able to recreate at home. Chester had the Paris-Brest, a puff pastry filled with a light, hazelnut cream. It was a little too sweet for him, so I ended up finishing most of it (I’m not sorry).

All of the dishes we tried were outstanding, but a month later I still find myself thinking about the pastas at Vetri. They were all incredibly light and the accompanying sauces were so delicate. In addition, the other ingredients in each dish (seafood, vegetables, cheeses, etc.) were thoughtfully chosen, so that all the elements in each dish complemented, rather than competed with, each other.

As you might expect at a fine dining establishment, portion sizes for each dish weren’t huge. But, they were just the right size for the two of us to share. In addition, many of the dishes, particularly the pastas and the meats, were on the heavier side. So, we definitely left feeling full and satisfied.

Service was impeccable throughout our meal. The servers explained all of the elements of each dish as it was presented and were very knowledgeable about how everything was made. They checked in with us regularly throughout the meal, without being overbearing or rushing us through the courses. At the end of the night, we were given ricotta cookies and a copy of the menu to take home as souvenirs. I tucked the latter item away so that we will be able to remember how we celebrated Little B before she was born.

At $155 per person, Vetri probably isn’t going to be in your regular restaurant rotation (if you have even deeper pockets, you can opt for one of the wine pairings, which start at $90). But, the combination of delicious food, exceptional service and intimate atmosphere makes it worth experiencing at least once, particularly if you have a special occasion to celebrate.

 

Restaurant Review: Garces Trading Company

I was pretty excited when Bridget told me last week that she and Bill were planning a weekend trip to Philly. It seemed like months had gone by since our Labor Day excursion to Newport, so I was glad that we were able to coordinate a visit over dinner during their trip.

I was even more excited when Bridget reminded me that Restaurant Week, in which dozens of Center City restaurants feature lunches and dinners for $20 and $35 respectively, was beginning. I had made a couple of reservations at the end of August, but kind of forgot about them. Until my iPhone reminds me that I need to be somewhere, I rarely remember the dates for things.

We chose to meet at Garces Trading Company, the gourmet market/restaurant in Jose Garces’ vast empire. I had been there for dinner when it first opened a couple of years ago and really loved the food and the concept. In addition to a vast selection of artisanal cheeses and charcuterie, decadent sweets, and signature olive oils, vinegars and coffees, GTC is home to the first state-operated liquor store to be located in a market-café. So, you can get everything checked off your list for a fancy dinner party at home or you can have a seat in the restaurant and let someone else do the cooking for you.

Dining and market spaces at Garces Trading Company

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Although the in-house wine boutique features an extensive collection, if you choose to bring your own wine the $10 corkage fee is waived for the first bottle. The shop was closed during our visit since it was a Sunday, so I didn’t have a chance to check pricing. But, bringing our own saved us a few bucks over ordering by the glass (and, it helped that our server kindly waived the corkage fee for our second bottle which was of the screw-top variety).

GTC’s Restaurant Week menu featured four-courses as opposed to the standard three. To start, Bill and Chester both enjoyed the rich, salty pork rilletes. Bridget and I both selected the cheese plate, which featured a mild, Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, complimented by lavender truffle honey. The honey was definitely the star of the show. When I ran out of cheese, I just spread it on bread. I’ll definitely be stopping back soon to grab a jar to keep at home.

I remembered that the pizza was one of the highlights of my first visit to GTC so I was glad to see the Italian sausage and Margherita varities listed among the second course options. However, they actually were more like the flatbread served at Distrito than the Chicago-style deep dish I remembered from my first visit. But, they were delicious all the same. The dough is made with duck fat, which gives it a chewy texture. There was minimal cheese, which let the other flavors—tomato, fennel and olive—shine. Chester also shared a few spoonfuls of the Salmorejo, a cold soup that has the refreshing flavor of gazpacho, but a thicker texture due to the addition of day-old bread that is blended into the tomato, olive oil and garlic puree.

