Author Archive | Tenaya Darlington

HEALTHY DECADENCE

How Andrea Kyan satiates a sweet
tooth at her vegan, gluten-free
restaurant and bakery, P.S. & Co.

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Dark Chocolate Cake Layer Cake with Vanilla Cream and Pumpkin Cream, left,
and Carrot Cake with Pumpkin Cream, Vanilla Cream and Caramelized Pecans

PHOTOGRAPHS BY REBECCA MCALPIN

At 17th and Locust, Andrea Kyan is quietly staging a plant-based revolution—and, surprisingly, desserts, not salads, are at the heart of it. Take a look at the menu of Pure Sweets & Co. (a.k.a. P.S.& Co.), the bakery and restaurant she opened in May 2014, and you’ll see a strawberries-and-cream milkshake made with beet juice and coconut cream instead of dairy.

Hungry for tiramisu? Kyan (pronounced “cayenne”) uses avocado in place of mascarpone cheese and maple syrup instead of sugar. Although these substitutions might rankle purists, Kyan’s shakes, cakes, cookies and tarts have inspired legions of dessert lovers (including this one) to rethink decadence.

“I am trying to take the guilt out of desserts,” she says on a Friday afternoon, as she slides behind the counter to remove a dark chocolate layer cake from the cooler. With its slightly askew quartet of layers—cake, vanilla cream, chocolate ganache and chocolate-laced bananas—it appears both feathery and gilded, like the headdress of a Radio City Rockette. Fat-free, it is not. Low-calorie? Don’t even. But gluten-free? Organic? Vegan? Umm… kosher? Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Allow me to make a confession: I love dairy more than life itself, yet I prefer Kyan’s vegan cakes to most traditional cakes I’ve eaten. The mouthfeel of her creams and frostings made from pureed avocados and cashews are velvety and supple, never pasty or stiff from an excess of cold butter. Her cake base, which took nearly two years to perfect, is fluffy and moist thanks to finely ground blanched almonds and a stream of extra-virgin olive oil.

“Cakes were my dream project,” she says, noting that she wanted to develop her own gluten-free flour blend rather than work with one of the commercial brands on the market because “so many of them have starches and gums, which can be hard to digest.”

When people leave her restaurant, Kyan wants them to feel satisfied and energized—not overly full or heavy. “After I eat that cake,” Kyan says, pointing to the dark chocolate banana torte, “I am good for a three-hour workout. It’s packed with protein.”

A three-hour workout? Yes, in addition to running a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, Kyan trains with “an Olympic-level Judo guy” (Marius Enache of Tactics MMA) twice a week for three hours. It keeps her feeling physically fit, but she concedes that the self-defense aspect appeals to her most. Let’s just say she’s had a few tough customers

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P.S. & Co. owner Andrea Kyan

Allow me to make a confession:
I love dairy more than life itself,
yet I prefer Kyan’s vegan cakes to
most traditional cakes I’ve eaten

In an age when eating has become political and fad diets constantly shift how we define “healthy eating,” finding pleasure in food is not always easy. Kyan says that’s why her primary goal is simply to give her customers “the childhood happiness of eating without guilt.” Whatever you’re avoiding or limiting—sugar, dyes, hormones, gluten—and whatever political food agenda you’re pursuing, Kyan wants to create a place where you can enjoy a meal without compromise. As kids, she emphasizes, people are allowed to enjoy food with “pure” delight.

Returning to that childlike mindset is at the root of Kyan’s mission—a mission that is deeply connected to her past, growing up in New Jersey with a Burmese mother and a Chinese father who both loved to eat. Ask about her late mother and you’ll hear about sumptuous after-school snacks and dinners that were on par with “Thanksgiving every night.” Her mother cooked three meals from scratch every day, from traditional dumplings to homemade lasagna. Ask about Kyan’s father, a devout Buddhist, and you’ll learn how he valued the ethics of eating and never killed a fly. His empathy for all living things led Kyan to become a vegetarian in middle school, then later a vegan. “Even here, my staff doesn’t kill [so much as a fly],” she offers. “They know Andrea doesn’t like it.”

