At Talulla in Cambridge, you’re either getting a good deal or you aren’t. The spot is so small, there’s hardly room for anything in between.
Conor Dennehy and Danielle Ayer opened the 12-table Huron Village restaurant, their first, in the spring. The space was once T.W. Food (and briefly Self Portrait), and they know it well: Dennehy was chef de cuisine there, and Ayer general manager and wine director. The dining room is much as it ever was, spare but cozy, with white and brick walls. The chairs strike a miraculous balance, as elegant and angular as they are comfortable, like a fleet of origami La-Z-Boys. On the wall are photos of Dennehy, Ayer, and their 1-year-old, Talulla. Did I mention they named the restaurant after their daughter? This tells you everything about the spirit of the place. It is sweet, built around kindness and generosity and good intentions. It is also, like parenthood, a risk: a white-tablecloth neighborhood restaurant without so much as a burger on the menu. There’s intense competition for diners these days, intense competition for skilled cooks. The dream is a gamble, but when the compromise is too, you might as well go for the gusto.
Here is the good deal: the three-course prix fixe for $60. Whether you’ll agree with me depends a lot on how you think about food, or how you feel about paying for aesthetic labor in general, or whether you value intake vs. upkeep, the consumed vs. the displayed. I do not understand paying for a manicure, for instance: That finger paint is just going to chip. Well, you argue, tapping your truly fabulous nail art (unicorns! sparkles! a full cityscape!), that food will just get digested. We all choose the arenas in which we are willing to pay the upcharge for precision and prettiness.
For that’s what’s on the plate here: precision and prettiness. Dennehy’s dishes are reminiscent of those he created at T.W. Food. They are never bombastic, and sometimes serene to a fault, in need of more seasoning, more contrast. Still driven by what’s at the market, they are now more inclined toward international flavors, which zhuzhes things up a little. Slices of raw tuna are sprinkled with sesame, nori flakes, and Serrano chiles, dollops of avocado piped here and there. A stunner of a pork dish — roasted loin and shoulder with Swiss chard, peaches, cornbread, and miso — is full of memorable, well-synthesized flavors.
Talulla is designed to serve those who live in the area, and it gets busy. The neighborhood restaurant Huron Village needs may be different than the one other neighborhoods do; no one seems to be missing the burger. There is wine carefully selected and cleverly paired, thanks to Ayer, who was previously at Menton. There is house-made sourdough served with butter from Ploughgate Creamery in Vermont. There is foam, and swooshed sauce, and ingredients arrayed in a line down the center of the plate: slices of radish and cucumber, shreds of smoked salmon, strategically drizzled buttermilk-chive dressing. Your tiny salad has been tweezed into a perfect brow, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant is regimented. There are also jokes, and stories told, and food swapped between strangers at adjacent tables, and swell cocktails from bartender-with-a-fancy-resume Matthew Schrage. There are plenty of kids eating here, and then at the next table a patrician woman in a red suit and perfect coif who is clearly Someone Smart. Preschool, meet Kennedy School.
There aren’t a lot of choices on the menu, but there are enough: five starters, five entrees, three desserts. The economy of the prix fixe is a funny thing. I’d be grumpy to pay $16 for that tiny salad or the chilled soup of apricot and corn, sprinkled with slivered almonds and garnished with yogurt squiggles and baby sorrel leaves. It’s the sunny orange color of a breakfast smoothie, and it kind of tastes like one, too. I’d be put out to fork out $34 for that pork dish or the bass with green and wax beans, mussels, olives, and capers in a bowl of bright green froth. It tastes good, if I remember right; the small piece of fish was gone so soon, in just a few bites.
These are the a la carte prices at Talulla, and they may be “what we should pay for food” — after all, we want good ingredients, a fairly compensated staff, and so on — but even knowing that, as a diner they still feel high. This is the push-pull of fine dining, or one of the many push-pulls, and if all goes well the customer doesn’t think too much about cost while eating, even as the chef must obsess about it and then compartmentalize and cook as if this is all and only about creativity and hospitality.
Anyway, here it’s all somehow smoothed out by adding it together under one umbrella: $60 for three courses. I’m sure there’s an economic theory to explain why this now feels reasonable even though it’s the same money. No one ever said eating was a logical pursuit.
But then there’s the $115 seven-course tasting menu, wherein all of Talulla’s virtues and all of its flaws are magnified.
It starts with a little something extra, not on the menu, and it feels wrong to carp about an extra — but these are melon balls, albeit melon balls served on a fancy spoon. The first official course is an Island Creek oyster with a dollop of caviar, a frond of shiso, and a dollop of whey. It’s clean and briny and just a touch unexpected: lovely. Then comes tuna crudo, the fish topped with cross-slices of snap pea and lashed with the citrus-y sauce ponzu, tangles of the sea vegetable hijiki tucked alongside. It’s a fairly straight-up, Japanese-style take on raw tuna.
The next bite is glorious, a single seared scallop with razor-clam vinaigrette and lemon conserva. Bits of one shellfish rest atop the other, texture upon texture, with a ray of brightness from the preserved citrus. It feels as though the meal is hitting its stride. Instead, this turns out to be its peak. Following is cannelloni with zucchini, sheep’s milk ricotta, baby pattypan squash, hazelnuts, and shaved summer truffles. The pale-green roll is a little tough, a little bland. And a pork dish of crisped belly and roast loin with sliced stone fruit is an inferior version of that knockout one with the cornbread and miso. Dessert is spread over two courses: Jasper Hill Creamery’s excellent Bayley Hazen blue cheese with a fig tart, and a composition of squares of chocolate cake with plums and almond ice cream. Both quite pleasant.
It’s just that pleasant isn’t quite enough. The meal needs more moments of surprise and delight. And though I’m no fan of bloated tasting menus, a little more food wouldn’t hurt.
It all leaves me wishing I’d simply ordered Talulla’s squid ink fettuccine again. It is my favorite dish from the three-course menu — the strands of black pasta intertwined with olives, pickled peppers, and the most tender braised squid. It’s a riot of flavor and texture. It’s lusty. It may lack the Instagram readiness of other dishes here, but it is beautiful to me.
At Talulla, there is so much care on the plate. The food is gentle. It’s nice. It tastes like it’s made by nice people. Sometimes food needs a little tension, a little spontaneity and wildness.
Dennehy and Ayer had a baby. Then they had a restaurant. Parenthood is parenthood, whatever kind of newborn you’re tending. As someone once told me: “It’s not whether you’re going to screw up your kids, it’s how.” Plan your plans and practice your best intentions. But when grace comes, it’s in the unplanned moments — the jokes, and the stories told, and the food swapped with strangers at the next table. Talulla’s got that down.
377 Walden St., Huron Village, Cambridge, 617-714-5584, www.talullacambridge.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $15-$19. Entrees $30-$38. Desserts $14-$15. Three-course prix fixe $60. Seven-course tasting menu $115. Tuesday-night wine dinner (four courses with paired wines) $60.
Hours Tue-Sat dinner 5:30-10 p.m., Sun brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Noise level Conversation-friendly.
What to order Three-course prix fixe. (Menu changes frequently, but try the squid-ink fettuccine if it’s available.)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.