Fresh Spirit: Storybook Spaces at Talula's

By / Photography By Courtney Apple | November 01, 2013
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Aimee Olexy readies a table at Talula’s Garden on Washington Square.
Aimee Olexy readies a table at Talula’s Garden on Washington Square.

Open the door of Talula’s Daily, Aimee Olexy’s third and most recent enterprise, and it’s like entering Alice’s Wonderland via the imagination of an entrepreneurial, foodobsessed English major. Literary journals

lay sprawled on tables. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind the café counter brim with mismatched china and bottles of prosecco. Up a few steps, scones and libations give way to a homey market, where a long table dressed with a patchwork runner and owl-shaped cookie jars appears Mad-Tea-Party-ready. The space invites diners to sit, sip, eat, dream and forget the world outside.

At the center of it all, Olexy plays Alice—a slight, flaxen-haired figure with a passion for fresh ingredients and a mission to draw people together around a table. “The table,” as she will tell you, “is a big thing.” Forget the grab ’n’ go cooler stocked with croissant sandwiches and local Pequea Valley yogurt that can be nabbed on the fly, what Olexy loves most is watching people sit down to enjoy eating. “See, that looks like a mother and daughter having some soup,” she whispers one Tuesday, as the long windows over the cheese case fill with late-morning light. “I’m always moved by watching families eat together.”

In Philadelphia’s local food scene, Olexy has made a name for herself as someone who brings gusto and charm to the realm of farm-to-table cuisine. Following in the footsteps of grand dame Judy Wicks, who ignited the movement here with political zeal and influential nonprofits (White Dog Café Foundation and Fair Food), Olexy operates as a sort of second-generation dreamerdoer who is more likely to gush over lettuces than leaflets.

Elevating seasonal ingredients, like local green beans in a salad of citrus juices and good olive oil, is Olexy’s way of teaching diners to notice where their food comes from and how good it can taste when it’s not processed.

“Everything we make is from scratch,” she says. “And we use local and seasonal whenever we can get it, but I’m not going to lie, we’ve got industrial carrots in the walk-in right now, and sometimes I feed my daughter Pop-Tarts.” Olexy entered the food scene through the bejeweled doors of Stephen Starr’s vast restaurant empire—first as general manager for the now-closed Blue Angel, then as director of restaurants for his entire fleet—but she has never lost sight of her formative experience: waiting tables at Spring Mill Café in Conshohocken when she was 14. “I wanted to join the swim team, and my mom literally dropped me off outside the café and told me to go inside and ask for a job mopping the floor.” There, under the mentorship of French owner Michèle Haines, Olexy learned about quality food and good service.

“I used to go through the refrigerator and taste things: Dijon mustard, cheeses—like Port Salut and reblochon. And I used to wait on people in my little apron…. It’s a lot like what I do now,” she says.

At Talula’s Daily
At Talula’s Daily

Today, Olexy counts three restaurants to her name—all of them an extension of her much beatified Kennett Square market, Talula’s Table, which transforms, by night, into a single-table restaurant. Its dozen seats are coveted, booked a full year in advance. Before launching her second (and now third) Talula’s incarnation on Washington Square Park, Olexy split with her longtime chef and husband, Brian Sikora, and teamed up with former employer Starr to expand.

Parting ways with Sikora, whose cooking is legendary, and partnering with Starr, whose restaurants are often more renowned for their flash than their food, threatened to tarnish the integrity of her vision. Would Talula’s Table falter without its founding chef? Would joining the corporate Starr-ship enterprise force her to compromise her commitment to buying from the small farmers she’s supported for years?

In hindsight, the answers are clear. No. And no. Olexy credits her long-standing staff at Talula’s Table with rallying behind her during the divorce, and she speaks adoringly of Starr. Working closely with him, she insists, allows her to talk up local food to chefs at his other restaurants, like Alma de Cuba, where she recently consulted for him on a new menu. Starr didn’t event set foot inside Talula’s Daily until three days before it opened, according to the restaurant’s manager Daniel Westiner. “Everything you see here really comes from Aimee,” he says, gesturing around the room.

Dining at Talula’s Daily is a special experience. The so-called “Secret Suppers” begin at 7 p.m., when the lights dim and candles appear—glowing behind butterfly stencils on Mason jars—and the monthly menu unfolds with a story of the season in five inventive courses (prix fixe, $50). Pennsylvania lamb arrives dressed with toasted bulgur wheat and glistening apricots, preceded by a small plate of the season’s first Brussels sprouts, sautéed with three kinds of Kennett Square mushrooms and a violet drizzle of Concord grape reduction. The presentation is breathtaking, the flavors reflective of this very moment in time: a cool fall evening, the first chill in the air—crisp, almost bracing, yet still lit with summer’s sweetness.

A cheese plate served on a sturdy wood cutting board includes six artisan selections from across the United States, all wonderful but especially so because of two unusual Pennsylvania-made slabs: Moon-slivers of ashy goat cheese from Pipe Dreams in Greencastle, a hard-to-score cheese that rarely appears on local menus, glow by candlelight; Birchrun Blue, a local favorite, comes smoked—an idea Olexy hatched at Headhouse Farmers’ Market one Sunday, while talking to cheesemaker Sue Miller over neighboring farm stands.

Miller credits Olexy with adding this wild spark to her signature blue. “The apple wood gives the cheese this sweet, smoky edge, and it elevates the milk rather than competing with it,” says Miller, who has worked with Olexy for the last six years.

For Olexy, these suppers strum warm memories of growing up in Chester County, where her parents owned a small acreage with blueberry bushes, and every night they ate around the table: a long wooden four-legger, much like the one parked by the open kitchen in the Daily. It was a place of comfort, where simple suppers were served, family huddled over puzzles, and she and her three brothers labored over homework.

On a recent evening, Olexy waited on a family of five—two parents and three children—and afterward, the mother reached out to grasp Olexy’s arm. “I feel like I just sat down and had dinner with my family for the first time in 10 years,” she said. As Olexy tells the story over coffee, a smile crosses her lips. Behind her, espresso machines hiss, the smell of organic La Colombe thickening the air. She leans in, “I teared up thinking about it that night as I was driving home.”

208 West Washington Square, Philadelphia

102 West State Street, Kennett Square

210 W. Washington Square, Philadelphia

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