On one of the main streets in the bustling Newport, Rhode Island, sits a house on the corner, blue and white, understated, and unpretentious. The hostess, co- partner stood outside, making sure reservations and the table arrangements were running smoothly, with a smile. We were lead through the front door of the house, which was on the right side, passed the large windows revealing the subtle interior of Tallulah on Thames.
The theme was black and white; white tablecloths, the servers wore black pants and shirts with thickly black and white striped aprons, black chairs, white painted tin ceilings. The décor was very detailed, but in many ways wanted to express a subtle nonchalance and ease. An open shelf lined the wall above the window to the kitchen, with cubby holes carrying books about food in various languages. Figures of animals (pigs, lambs, cows) were on the bookcase as well as some of the counter tops by the kitchen. The lighting fixtures were extremely elegant and juxtaposed the directed laissez-faire of the rest of the décor, making the space creative and contemporary. This was just the dining area of the first floor.
The daily menus, dinner and wine, were staged on a sleek clipboard, looking straightforward and effortless. As we found out, the menu is always changing, and this clipboard presentation allows for that with ease. After studying the menu and asking our sever questions we decided on the prix fixe that starts at $55 as a base point and substitutions add to the price.
As our server put our bread and butter on our table, he described the ingredients and even where they were from. Our butter that night was from a Vermont creamery, topped with farmer micro greens and fleur de sel. The butter was creamy and smooth, and transformed when the mouth stumbled on some of the fleur de sel or grasped some of the tiny vegetation. Less impressed with the bread, awfully stuff and crusty, but obviously fresh and crafted with care.
For an appetizer we had a roasted beet salad—rainbow colored beets toasted in with smooth goat cheese, fennel shavings, micro greens, punctuated by “pumpernickel soil” (ground up pumpernickel croutons). The beets were roasted till soft, though some resilience remained, pairing nicely with the smooth cool goat cheese, and the delicate feel of the vanishing micro greens. The presentation of the dish was reminiscent of a vegetable garden, the pumpernickel soil as a sandy base, sporadic and hidden underneath the vine- like micro greens and fennel, and the rose and yellow colored beets the bounty.
The foie gras with a cherry reduction, regional peaches, croutons, a sweet corn sauce and other garnishes, was our other appetizer. Unfortunately there was a flat line in texture, other than the welcomed crunch from the crouton. The salty foie gras and the peaches kind of had the same silky smooth feel in the mouth, and many of the other components (decorative?) were sauces that slid through the teeth as well. The cherry reduction was very tangy and took over any bite that it was a part of, and did not go well with the other elements of the dish, though the sweetness, when in correct proportion, helped to balance out the salt and fat of the foie gras. A wanting difference in texture was found in the crunchy crouton. Though, that too seemed to be constructed in duck fat, making the appetizer even heavier and feeling greasy. The corn sauce was a lovely stroke of color and very sweet like ripe white corn. The addition of a few thin slices of fennel was great too to try to balance the heaviness of the foie gras. It added something fresh, light and wet, with a strong flavor to cut the fat, but not enough to transform the flavor.
As one of the prix fixe entrees, swordfish was rested on a bed of pesto-basil Isreali couscous, surrounded by colorful melon, tomatoes as well as more shavings of fennel. The swordfish was well seasoned and could stand up well on its own, but the accoutrements enhanced and created layered flavor combinations that felt different with every bite. The sweet melon contrasted sharply with the meatiness of the fish, cooling the mouth. Though, I was hoping the melon would be a little cooler to create another kind of contrast. The acidity of the grape tomatoes, the scant raddish and fennel, kept the dish bright, while the pearl couscous and the fleshy fish gave the dish substance.
