The buzz about any new restaurant often takes a few months to circulate. For Tallulah on Thames, it took just a few days. Part of that has to do with Tallulah joining Newport’s Restaurant Week (through March 28, details atgonewportrestaurantweek.com), part of it is the excitement of sister and brother duo Kelly Ann and Keith Maurice returning to their home state, but most of it has to do with the inspired and well-executed menu of chef Jake Rojas (co-owner with the Maurices, whom he’d known when he worked in California).
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Rojas’s pedigree stretches back to his hometown of El Paso, but it made a giant leap when he worked as sous-chef under world-famed French chef Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas before moving on as primary chef at two different spots in California. The cookbook shelf above the open kitchen at Tallulah shows another of his legendary influences, Daniel Boulud. Both of those mentors have stressed farm-fresh ingredients and luxurious foods within minimalist presentations. And Rojas has it down.
For Restaurant Week, there are two prix fixe menus: three courses at lunch for $16 or three courses at dinner for $30. The appetizers are termed “Farms + Fields,” the entreés “Air + Water + Land,” and the desserts “Sweet + Savory.” The descriptions couldn’t be more alluring, with four choices for starters and main dishes.
Consider the arugula, roasted butternut, and pecan salad with pomegranate vinaigrette or the poached egg atop pea greens with bacon, brioche croutons, and a black truffle vinaigrette (the latter highly touted by a foodie friend). Bill was intrigued by the “deconstructed clam chowder” and I by the roasted beets.
The chowder is served in a wide bowl with three whole littlenecks, bits of potato, and chunks of meaty slab bacon over which the server pours a delectably smoky and creamy broth. Voila! Chowder. Inventive, fun, delicious.
My roasted beets were chunks of yellow and red ones, set off by orange segments, toasted hazelnuts, and a lavender-flavored thimble-sized cheese called a Hannabell, from Shy Brothers Farm in Westport. The plate was beautifully adorned with bright red beet puree and a creamy orange vinaigrette. The beet-and-orange combination was reminiscent of my mom’s 1950s-popular “Harvard beet” recipe, which I still make. Nostalgia and nouvelle in each bite!
A similar experience existed with Bill’s dish: La Bodega sherry braised oxtail ragu. I was reminded of rich-and-hearty oxtail soup from my time in Germany as a penny-pinching student. But here the oxtail pieces had been given a gourmet treatment (the sherry) and brought up-to-date with a garnish of truffle oil and bits of Narragansett Creamery’s Atwells Gold provolone-like cheese. Tossed with pappardelle, this definitely tickled Bill’s taste buds.
My local black cod brandade did the same. The brandade is a delicate puree of potatoes, cooked salt cod, garlic, and milk. Atop that brandade sat a pan-roasted steak of the fresh cod. Tucked into the brandade were Nicoise olives and around it a garlic cream. And the whole was not too salty, as less-carefully prepared entreés with salt cod can sometimes be.
Since there were two dessert choices, we got them both, and tried, gallantly, to split them. The pineapple polenta upside down mini-cake was mmmm-murmuring good, accompanied by swirls of a pina colada sauce and three sautéed pineapple pieces. The chocolate fondant was one of those better-than-sex incarnations: crusty dark chocolate with molten warm chocolate inside, topped with vanilla gelato, toasted hazelnuts and Nutella dust. Our mouths (and minds) were too over-stimulated to find adequate words (or even consonants) for this one.
The décor is crisp, elegant black and white: white pressed-tin walls with black accents; white linens with black spindle chairs and white cushions; black-and-white striped aprons for the servers. The late afternoon sun streams through street-side windows and makes the whole room sparkle.
If you sit facing the kitchen, you can catch Rojas’s intent expressions, as he tastes a sauce or plates a meal. His skill and attention are definitely paying off in customer satisfaction. As a friend said, “It’s a bit pricey, but it’s worth every penny . . . and more.”
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.