Exploring Philadelphia's cheese-centric eatery
A not-so secret garden flourishes on Philadelphia’s fashionable Washington Square, drawing diners nightly to this cheese-centric restaurant where palates are elevated to a blissful state and spirits soar with the staff’s precision, knowledge and warmth. All seemingly delivered with little effort or fuss. And that’s just the way Aimee Olexy, co-owner of Talula’s Garden, designed it. And the way she wants her guests to enjoy it.
Olexy just may be the food world’s consummate hostess. She understands what it takes to create a memorable meal — and to leave her guests making plans to return well before their desserts arrive.
“Hospitality,” she says, “starts with cheese. It’s a wonderful ice-breaker. Cheese opens up conversation and makes you and your dining companions feel at home. Cheeses are like little people, each with their own character.” This she tells me as we sit at a corner table in her popular farm-to-table restaurant.
Talula’s Garden routinely makes the top dining spots on critics’ and patrons’ lists alike. But it’s not just a dining destination — nor a typical farm-to-table restaurant. It’s all about feeling at home and enjoying good cheese, food and wine. At Talula’s, Olexy invites you to make connections to the menu’s featured food artisans and winemakers. Even to connecting with those sitting at the next table is not out of the realm here.
It’s one of those rare restaurants where you feel comfortable to talk with strangers over the menu. Or with Olexy herself.
She explains, ordering a cheese board at her restaurant is very similar to offering a cheese tray to guests in your home and popping open a bottle of wine before dinner. Cheese, like wine, she says, gives you a wonderful subject to bond over. Perhaps talking about a cheese’s grassy aroma, its caramel and nutty flavor or recalling a memorable cheese you had while traveling in the south of France or stopping in Thomasville, GA. And if you tell Olexy, well, don’t be surprised to find that cheese on the menu next time you dine at Talula’s. Which is how the scrumptious cheese Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville made the cut.
So firmly does she believe in cheese’s powers (and its nutritional benefits) to enhance the enjoyment of a meal, Olexy designed her menu with it in mind, offering a selection of cheeses to begin the evening with. Now most celebrated restaurants today recognize the pull a cheese plate has over their patrons. But where they may offer a choice of three to 10 cheeses, Talula’s Garden offers a stellar array of 45.
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Here, again, Olexy’s artistry in hospitality is both simple and brilliant. Rather than present her guests with a long, heady list to choose from, she divides the 45 into six cheese boards: Seasonal Stash — Cheesemonger Classics; World Travel — An Illustrious International Collection; The Master Collection — Eight Cheeses of Distinction; The Perfect Palate — An Assembly of Six Delights; Not Your Granny’s — Six New Takes on Tradition; and The D.I.Y., a collection of five cheeses of your choice plus artisan salami.
To make your cheese course selection a bit easier, Olexy thoughtfully lists not only the cheese’s name, but its place of origin and type of milk used.
Each board is arranged according to the cheese’s flavor, from mild to the most robust. This is a classic way to arrange cheeses, she says. “Blue and washed rind cheeses are strong and can overwhelm a palate at times. Where offered on a board, they would come last. Mild styles and floral, grassy notes are nice to begin with,” she says, “as they have subtle notes that can be lost after eating a cheese fuller in flavor.”
Of course, a cheese board can also round out a meal, she says, a custom found popular in many European countries. In particular, she says, blue cheeses work well “with a little chocolate”.
Come summer, says Olexy, she often throws an all-goat cheese board into the mix. “Goat cheeses,” she says, “tend to be lighter in texture and have such a wonderful range in flavors. Plus, they pair perfectly with summer rosés.”
Then there is the occasional “Give Back” cheese board. Here, Olexy features American artisan cheesemakers, like Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, NY, which run educational children’s programs and/or rehabilitative or therapeutic ones for targeted populations.
Accompanying each board is a complimentary array of condiments, such as in-house chutneys, wine-plumped dried fruits, candied and curried nuts, fresh fruit, salted caramel and local honey as well as Talula’s own baguettes, water crackers and herb ciabatta. Again, depending on the season and cheese, they’re subject to change, even on a daily basis.