Kyan began baking in 2007, soon after she went vegan. She had a fierce sweet tooth, and a lot of the vegan desserts she tried fell short of what she was craving. “I was a sugar addict,” she confesses. By day, she worked for a diabetes researcher at Monell Chemical; by night, she experimented in her kitchen with sugar substitutes and vegan recipes. Honey was off limits since it’s not strictly vegan (bees!), so Kyan turned to agave at first, only to learn from her boss that agave syrup has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup. Since fructose converts to fat faster than glucose does, it’s hardly an ideal sweetener for those striving to eat a healthy diet.

Over time, Kyan settled on maple syrup and organic coconut sugar, making them staples in her pantry. She also signed up for Vegan Baking Boot Camp at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, taught by cookbook author and legendary vegan baker Fran Costigan. “She was so scary,” Kyan recalls, laughing, “but I learned so much from her.”

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Vanilla Cake with Chocolate and Vanilla Cream

With its slightly askew quartet of layers—cake,
vanilla cream, chocolate ganache and chocolate-laced

bananas—it appears both feathery and gilded,
like the headdress of a Radio City Rockette

A side business grew as Kyan’s friends and coworkers began ordering her baked goods, and in 2008 she launched an online business, Pure Sweets LLC, selling to area businesses and clients in New York and Los Angeles. When she landed an account with Whole Foods in 2010, she rented a commercial kitchen in East Falls. Soon after, she began dreaming of a brick-and-mortar restaurant, someplace with an epic dessert case but also an underlying mission to support healthy lifestyles—like Café Gratitude in Los Angeles, an organic plant-based restaurant Kyan visited during her research phase. When she opened P.S. & Co. in 2014, she launched with an ambitious program of cooking classes, meal plans, coldpressed juices, sugar-free snacks and all-day plant-based dining.

Regulars like Robert Del Femine soon put down roots along the lunch counter, while Penn students flocked to the airy back room for smoothie-laden study sessions. Del Femine calls Kyan a bright star in the city’s dining scene. He and his wife Jennifer walk or bike to P.S. & Co. at least three times a week from their home on Washington Square; they’re brunch regulars and love Kyan’s kale-pesto pizza and blueberry-cream carrot cake. Del Femine also likes to treat himself to a fresh juice at the end of his 50-mile bike rides.

“I’m a corporate person and a nightlife person but also an active person,” says Del Femine, who started exploring a mostly raw-food diet about a decade ago. When his wife developed a gluten sensitivity recently, P.S. & Co. became their favorite spot. “My mother-in-law always said you can pay the farmer, or you can pay the doctor,” he laughs, adding that, at 57, he feels better than ever thanks to regular exercise and good nutrition.… Read More

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THE START-UP CREAMERY

How Stefanie Angstadt, 29, reclaimed a
historic milk house and followed her dream

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Written & Photographed by Tenaya Darlington

Until a few years ago, Stefanie Angstadt wore a suit every day and worked for a powerful Manhattan bank. Today, she dons an industrial yellow apron and tucks her hair under a kerchief to spend her day making cheese.

“Basically, I had a quarter-life crisis,” she laughs, turning away from a row of steamy windows in her milk house to finger curds forming in a 100-gallon vat. Once she ladles them into forms, they will become her signature triple crème, a luxurious round she calls Thistle.

At 29, Angstadt is the solo owner of Valley Milkhouse, a startup creamery in the town of Oley in Pennsylvania’s Berks County, a venture she launched last summer after discovering a derelict milk house near farmland that once belonged to her German ancestors. One hundred and twenty miles from her former New York office, her change of scenery includes a driveway full of chickens and a covered bridge at the end of the road.

Angstadt’s move from corporate sales rep to rural entrepreneur seeded itself in a Brooklyn homebrew shop, where she discovered a cheesemaking kit one afternoon in 2009. She had just graduated from Brown University with a degree in political science, and her career leap into banking felt like a misstep. She yearned for something more romantic. Images of ripe market cheeses had been floating in her imagination since the semester she studied abroad in France during her junior year. By the time she quit her day job three years later, she was making Brie in her apartment kitchen.

In search of a mentor, Angstadt made her way to Colorado to apprentice with award-winning cheesemaker Wendy Mitchell of Avalanche Cheese Company. “I basically emailed Wendy and offered to wash her dishes,” Angstadt remembers. She picked up a waitressing job in Basalt to cover her expenses, and spent six months learning to run a creamery. When the season ended, she traveled—using the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network— to volunteer on dairies around Europe and Southeast Asia.

“It was kind of like following a cheese trail,” Angstadt says, “although I didn’t really have a plan.”

