By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
It's not unusual for a couple to give birth a year or two after getting hitched -- unless the couple is a couple of award-winning young chefs, like Andrea Curto-Randazzo (formerly of Wish) and Frank Randazzo (the Gaucho Room), and they decide to almost simultaneously give birth to a child and a co-owned/operated restaurant that requires both presences at all times, running the kitchen and the front of the house. One can barely refrain from commenting to the pair: "A new baby and a new restaurant at the same time: WHAT a good idea! Hey, kids, can you spell 's-l-e-e-p'? Do you remember how to do it?"
Fortunately for diners, Curto and Randazzo don't seem to need it. At Talula their mutual perfectionism substitutes for stress-relieving downtime just fine, judging by the food. At their previous posts each received national recognition individually (Curto was one of Food & Wine's ten best new chefs in 2001 and Randazzo was named a James Beard Award chef, among other kudos), but they've also meshed complementary cooking styles -- his a bit more Southwest, hers more MediterAsian-accented, but both influenced by an Italian-American upbringing and both possessed of an uncanny flair for perfectly balancing ingredients so nothing overwhelms. Though a few items have been added to or subtracted from the menu since Talula's late-June opening, the fare, which the chefs term Creative American, was totally together even a week later.
Service was accommodating and attentive, too, though two or three bus boys 'n' girls were a bit overenthusiastic, persistently attempting to whisk plates away when a few bites were still left; when food's this good, diners do want every last bite. But that was about the only flaw I encountered in two visits, except that caesar salad was spelled wrong on the menu. So was Muscat Beaumes de Venise on the wine list. Neither tasted at all wrong.
Appetizers included one Curto classic from Wish, a flavorful grilled quail crusted with a cascabel chili rub, accompanied by oyster mushrooms and agnolotti stuffed with a sweet/hot chili-spiked sweet potato purée; and one golden oldie from Randazzo, buttery rich grilled foie gras on blue corn cakes, dressed with a subtly hot, complex chili syrup and accompanied by caramelized figs -- no tropical fruit for a change, thank heaven. But most starters were new creations, some sounding similar to stuff available all over town but tasting quite delightfully different. Everyone does a tuna tartare, for instance, but Talula's diced ahi was flavored not with the usual tired sesame but chili oil. Don't fear the fire. The peppers were serranos, not nearly as hot as trendy Scotch bonnets, so one is almost unaware of heat while eating the tartare; afterward, though, one's mouth feels pleasantly warm inside. And the salmon egg-sized trout roe topping the tuna, from Chicago's Carolyn Collins, was terrific -- fabulously fresh taste, great pop.
There's a different soup daily, and if cream-based crab/corn soup's the selection, don't pass it up. I nearly did because of a cholesterophobe at the table, but the broth, though rich, was actually quite light and enlivened by an unusual touch of, again, chili heat that was just right but not too much. In the bowl's center was a generous heap of lump crab salad.
Listed as a vegetable side dish but a terrific, and inexpensive, appetizer was a manchego and Vidalia onion tart. Since the cheese was described as aged I was prepared for strong rather than subtle flavor, so was pleasantly surprised by the buttery tart's very delicately savory, flanlike filling. No reason for the surprise, actually; cloud-light custards have always been a forte of both chefs.
Among entrées, sautéed soft-shell crabs were a standout. The crisp-crusted tender crustaceans came atop some wonderfully slippery pappardelle pasta layers, garnished with barely wilted spinach and roasted yellow/red tomato ragout, and drizzled with a lovely tangy-rich sauce -- but not nearly enough of it, frankly, to sufficiently sauce all the crab. Pan-roasted Pacific halibut was also good, perfectly cooked and accompanied by purple sticky rice, corn-pecan salsa, black bean purée, and an orange beurre blanc.
All components worked well together, which was fortunate since the stacked presentation meant that the salsa and purée and beurre all melded into one sort of exotic rice stuffing. It tasted great, but I'd have preferred more isolation of the individual items, to be able to taste each distinctly.
A risotto of the day with sausage and greens, drizzled with reduced balsamico sauce, tasted just like Curto's risottos always have, which is better than anyone else's in town. Ditto for dessert: a Callebaut chocolate bread pudding with Tia Maria and espresso cream, profoundly dark chocolatey in taste but creamy-light in texture, with not a bit of the fudgey gloppiness intensely chocolate desserts usually have.
On a second visit, eating alone, I tried out Talula's new exhibition food bar. To regular table-type diners in the main space, chefs are only partially visible due to a chest-high counter fronting the open kitchen. But those seated in one of just five comfy-backed stools at the marbletop counter's far left end have an up-close, unobstructed view of all Talula's chefs working, just like the Food Channel only live -- and much more interactive, since the bar's a friendly place where questioning, as well as eating, is encouraged. This entertainment factor makes the food bar a terrific option for solo diners, as does the fact that the bar's sheltered position in back of the dining room makes those dining alone feel less conspicuous, kinda hidden.
But not hidden enough to preserve my secret identity as a restaurant reviewer, unfortunately; Curto, who concentrates on supervising kitchen operations while Randazzo works the front of the house, spotted and recognized me. For those who don't know, New Times, like all journalistically credible publications, reviews restaurants anonymously (which includes paying for our own meals -- no reviewing freebie dinners) to ensure that we experience exactly what the average diner does, rather than receiving special treatment. This involves taking certain precautions, like reserving under fake names (at one place, I reserved three times in one week, under the names of Superman's three girlfriends: Lois Lane, Lana Lang, and Lori Lemaris); this has always worked before for me, so I don't know what went wrong. Did my black veil slip? Perhaps the fake beard and moustache was overdoing it a bit?
Whatever, I was busted, so cannot absolutely guarantee that the reason why I thought Curto's new shrimp tamale appetizer one of the best things I've ever had in my mouth was not due to the chefs sneaking some of that special reviewer-receptivity mood enhancer, which they keep behind the counter for just such occasions, into my stuff. Since I could see all kitchen operations from my stool, though, I think it more likely that my swooning reaction to the tamale was due to perfectly grilled, huge sweet shrimp (no iodine taste whatsoever) and a masa filling so delicate -- more like panna cotta than normal grainy tamale stuffing -- it was hard to imagine it coming from cornmeal. This tamale should be its own Major Food Group.
The same special mood enhancer could have been responsible for my positive feelings about a much moister than usual pan-roasted chicken (with polenta, spicy bitter-sweet collards, and three bean ragout), and an amusingly marshmallow-topped layered sweet potato/custard crème brûlée that seemed to me should, by law, be made a mandatory substitute for all Thanksgiving sweet potato dishes. But after seeing scores of the same dishes go out into the dining room for nonreviewing civilians, I think Talula just plain does astonishingly good food.