Restaurateur Michael Babin was in a predicament. When his Tallula opened five years ago in Clarendon, it enjoyed a brief run as the neighborhood’s “it” restaurant. And then . . . crickets. No matter how many trendy tricks the kitchen toyed with (vanilla bacon?), the half-filled dining room was always overshadowed by its sister spot next door, the sliders-and-charcuterie hangout EatBar.
How to put the wine-focused restaurant back on the foodie map? Babin tapped Barry Koslow to revamp the kitchen. Koslow, an alum of Citronelle and 2941, had most recently raised the game at Georgetown’s Mendocino Grille and Wine Bar, racking up stars with his talent for seafood and terrines.
At Tallula, it pays to train your attentions on both. There’s a gorgeous rabbit pâté, a chicken-liver spread that’s especially good with a side of port-and-fig compote, and a peasanty pork-cheek terrine. But then you could start with oysters fried to a light crispness and contrasted with rich puréed celery root and tangy cubes of apple cooked with shallots and white wine. Or a lovely endive salad with grapes and blue cheese. It can be tough to avoid bulldozing your appetite during the first half of a meal, and that’s not even taking into account the excellent bread.
Main courses are more of a mixed bag. I can’t stop thinking about a fabulous bacon-and-lentil-crusted square of halibut, but the suzuki, a Japanese sea bass served in a brackish broth of mussels, had a palate-numbing saltiness. A plate of house-made cavatelli arrived vibrant with lemon, chili flakes, and spicy veal sausage made with fennel pollen; butternut-squash ravioli topped with crushed almond cookies—a Mendocino signature—tasted like dessert.
On balance, Koslow’s cooking is more on-point than not. If there’s a glaring shortcoming, it’s the dated decor. Cooking this refined doesn’t belong in a sponge-painted dining room.
This review appears in the December, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.