A fortuitous connection at the Union Square Greenmarket upon her return in the spring of 2012 brought Angstadt’s cheese vagabonding to a stop. In search of farm work, she introduced herself to Tim Stark, a well-known heirloom tomato grower.

“His jaw dropped when I told him my name,” she recalls. He explained, “The farm where I grow my tomatoes is the historic Angstadt Farm.”

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When Stark invited her to help him launch a vegetable CSA, she leapt at the chance to revisit Berks County—she remembered the area from family reunions, but she had never visited the original homestead, which dates back to 1743. Out in the field, she found a stone marker that referenced George Angstadt, the original settler. And not far from it: a shuttered milk house containing the skeleton of a former creamery.

That was the moment Angstadt says she had an inkling about her future.

Today, Angstadt works seven days a week—hauling milk, making cheese, running deliveries, setting up at markets, maintaining her business’s website, and developing new products for her line of French-style cheeses.

“The community here has been so encouraging,” she says, recalling Mennonite neighbors who helped her rehab the milk house and a pair of grass-based dairy farmers who now sell her milk from their sheep and cows. A microloan enabled her to purchase a secondhand vat and set up a refrigeration system where she ages her cheeses. Most are ready for market after just a few weeks, including her Brie-like Thistle and an ash-coated pyramid called Witchgrass.

Aimee Olexy, who carries Valley Milkhouse cheese and yogurt at her restaurants Talula’s Daily and Talula’s Garden in Center City, calls Angstadt a new gem. Local cheesemaker Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm has also been quick to praise Angstadt’s work, encouraging her to connect with local restaurateurs and to enter Philadelphia’s farmers’ market scene—including the ones in Chestnut Hill and West Philly.

“It’s been a fateful journey,” Angstadt says, shaking her head over a sip of hard cider paired with a bite of fresh cheese. “And yet I feel that I’m right where I am supposed to be.”

Valley Milkhouse cheeses are available at stores and farm stands around Philadelphia, including Talula’s Daily, Di Bruno Bros., Greensgrow Farm Stand, Weavers Way Co-op, and the Fair Food Farmstand. Angstadt also maintains a small farm store at her creamery in Oley, Pennsylvania. For details, visit valleymilkhouse.com.

A GUIDE TO VALLEY MILKHOUSE
CHEESES (AND BUTTER)

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1. VALLEY MILKHOUSE CULTURED BUTTER

Sweet Jersey cream is cultured overnight, then churned. This Old World technique creates a supple butter with deep flavor, perfect for slathering on a baguette with or without jam.

2. CLOVER

Similar to chèvre, but made with cow’s milk, this fresh cheese is hand-rolled in herbes de Provence to impart the taste of the French countryside. Take it on a picnic with bread and honey, along with a bottle of Champagne or wheat beer.

3. THISTLE

Like Brie, this cheese turns soft and oozy over time. At six weeks, it has the texture of cheesecake—perfect for serving with berries and bubbly. At eight weeks, it turns custardy and takes on mushroom notes—a terrific match for funky hard cider (like that of Frecon Farms in Berks County), sliced apples and walnuts.

4. WITCHGRASS

Created in the style of French Valençay, an iconic cheese shaped like a flattened pyramid, Witchgrass is dusted with vegetable ash to encourage a silvery rind to form. As it ripens, a beautiful cream line forms just below the surface, while the center remains fresh and clayey in texture. Pair it with honey or jam, and a wild saison.

5. IVORY BELL

A raw-milk blue with very little veining, Ivory Bell is sometimes referred to as a “blonde blue.” Subtle and sweet, it’s a blue you can serve for breakfast, preferably with a side of blueberries and a drizzle of honey.

Valley Milkhouse
92 Covered Bridge Road, Oley
610.816.9813
valleymilkhouse.com

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THE PERFECT PANETTONE

Alex Bois gets his sourdough starter ready
for the holidays at High Street on Market

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Photographed By Courtney Apple

The first time I ate lunch at High Street on Market, I was so enamored of the bread that I weaseled my way into the kitchen to meet the baker. There, I found a studious, clean-shaven guy in clogs, threading bamboo skewers through loaves of hot panettone before he hung them upside down to cool.