For my third course, I briefly considered the scallops before settling on fusilli carbonara. Long strands of homemade pasta were cooked to a perfect al dente and topped with a runny poached egg, plenty of cheese, peas and crispy bits of bacon. It didn’t have as much cream as I’m used to in a carbonara, but I didn’t really miss that in light of all of the other ingredients. I also tried some of Chester’s roasted duck. As is pretty standard when he orders something cooked medium rare, it came out closer to well done. Still, it was pretty tender and flavorful and paired well with the slightly tart apple broth that accompanied it.

There were two options for dessert, so Chester and I chose one of each to share. I preferred my pick—a layered concoction of flourless chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and salted butterscotch pudding dusted with espresso powder to Chester’s French 77, an elderflower and lemon panna cotta, topped with strawberries and half of a strawberry macaron. The panna cotta itself was tart and creamy, but the dessert lost points due to the fact that the macaron was a bit stale.

Overall, GTC was a good Restaurant Week experience. Many of the restaurant’s signature items were available and the extra course was a nice bonus. Service was friendly and didn’t feel rushed at all.

We still have a few more reservations lined up for Restaurant Week, which continues through October 12 (with a break on October 6). If you are still looking for some recommendations of where to go, Foobooz has a great guide, which allows you to narrow down your restaurants options based on a variety of criteria, including BYOs, vegetarian friendly options and restaurants offering additional courses.

Restaurant Review: Mercato

For our second Restaurant Week outing, we headed to Mercato in the Washington Square neighborhood. Located in what used to be a “corner store” (as we say in South Philly), the restaurant is a cash-only, BYOB, featuring a regularly changing menu of contemporary takes on traditional Italian dishes.

The entire menu was available at the $35 Restaurant Week pricing, so there were plenty of options to choose from. Additionally, there was a separate menu featuring Italian meats, cheeses and a selection of olive oils, which was available to choose from as a substitute for a first course.

For an appetizer, I ordered the roasted portabella, which was topped with pecorino cheese and wrapped in a puff pastry. It was tasty, but there was way more pastry than filling, which was somewhat disappointing. It was accompanied by an arugula salad,  topped with a simple, citrus/thyme dressing and pine nuts. Chester had the whole grilled artichoke, which was also just so-so. It was on the small side and kind of fibrous, instead of meaty and tender. I also didn’t enjoy the smoky flavor, although it was better when dipped in the side of citrus aioli.

All in all, we were a bit underwhelmed by our first courses, and I became a bit nervous that the rest of the meal would be a disappointment as well. Luckily, things did improve from there.

For an entrée, I had the short rib ragu, with gnocchi, broccoli rabe and locatelli. Although the pasta was billed as ricotta gnocchi, they didn’t really have that much of a flavor and were a bit more dense than some other versions that I have had. But, I was able to overlook that since the ragu was exceptional. The locatelli melted slightly over the dish and its sharp flavor  complemented the earthy, red-wine infused sauce well. The short ribs were perfectly prepared and came apart easily with a fork. Chester’s veal cutlets were prepared in a simple white wine sauce, but were tender and flavorful. There were plenty of veggies on the dish as well–a topping of roasted red peppers, olives and spinach, and sides of asparagus and roasted potatoes–which I liked.

For dessert, I had the chocolate cake, with a warm, liquid center that reminded me of melted Nutella. A scoop of vanilla ice cream minimized some of the richness. Even Chester enjoyed dessert—a very light, marscapone cheesecake with walnut shortbread crumbs sprinkled on top.

With the exception of pre-theater, holiday, and Restaurant Week dinners, Mercato normally does not take reservations. And, from what I have read, the tiny space tends to fill up very quickly on regular business days. Just be aware that if you do make a reservation during one of these times, you will need to provide a credit card to hold the spot, and will be charged $25 per person in your party if you fail to cancel.

Mercato was definitely one of the most cramped and noisiest places I’ve been to in awhile. And, since we were seated in a corner table right near the kitchen, it was quite warm. I was definitely ready to leave by the end of the meal. Although I enjoyed the food and the portions were generous, it wasn’t so spectacular that I would feel compelled to go back again and brave a two hour wait for a table.