Small & Sweet

Birmingham’s compact Tallulah keeps things simple but satisfying


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A discreet sign marks the modern, dark storefront on South Bates, just three blocks off Old Woodward. Inside, a creamy beige-and-white interior with crisp, white table linens sets a tone of invitingly simple elegance.

When the early-evening sun moves onto the glass front, it sends an angled shaft of light through the west-facing windows, across the white-marble bar and the tables, bouncing off the stemware. And just for a moment, Tallulah Wine Bar and Bistro has a delightful feel of Santa Fe, N.M.

Only, it’s in Birmingham, where, once again, the district has bucked the economic trend of greater Detroit and added another new restaurant.

Tallulah, which opened the last week in February, is the sixth significant addition to downtown Birmingham during the bad economy of the last three years. Tallulah joins other newcomers that include Quattro, Café Via, Chen Chow, and Toast — plus Forest Grill in the community’s nearby Triangle District. Why, exactly, is a little unclear. But money does follow money, and success follows success. By comparison, there have been more closings than openings in some other restaurant destinations.

Another good thing to come out of the tough economy has been a more sobering restaurant style. Casual and simple café dining has replaced rakish frivolity, opulence, and pretension. Brief, less pricey, and carefully chosen menus offering something unique are what’s succeeding.

Tallulah is small. It sports 15 tables, a large bar, a surprisingly short menu (there’s a chalkboard of daily offerings above the open kitchen pass-through), and an extensive wine list. Tallulah slides in at that same level occupied by Beverly Hills Grill, Bistro 222 in Dearborn, and a few others that serve very good food. Yet, the menu and wine list are unique enough to distinguish it from the competition.

While Tallulah’s overall smallness follows the model set by several other new restaurants, the whole package works nicely. Sameness does not have to mean boring or repetitious, and owner Mindy VanHellemont has kept the restaurant different enough in look and feel to be an inviting addition for its sense of somewhere-else-ness and charm.

The challenge of opening any new restaurant these days is tight budgeting for design and look, as well as for the menu and kitchen. On both, Tallulah appears to have done well.

In most of our favorites of the last two years (of owner- or chef-operated smaller establishments) there’s something in each that distinguishes the menu from the next. Tallulah executive chef Jake Abraham has kept the mix interesting and enticing.

Although the menu is almost jarringly brief, it has some really nice touches not seen too often elsewhere. Braised endive as a side dish? Cooked radishes on another dish? Morels in cream and sherry as a daily side offering?

A nice feature is that the wine — in addition to being available by the glass or the bottle — can also be purchased by the “pichet,” the ubiquitous French brasserie half-liter glass pitcher, which gives you a sensible two-plus glasses.

Another touch: At the bar, there are hooks under the bar top at each stool for stowing purses or bags. Yes, some other places do that, too, but it’s still a thoughtful convenience.

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