It was November, and in the tiny baking area a dozen domed holiday breads dangled like pregnant bats between overturned coffee cans. “Oh, I’m just experimenting,” Alex Bois said casually, grinning through the fragrant air. It smelled of toasted almonds, cherries and—was that the smell of lilies? “No, jasmine,” Bois shrugged. He had kneaded dried, ground blossoms into the dough.

I took home a warm loaf in my arms and was changed forever. Or, at least, my feelings toward panettone changed forever. My impression had been formed in early childhood by my grandfather, who—always in search of a deal—loaded up on discount panettone from Kmart one year and stacked them by the mower in his garage. For an entire summer, we pecked away at them for breakfast. Cottony, dry, dotted with shriveled raisins, this was the bread of misery.

Bois’ panettone, by contrast, was feathery, moist, studded with plump brandied cherries. Toasted and buttered, it melted like sugar on my tongue. In the two weeks that I ate it for breakfast, I never tired of the aromatic spices and the sweet, slightly boozy taste of each crumb. What made it so good? I wondered. And: How did it last for two weeks on the counter without molding?

Inspired by the first brisk temperatures, I recently stole back to High Street’s kitchen to find out.

“First of all, panettone is a sourdough,” Bois explains to me over coffee at High Street’s communal table. “There are similar festive breads all over Europe, but of those in current production, panettone is the only one that’s fermented.”

Of the many sourdoughs that Bois makes for High Street and its affiliate restaurants, Fork and A.Kitchen, panettone requires the longest rise time and is the most labor-intensive. “The first step takes about a day and a half,” he says, “and if the temperature isn’t just right, it gets finicky.”

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The total process takes about 48 hours, not to mention the extra effort it takes to “hang” the bread when
it comes out of the oven so that the loaves don’t collapse. This extra step prevents the molten butter from
sinking to the bottom of the hot loaf “and pulling the top down with it,” Bois explains.

The total process takes about 48 hours, not to mention the extra effort it takes to “hang” the bread when it comes out of the oven so that the loaves don’t collapse. This extra step prevents the molten butter from sinking to the bottom of the hot loaf “and pulling the top down with it,” Bois explains, lifting his hands into the air and flicking his wrists, branded with oven-door scars. The extra love and labor result in an exquisite payoff.

The long rise creates what Bois describes as a deep rummy flavor in the dough. Unlike yeasted, enriched breads that are best eaten right out of the oven or soon after, a true sourdough pannetone tastes best after it cures for a few days, or even a week, he says. Well wrapped, it will stay fresh for a month at room temperature, thanks to organic acids that act as a preservative.

“It’s really a wild bread,” Bois says, grabbing his apron and heading for the kitchen. “Even before you add fruit and spices to it, the long, slow ferment gives it so much flavor.”

Bois began baking under unusual circumstances, and he has a thing for unusual, hard-to-master breads. After studying biochemistry in college, he followed a girlfriend to Bangladesh, where he contracted a fierce case of hepatitis E. The virus, which affects the liver, forced him to return to his parents’ house in Cambridge and take up residence on the couch.

“My liver was so destroyed, I couldn’t drink any alcohol or eat any fat,” he recalls, pulling paper-thin lavash crackers from the oven and drizzling them with a brackish- looking purée of charcoal and garlic.

As part of his treatment, Bois began studying the one thing he could eat: carbs. He pored over books on sourdough and drew on his scientific knowledge to begin making his first starter. It helped that Bois’ parents are French (he pronounces his last name “bwwwwah”) and that he grew up with a taste for a perfectly crusted baguette. “My after-school snack every day was a piece of baguette with butter on it and a square of dark chocolate,” he recalls, noting that his mother went out of her way to buy only from French bakers.

When his health improved, Bois landed at a professional bakery, Sullivan St in New York. During his illness, he’d started an e-mail correspondence with its renowned head baker, Jim Lahey—the man famous for developing a no-knead bread formula that revolutionized home bread-baking after the recipe ran in The New York Times.

Bois worked for Lahey as a dough mixer, rising to the head of production in three short months. From Lahey, he learned to ignore the dogma of bread baking, Bois tells me as he shapes loaves of anadama bread, dark with molasses and stippled with bran. Bois explains that most bakeries operate under rigid tenets about rise times and starters, while he prefers to use experimentation and “empirical evidence”—something Lahey encouraged.