The bomber scallops, that was paired with truffled mash potatoes, corn varieties and onion varieties. The plating was very pretty and helpful for the whimsical dish, which had two plays on ingredients. There were three kinds of corn on the plate; traditional corn pieces, little mini corns and the fun popcorn. Each gave a different distinct corn taste and fun texture. I especially enjoyed what the light popcorn brought to the dish, a playful crunch and airy lightness. Another play was the small pearl onions that were sweet and sweating, as well as the scallions that played on each other, mimicking texture and taste. The truffle mashed potato decoration also added a nice texture to the dish as well as new flavors. There was a nice control of truffle, which many times can be overwhelming and overpowering, but the aroma and taste was just enough to enhance. A nice crust on the scallops, though they might have been slightly over cooked to my liking. The dish did lack color, as half the white plate was exposed and all the ingredients were varying shades of yellow or white. The only vibrant color that did stand out was the rich dark green of the chives.
The prix fixe dessert was a fennel panna cotta, topped with blueberries, fennel leaves, homemade granola and ginger. There were so many different flavors and layers, in this dessert, which made it truly an experience. The granola was warm which countered the smooth panna cotta, placed in a non-traditional dish, long and shallow. There were large grains of salt in the granola, which transformed the dessert into sweet and savory, as the menu lists the desserts. Salt and the sunflower seeds in the granola added the savory meaty side to the dessert. The ginger was spicy and crunchy, the blueberries mushy, and the torn pieces of mint made every bite with it sing.
The other dessert was what the menu called “Sweetberry Farm Taste of Strawberry.” The plate was littered with plump fresh strawberries and the other elements; dollops of mascarpone mousse, basil gel, lemon crumble and strawberry meringue were strewn on the plate as well. The basil gel also appeared in the swordfish dish, adding the savory component to the dessert. The lemon crumble felt like short bread and was the only crunch on the plate. The strawberry meringue was similar to soft fortune cookies, sweet and shiny. Just as in the other dessert the mint garnish served as an enhancer.
The presentation of the dishes was rather contemporary. The chef left a lot of negative space on the plates, creating works of art, but not necessarily practical dining. With the scallop dish, the plating proved useful, kind of directing the diner and her bites. Each swirl of truffled mash was accompanied by a scallop and some of each of the other ingredients, creating the perfect bites. Other plating became too deconstructed, making it difficult to decipher garnish from enhancer. This was true with the foie gras appetizer or the strawberry dessert. There did not seem to be any rhyme or reason, lackadaisical, making it difficult to eat, though staging an experiment for the mouth, only not all the pieces went well together.
Many ingredients made appearances in multiple dishes throughout the meal, which I really appreciate. It created almost a common thread that lead us through dinner. Fennel appeared in dishes, from the appetizers to scant pieces in the desserts. The fennel, bright and distinct, was thinly shaved making it hardly perceptible but still added the element of freshness in each presentation. It helped to create balance in the heavy dishes, cutting the fat and added a cleansing dimension. A basil oil also brought color and a little bite of freshness with the couscous that accompanied the swordfish. This same oil brought a savory note to the sweet and fresh strawberry dessert, connecting to completely disparate dishes.
In researching our dining options, looking at Tallulah’s website, the menu changed every day. Mostly subtle variations of ingredients or combinations mostly, but there were also larger protein differences as well. The chef’s creativity and familiarity with the ingredients is personified through the changes. This also demonstrates the importance of the freshness and availability of the ingredients to the chef and the vision of the restaurant. The menu also has a seasonal tilt, which underlines that importance. The freshness and the locality of the ingredients can be tasted throughout the dishes, from the scallops and swordfish, to the butter and the ripe strawberries.
The website for Tallulah on Thames does warn its patrons that seatings are two to two and a half hours, but we were there closer to three hours. The service wasn’t slow, the servers were attentive until almost the very end, but the gaps in between the courses were quite long. We could almost feel our dishes being made, and our servers gave us updates on the progress of our food. Though the leisurely dinner was enjoyable, giving us time to savor, enjoy and discuss, it could be inhibitive. Long wait time between courses though, is not indicative of quality, though Tallulah’s had no shortage of that.
If ever back in Rhode Island, I would be tempted to go back to Newport for a fancy meal at one of Tallulah on Thames’s tables. The food was scrumptious, the quality outstanding, and the innovation stunning, but some of the concepts might have been too contemporary. The food was not always straightforward, which at times was a disadvantage but interesting. If looking for a delicious culinary and visual adventure and experiment, I would definitely suggest Tallulah on Thames.