“A garden brings life and beauty to the table.”
Alice Waters’ quote could not be more fitting in an enchanting, hidden garden entrance on a bustling street of my home city of another life, Philadelphia. Affectionately called the City of Brotherly Love owing to a rich history, it was also one of my favorite culinary destinations, owing to the mushrooming of talented chefs sprouting petite restaurants on every cobblestone street. Charm, you see, has no formula, and Philadelphia inherently possesses it.
I chose Talula’s Garden as a dinner spot after having heard rave reviews of its literally garden fresh offerings. Founded by Aimee Olexy in collaboration with Stephen Starr, she drew inspiration from her upbringing in Westchester Pennsylvania where gardens were a prevalent source for her foods. Having been in Philly since the 2000s with a hand in many of my favorite restaurants, she opened Talula’s Garden (second to the most coveted table in America: Talula’s Table) with a quaint yet upscale ambiance, part garden seating, and vibrant planter box and wallpaper decor. The entire place was like an upscale French country home, with quotes sprawling on walls and happy servers waltzing with petite plates of farm fresh food by Chef Charles Parker.
The cocktail list was inventive, with each cocktail personified as a person. With a quirky humor, it was fun to see that The Farmer was a Thirst Quenching Margarita, The Butcher was a Spicy Bloody, The Optimist was a Huckleberry Lemonade, and so many more! The menus were generally inventively named, clipped together with old fashioned clothing pins, and placed next to hand picked floral plates. It made for a fun, positive and colorful vibe. While in slight juxtaposition with the unusually dark lighting, I figured this was a sign to keep things cozy, romantic and relatively high end.
Being a traveler and wandering spirit, I got The Wanderer, a coriander and key lime daiquiri with clean white rum, cilantro and coriander sea salt. The taste of coriander was very present, giving the fresh drink a clean, herbaceous scent and taste. While not as strong as my usual face punching drinks, it fit the upscale farm fresh meal very well.
Feeling fresh, I started with two bite sized plates. The first was a colorful bowl of marinated beets with oranges, almonds and ricotta cheese. Beets are a sumptuous red go-to vegetable, since it is both sweet and tangy. The subtle citrus notes from the oranges and the saltiness of the ricotta made for a surprisingly delicious combination, one that I would have to replicate in the kitchen. The nuts provided an adequate and much needed crunch.
The yellow and red watermelon dish was a play on colors and textures, topped with nuts and a basil sesame dressing that added a much needed tang to the dish. It reminded me of Indian street food called chaat, and was a fresh take on a very simple fruit.
My main course was a fresh salad comprising of shaved fennel, arugula, granny smith apples, herb and lentil dressing, fresh dressing and shaved ricotta cheese. The best part were the apples, tart and perfectly crunchy to offset the bitterness of the arugula and the sweetness of the dressing. While lacking hearty components that I have propelled other salads to heavenly heights, it was a fresh, simple and healthy bite that left enough room for dessert.
Being a lover of chocolate, I got the dark chocolate s’mores and smoked milk ice cream. It ended up being more of a molten chocolate cake filled with melted marshmallow, which was an interesting contrast of texture given that the flakes of cake seldom detached themselves from the gooey center. The topping of charred marshmallows and graham crumbs was an homage to the inspiration for the dessert, making the entire dish a game of sugary cobwebs, which was nonetheless tasty. My favorite part however was the smoked ice cream. Having tasted smoked food before, even in Philadelphia, it lent the otherwise plain, sweet and vanilla flavor a tasty bitter undertone that could possibly make it transcend to a cold dressing on savory foods!
While the garden concept was terrific, I found the dishes a tad simple. Which may not be a bad thing, for they were a merry departure from my forays into food complexity, which is more my forte. As they say, a farmer’s life is a not complicated, and I was pleased to have spent time in this garden of fresh, simple and hearty spirit.