After a year, Bois left Sullivan St for Philadelphia. Worn down by New York and eager to experiment with new flours and grains, he interviewed with Chef Eli Kulp, who had just set the lights aglow at High Street with Ellen Yin of Fork. Bois loved the handcrafted ethic at High Street, where pastry chef Samantha Kincaid had already begun sourcing locally milled flours.

Kulp still shakes his head like a retriever shaking off water when he recalls the day Bois showed up for his interview. “He came in with one of the most perfect baguettes I’d ever seen,” Kulp says. “And he’d just baked it in a crappy home oven!”

Apricots. Cardamom. Chocolate stout reduction. These are just a few of the ingredients that Bois plans to knead into his holiday breads this year. Since he became head baker for High Street and Fork, his bagels have appeared in Details, and Bon Appetit honored his loaves with a two-page spread.

These successes—and the gorgeous breads that appear on tables in High Street, Fork and A.Kitchen—all stem from a single oven that runs all day long. Bois shows up at five each morning, oversees a team of three mixers, manually steams the oven using a handheld pump sprayer, and loads the loaves in himself—about two dozen at a time. Because his primary source of flour is a small family-run mill in Bucks County, “every batch is a little different to work with,” he says. His mind calculates, his fingers adjust, his internal timer sways.

The constant challenge keeps him engaged, and the freedom to create makes him rise from bed before dawn, though he is a night person— so much so that he studied circadian rhythms in college in order to understand his own.… Read More

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GLOBAL CITY: ONCE UPON A PAPADUM

Off-the-beaten-path global markets

Photography by Chloe Berk

The stars are aligning over Philadelphia as a major food city, but beyond trendy noodle bars and celebrity chefs there is a culinary catacomb of international grocery stores that rarely receive mention. Chinatown and the Italian Market are obvious strongholds for Asian, Italian and Mexican options, but have you ever surfed the Russian pickle bars of Bustleton Avenue? Do you know about the mosque in Olde Kensington that sells four different kinds of juicy dates from behind an unmarked door? Have you ever driven to Fox Chase for wursts and tortes?

Here, you’ll find a list of my favorite haunts. This is not a comprehensive overview of the area’s myriad groceries, nor is it a “best of” list, but if you’re a day-tripper who enjoys exploring Philadelphia’s nether regions, you’ll find bountiful bargains and fixin’s for fabulous dinner parties, whether you want to prepare Middle Eastern meze for guests seated on floor pillows or host a Russian smorgasbord complete with four kinds of caviar.

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From the top: The olive bar at Bell’s Market; Dana Mandi;
Pierogies from Krakus Market; Paris Baguette pastry shop

Pickle Bars, Smoked Fish and the Greater Northeast

Bustleton Avenue is no one’s idea of a pleasant drive, but two rambling Russian grocery stores—NetCost Market and Bell’s Market—make the stop-and-start journey down the boulevard a worthwhile feat. The stores rival each other in abundance; of the two, NetCost has a greater selection of produce, but the pickle bar that welcomes you as you enter Bell’s makes it a personal favorite. Both stores offer sumptuous delis, bakeries and smoked fish stalls where you can sample before you buy. During a recent run to NetCost, I stocked up on cold-smoked sprats (those small fish also known as brisling), goat butter, raw milk, fennel tea and currant strudel. If you are a baker, behold the aisle of baking flour (hard-to find rye flour is amply stocked); if you are a canner or pickler, note that NetCost carries four kinds of cucumbers, plus bundled fresh herbs as thick as rose bouquets.

For the complete adventure, stop at Uzbekistan (12012 Bustleton Ave.)—a block from NetCost—and order a lunch of cold salads and kebab. You’ll find yourself seated at a white tablecloth, serenaded by Russian music videos, and drinking the house fruit punch loaded with whole cherries. BYO vodka is encouraged. For the advanced Russian culinary experience, stop at the Russian bath house Southampton Spa (141 2nd St. Pike) before you shop. You can steam and sauna out your toxins, then order a plate of smoked fish by the pool. You think I’m joking, but I’m not.

The Spice Stores of West Philadelphia

If you’re in search of cardamom and bangles, 42nd Street is the place to find not one but two homey Indian groceries. Dana Mandi, aka Rice N Spice (it has two signs and two separate Yelp listings, but it’s the same store), is a cluttered spice treasure trove with a curry shop in the back. If you’ve got the afternoon before you, stop in for a mango lassi and catch part of a Bollywood flick while you wait for your plate of palak paneer. Then, peruse the aisles for incense and spicy snacks, or pick up a year’s supply of rice from the stacks of basmati and jasmine piled high by the front door. Produce is limited (and wilty), but there’s a little bit of everything here and the air is fragrant with cumin.