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A Commitment To Local
On the day I was there, it was still spring. The cheese boards read like a Who’s Who of the world’s best cheeses. True to her commitment to local food producers, cheese from several nearby Chester County, PA, artisans were offered: Shellbark Hollow Farm Sharp Chevre II, The Farm at Doe Run Twisted Jack, and Birchrun Hills Farm Blue. “I’m very impressed with these local cheeses,” she says. Other American cheese artisans she finds exceptional were featured as well as those from Italy, France, Spain, Canada, Holland and England.
When it comes to cheese, “local” to Olexy means that it is expertly handmade and seasonal.
For example, of the seven cheeses that came in the Spring Stash this day, five were from U.S. artisan cheesemakers, two others from Italy and Holland.
Olexy’s career in food can be traced to her childhood in West Chester, PA. Her parents were hippies, she says, and the family had two huge vegetable gardens on their four-acre property. They ate simply, Olexy says, but always fresh and seasonal. In addition, they lived close to Lancaster County and frequented the Amish markets as well as buying local honey from a roadside stand.
Her mother wisely suggested she apply for a job sweeping floors after school at the Spring Mill Café, where chef/owner Michele Haines, who hailed from Touraine, France, was the celebrated chef/owner. Haines asked young Olexy only two questions: ‘Was she reliable?’ And ‘Was she a hard-worker?’ To both, Olexy resoundingly replied, “Yes!”
“A Dairy Kid”
So at age 14, Olexy found her first mentor in Haines, who was the perfect match for her, for Haines cooked as she was raised in France. Always fresh, local and seasonal. Olexy stayed with Haines “on and off” for eight years. Under her mentor’s watchful eye, Olexy gained her first lessons in fine dining and hospitality. It’s also where she had her first taste of cheese. Laughing, she says, even though they never had cheese when she was growing up, her mother called her a “dairy kid” because she loved yogurt, milk and ice cream so much.
Not surprising, it was while with Haines, who offered a cheese plate on her menu, that Olexy discovered her love of cheese.
After earning a degree in English literature from St. Joseph’s University, Olexy worked in a number of area restaurants before moving to Colorado and managing Q’s Restaurant in Boulder and Panzano in Denver’s downtown. She next headed to France, where she attended the l’Universitie du Vin in the Vacluse, laying the foundation for her expertise in wine. While there, she also pursued her love of cheese.
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Of that time, Olexy says she can still remember each cheese’s smell, how and where it was made. “With food,” she says, “I can remember everything.” But, then, she has a Proustian memory for food that has served her — and guests at her restaurants — well.
By 1999, Olexy was back in Philly. For a time, she handled operations at Victory Brewing Co. and at the Swann in the Four Seasons Hotel before going to work for Stephen Starr, an icon in Philadelphia restaurants, starting in his Center City bistro, the Blue Angel. Olexy’s understanding of food and hospitality was not lost on Starr. And it wasn’t long before he promoted her as director of restaurants, handling operations at Buddakan, Continental, Tangerine and opening Pod.
But where Olexy’s name really started popping up in critics’ reviews and on patrons’ lips was when she opened Django, a small, 38-seat BYOB restaurant in Society Hill. Olexy reigned supreme in the front-of- the-house, greeting guests and designing its menus.
Developing Django’s menus came naturally for her. All she had to do was draw from her roots, she says, and what she had gleaned along the way. Memories of her days with Haines, where relationships with local farmers were part of the norm, and those of growing up in West Chester, all came into play. For her, it was the most natural thing to do to design the menu with “cook what you know and what is in season” in mind.
Still a vociferous reader, Olexy also credits reading Alice Waters’ “Art of Simple Food and Chez Panisse Vegetables” as influencing her approach to food and hospitality. “To this day,” she says, “I refer to these books and Alice’s writings often.”
