Three-day stand by Talula's Table came and went by Washington Square

Aimee Olexy of Talula's Table explains a cheese plate to Jamie Strausbaugh, 23, of Philadelphia. Olexy and others operated a three-day stand in Washington Square.
Aimee Olexy of Talula's Table explains a cheese plate to Jamie Strausbaugh, 23, of Philadelphia. Olexy and others operated a three-day stand in Washington Square.
Posted: July 08, 2010

The unsustainable institution that is the pop-up restaurant comes in various flavors - in London, it may arise for a moment in a made-over sitting room; in Spokane, Wash., in a trail-side burger tent, as ephemeral as a chanterelle that flares after the rain.

But one feature is a constant - it doesn't last long.

If you blinked last week, you missed Philadelphia's own latest entry; a three-day stand by Talula's Table, the Kennett Square farm-table cafe famous for the year-long waits for its, well, the table.

It sprouted in the empty (but artfully transformed) shell of Washington Square, the shuttered indoor-outdoor restaurant on Seventh Street, next to the stately park of the same name.

On Wednesday, Night Number Two - with the kitchen's ticket printer blessedly over its First Night hissy fit (it was printing out orders in what appeared to be Arabic) - it was getting its groove on. Somewhat.

"I've been serving from the wrong side, bringing the wrong wines," confided Ashley Primis, who was pitching in, albeit with more gusto than actual serving skill.

She's the former food editor at Philadelphia Magazine who a few months ago joined the Starr restaurant group as special projects honcho: People wondered what that meant.

Her pop-up restaurant series, it turns out, is the answer. Or part of it. (The next guest chef is the intense Konstantinos Pitsillides from Kanella, the Cypriot spot, cooking on July 27, 28 and 29.)

This was pop-up, but hardly spontaneous. Primis' to-do list was endless: Make sure Washington Square's deep fryer was working. Check. Dumpster positioned out back. Check. Temp servers prepped. Silverware delivered. Menus designed. Dishwashers primed.

The venture wasn't exactly a hard sell. Talula's Table is the successor to Django, which had a stellar run off South Street several years ago, leaving a host of loyal customers bereft when its founders decamped to Chester County.

They were heavily represented at tables tucked amid local artists' installations, trucked-in tomato plants nuzzling the base of the heat lamps, and flower pots of parsley - an homage to Talula's farm-country aesthetic (and regarding the flower pots, fresh-baked bread was once served in them at Django).

Aimee Olexy, Talula's owner, was at her crystalline best - knifing through the jury-rigged space (chairs from the old Striped Bass, crockery from the old Blue Angel) with a tray of hot puffs of gougères; giving crisp tutorials - "This is what Manchego wishes it was!" - on her specialty, the carefully edited cheese plate.

"It makes me feel like I did when I was younger," she said, surveying the familiar faces, "and still married."

Indeed, the poignantly missing face this evening was Bryan Sikora's, Talula's founding chef and Olexy's partner and husband until he abruptly filed for divorce earlier this year. (He is exploring a Lehigh Valley-area dining project.)

But the food hasn't suffered a whit, the more remarkable considering Talula's current chef Matthew Moon (its former sous chef) and his team were working in unfamilar trenches.

Each dish trumped the next, though the pacing wasn't always like clockwork (and one diner found the seared "tuna melt," at $30, on the rather skimpy side.)

The fried Chester County squash blossoms, $14 - picked at 3 a.m. that day, Olexy announced - were shatteringly crisp, enlivened by a dunk in a jammy green-tomato ketchup so good that Talula's is going to bottle it.

A velvety Kennett Square mushroom soup, poured table-side over a pile of roast shiitakes topped with a doughnut-hole-sized fritter that oozed creamy bone marrow, $9, was unsettlingly sensual.

And tender, smoked scallop-stuffed ravioli in a sweet pea sauce, $14, sprinkled with endearingly fresh baby peas under a veil of pea shoots may have been the best dish served in the entire city that night.

There were Olexy's local cheese plates, one riffing off her grandmother's prosaic favorites, served with updated tapenades, mustards, and apple butters.

And a crowd-pleasing (the total three-day body count was about 450) specialty mojito fashioned from Appleton Estate, the blended Jamaican rum, and Olexy's own garden mint.

Primis discovered the depth of the Starr group's resources when she was able to procure - when the bar's well suddenly went dry - an emergency stash of rum from Stephen Starr's nearby Morimoto.

Then, just as things settled down on Night Number Three - poof! - it was over.

Passersby the next day saw only the frosted-glass wall and locked door to empty-again Washington Square, silent and lifeless as a tomb.

Such is the pop-up's inescapable destiny - to be a haiku, not a happily ever after.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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