Small & Sweet

Birmingham’s compact Tallulah keeps things simple but satisfying
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Photographs by Joe Vaughn

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.

 

The big trend in anything related to food and eating these days is to buy local and buy fresh. Tallulah leaps into the regional pond with bread from Avalon Bakery, dairy items from Calder Dairy, lamb from Hannewald Farm, pork from Yoder Farm, beef from Chapman Farms, and seasonal vegetables when possible.

The starter courses include a selection of artisan cheeses; a tasting plate of Serrano ham with assorted olives, aged pecorino cheese, and almonds; or a third plate of black grapes, toasted pistachios, and a Roquefort mousse.

We settled on two other starters, a superb ceviche smartly served in hollowed cucumber, which adds zest and freshness, and is a great diversion from what so many do wrong: Serve it on corn tortilla shells that invariably are soggy by the time they arrive at the table.

We found that a grilled artichoke, split in two and served with a very good rosemary aioli, came up a little short on flavor, which is one peril of trying to do it all seasonally.

Tallulah also offers four salads. One is composed of beets with arugula, hazelnuts, fennel, and Maytag blue cheese. The other is a house salad of baby greens, thin apple and pear slices, candied walnuts, and warm toasted goat cheese.

From the list of three pastas, for our second course, we tried the pappardelle Bolognese with a dab of ricotta, which was interesting. The pasta was perfectly cooked, but the sauce was a little too tomato-y and acidic, leading to speculation that it could have used more sugar or carrots, commonly added to Bolognese.

There are but four main courses on the menu, in addition to whatever is on the chalkboard each day and from which we picked a superb sliced and rolled London broil stuffed with spinach and ramps, served with light pan-juice gravy. The meat was slightly pink and perfectly cooked, bursting with gamey flavor from the wild ramps. On the regular menu, the pan-fried whole trout was also excellent, topped with a round of crisped pancetta, and served on watercress with slices of skinned and deveined red grapefruit and shavings of fennel. Other regular-menu choices include a roasted chicken with baby sweet potatoes, and a hanger steak with vegetables, which, on our visit, were heirloom mushrooms and redskin mashed potatoes.

The “wine bar” part of Tallulah’s name is a bit of an over-reach, despite the many open bottles and the range of choices by the glass at the bar itself. The variety on the list, while reasonably impressive, comes up more as “yes, we have a long wine list chosen by a guy who knows this stuff” than it does a genuine wine bar.

The term “wine bar” creates an expectation for far more variety and exotic and hard-to-find wines than you will find here. The nice thing, though, is that next door you can buy at retail those wines on the list in their shop, called Tallulah Too. However, the wine bar appellation doesn’t detract from what Tallulah is and what it offers. This is a lovely, enjoyable new restaurant, with great food and good wine. Period.

155 S. Bates, downtown Birmingham; 248-731-7066, tallulahwine.com. L Wed.-Sat., D Tue.-Sat., Sun. jazz suppers.

Cook is the chief restaurant critic for Hour Detroit. E-mail: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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