After five very successful years — and to the regret of many — she sold Django. Two years later, Olexy opened Talula’s Table in Kennett Square in Chester County, PA. The gourmet market by day and coveted “Farmtable Dinner” spot for a single party of eight to 12 (reservations run a year in advance) by night is named for her daughter, Annalee Talula Rae, now 11. Among the wide variety of pantry staples, including in-house hickory-smoked bacon, pastries and breads, is an impressive array of local, national and international cheeses. Ever thinking of fun ways to introduce cheese to her clientele, Olexy initiated a “Cheese Happy Hour” on Mondays, a tasting of a few featured cheeses for the locals.
When she first decided to open Talula’s Garden in collaboration with Starr, skeptics feared she wouldn’t be able to recreate the intimate 12-seat dining experience of her Talula’s Table.
Olexy had no such misgivings. She knew she could recreate the same country and down-home feel even in this much larger space. And when she opened Talula’s Garden in 2011, there were no longer doubts. Olexy had created a farm-to-table haven in a 180-seat restaurant, complete with two full bars. Once again, she hit on the right harmonious beat to move a food-hip crowd. The result is a magical mix of country cool, city chic and farm-to-table.
A Down-Home Feel
Whether you’re dining at one of the tables in Talula’s outdoor garden, festooned with thousands of tiny lights for an enchanted evening under the stars, or in the comfy seating arrangements inside, where in nice-weather the large French doors are flung open, allowing the outside breezes to waft through, Olexy has created the feeling of sitting in your backyard.
Instead of starched white tablecloths and formal tables and chairs, Olexy opted for exposed wooden tables, celery green and lemony yellow cushioned chairs and banquettes. These are arranged in groupings, creating a more inviting feel of being at home rather than sitting in a large restaurant. Stationed across from the cheese-plating bar is a long, wooden farm table seating 12. It’s perfect for a large party, family or to sit and chat with other diners. Even the menus have a touch of country whimsy. Tiny wooden clothespins attach the cheese course menu to the main one. An assortment of tree-bark birdhouses perched above the inside bar only reinforces the outdoor feel.
But it’s Olexy’s same attention to local and seasonal fare of Talula’s Table that wins her raves at Talula’s Garden. Before selecting a food item to serve or use in the restaurant, she asks herself, “Is this a good food decision? Is it something so good? Good for you? Is it helping you to make good food choices?” And is it also good economically, she asks. Does it support sustainable agriculture and artisan cheese and wine makers? Support buy local?
Still, I can’t help thinking about those 45 cheeses.
A small, mischievous grin breaks across her face before answering. “You know I have Talula’s Daily next door,” she says. (Talula’s Daily is a community market where people stop by for freshly-baked breads and pastries, a quick bite, freshly-brewed coffee or a glass of wine or beer. And since it’s Olexy-owned, you know there’s a cheese case burgeoning with local farmstead cheeses of every stripe.) Plus, cheese is “sneaky,” she says. “You try a new cheese at Talula’s Garden and you say ‘Oh, that’s good’ and want to buy it. So you can just walk next door.”
In order for cheese to be at its best, says Olexy, you need to have high turnover “to keep it lovely.” Between Talula’s Garden and Talula’s Daily, she says, there are 100 cheeses at any one time in the building. Her chefs love it, she says. “They can say to me they would like to use this cheese or that in a dish. And they have it.
“It’s like Julia Child said. If you use good wine in cooking, it makes the dish better. So it is with cheese.”
It’s also a great substitute for fats in a dish, she says. “Instead of adding butter or olive oil,” she says, “we can use great cheeses. Most people know about using Parmigiano Reggiano rinds in cooking, but any cheese rind will work.” Adding a rind to a dish, she says, adds depth and heightens it flavors, adding a rich creaminess.
When talking about her favorite subject, Olexy could easily be called a cheese nerd, except she’s way too passionate, pretty and hip. Not to mention way too down-to-earth to qualify. Cheese champion, maybe. But, perhaps, as one Philadelphia restaurant critic called her, “a wonky cheese goddess” fits her best.
“Cheese is a marvelous food,” she says. “It’s not just for holidays or special occasions.” Nor is it a snobbish food. It’s very generous in its many forms and flavors, she says. “You just have to try them.”