One block away, International Foods & Spices offers orderly aisles of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi goods. Aisle 4 brims with mustard seeds and turmeric root, while the freezers along the perimeter fairly burst with frozen samosas, a multitude of naan and unexpected treats like durian fruit pops. If you’re sick of Swanson’s frozen dinners, you can give your workaday lunches a serious makeover here with frozen vindaloo and butter chicken. There’s also a smattering of housewares, like spice boxes that are great for storing your newly acquired trove of masala.

Kimchi and Cronuts in Elkins Park

Philadelphia’s Asian markets form a constellation across the city, from the much-loved Hung Vuong Supermarket at 11th and Washington to the seafood-centric Spring Garden Market on the fringe of Northern Liberties. For a kimchi-centric day trip, explore H Mart, an immersive Korean shopping experience with two locations (see below).

At the giant H Mart in Elkins Park, you can shop for your next Korean BBQ party while you drink bubble tea, get a haircut, try on Gucci sunglasses, buy bedding and order a steaming bowl of bibimbop—all in one fell swoop. This is a mini mall with a grocery on the first floor and a food court just an elevator ride above it.

Not to be missed: The in-store French pastry shop, Paris Baguette, at the Elkins Park H Mart makes this location a worthwhile drive. Go in the morning and sip a leisurely cup of coffee or tea over flaky fusion pastries, from green-pea and almond to the more traditional chocolate croissant. There are even “NYC Croissant Donuts” in two flavors—yes, you must try the Korean version of the Cronut.

Directly across from Paris Baguette is a terrific take-out stall that sells house-made kimchi, soups and marinated meats. Though you may be tempted, don’t skip out on the elbow-to-elbow grocery experience, where tanks of giant clams and an array of fresh mushrooms inspire awe.

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From top: Owner Dalal Dabbour prepares rice at Al-Amana Grocery Store; German potato salad from
Reiker’s market; A “cronut” from H Mart; Butcher Alex Naunenko prepares sausage at Reiker’s market;
Fresh baked bread from Krakus market; Dried fish from Bell’s market.

Japanese Noodles in Narberth

If you’re on a miso-seeking mission, Maido, the Japanese grocery and lunch counter in Narberth, makes a trip on the Paoli-Thorndale line worthwhile. The shop is walking distance from the station, and if you plan your trip around lunchtime you can make a hot plate of yakisoba part of the excursion. The lunch counter attracts a quirky crowd, and the owner and her staff are very friendly as they dispense barley tea and prepare stir-fries. Maido sells a little bit of everything, from to-go boxes of sushi to sweet and savory snacks, along with dry noodles, sauces, and even rice cookers. If you’re planning a sushi-rolling night at your house, this is a good place to grab a bamboo roller and a packet of nori. If you have a thing for canned coffee beverages, Pocky sticks and Hello Kitty paraphernalia, you’ll find a bounty. Note: Maido will be moving to Ardmore sometime this summer, so please call ahead or check the website.

Dates, Hummus and Halal Meat in Olde Kensington

Tucked behind the Crane Arts Building on Germantown Avenue is a beautifully muraled Islamic center with a hidden food store that stocks sumptuous dates, especially around Ramadan. Here, in the Al-Amana Grocery Store, you’ll find a friendly staff that prepares halal meat platters (and sandwiches) behind the counter and stocks the shelves with an eclectic mix of spices, dried beans and grains, and Middle Eastern baked goods. This is a great place to load up on inexpensive canned hummus—just add lemon zest and chopped herbs to freshen it up.… Read More

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FRESH SPIRIT: Storybook Spaces

Aimee Olexy knows how to set a table that
invites diners to dream with the seasons

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Aimee Olexy readies a table at Talula’s Garden on Washington Square.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY COURTNEY APPLE

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.

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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.”

TALULA’S DAILY
208 West Washington Square, Philadelphia
215.592.6555 talulasdaily.com

TALULA’S TABLE
102 West State Street, Kennett Square
610.444.8255 talulastable.com

TALULA’S GARDEN
210 W. Washington Square, Philadelphia
215.592.7787 talulasgarden.com

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