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
Twisted twirls of trofi pasta were to come embellished with shrimp, scallops, clams, summer squash, and lemon "pistou" (a paste of basil, garlic, and olive oil). The waiter informed us of there being no clams in the house, but I ordered it anyway. The two shellfish and trofi arrived toothsomely tossed with tomato, lemon, parsley, olive oil, and garlic. I anticipated the lack of clams, but not the missing basil and squash. Appetizer portions of pasta are $13 to $15; regular orders run $24 to $27.
Most entrées cost $25 to $29, or about $10 less than at other elite eateries around town. This slightly offsets the costly starters, but the final bill here is indisputably high-end. So are the steaks, which go for $36 to $48 — excepting a $24 Black Angus hanger and $84 prime-aged tomahawk chop. Upon being asked for a description of the latter, our waiter waxed ecstatic on the 32-ounce chop and opined that I would enjoy it far more than the hanger I had ordered. If one calculates a 20 percent gratuity, the difference between a $24 and $84 steak amounts to a $12 tip differential. The waiter's exuberance in pushing the tomahawk made it too apparent she had likewise done the math. Instead of adding numbers, she should have noted that my pasta appetizer would have made two pounds of meat too much to handle, especially with a pair of giant, crisply crusted beer-battered onion rings that come alongside. There was no disappointment with the hanger steak — tender and sweet from Asian-style marinade, grilled to a perfect medium-rare, and boosted by a buoyantly beefy Cabernet demi-glace.
Although Talula is not at the forefront of culinary trends, the cuisine is ambitiously innovative. What else can one say about spiced duck breast with peanut butter mashed potatoes and sherry-curry gastrique? Or two seared spears of snapper with pignoli risotto, Key West shrimp, and anisette-kumquat butter sauce dotted with chocolate-chili caramel? In some hands this would be overkill, but the subtly applied flavors were spot on. The only downside was the mushily overcooked risotto — plus Key West crustaceans always taste to me like larger versions of those insipid, baitlike minishrimp.
A hefty hunk of bone-in pork chop came smoky from the grill and fluffed in the center with sausage stuffing. The plate was stuffed, too, with caramelized apples, runner bean ragout, garlic-sautéed broccoli rabe, and a potent grainy mustard sauce. That's a lot of diverse flavors, and plenty to eat, but just the same, you won't want to miss the à la carte accompaniment of Roth Käse Wisconsin GranQueso and Vidalia onion tart: a square of flaky, buttery crust topped by a lusty custard with the sweet, sharp, Manchego-like notes of GranQueso. It's a bit rich as a side, but with salad, bread, and a glass of Rioja wine, it would make a perfect bistro meal. And a moderately priced one at that.
Talula dresses classic desserts with dashing accouterments such as Thai basil syrup on key lime pie, and heavenly lavender ice cream atop peach-blackberry cobbler. The latter didn't possess enough crust and hardly, if any, peaches. It was oversweetened, too, and a protruding pink peppercorn tuile tasted old. That said, fresh warm berries and ice cream simply can't be bad. Banana-chocolate bread pudding was uncommonly light, skillfully balanced, and fetchingly partnered with vanilla malted milk sauce.
In the end, Talula can be what you want it to be — a neighborhood restaurant with uncharacteristically good food and inordinately high prices, or a reliable and relatively affordable fine-dining destination.