I’ve never built or run a restaurant, but I’m gonna go out on a limb, and give some advice: don’t tell the press that you’re building a new Balthazar or Elaine’s. Those two places are too iconic – too legendary –to be copied. The attempt is bound to seem pale by comparison.
That’s exactly what Greg Hunt, owner of Cafe Tallulah on the Upper West Side, did. Florence Fabricant of The Times duly reported it. Hunt hired Roxanne Spruance, a sous chef from Blue Hill Stone Barns (and previously WD~50) to run the kitchen. An Employees Only alumnus was in charge of the cocktails. With that background, the critics were sure to turn up, right?
Except: five weeks later, Spruance was gone, replaced by one Patrick Farrell, who promptly got slammed by The Post’s Steve Cuozzo. According to the folks at Immaculate Infatuation, the place is now on its third chef in ten months.
The restaurant occupies a striking half-block corner lot at 71st and Columbus. I hadn’t even done any research before I visited, and I was instantly aware that it was a Keith McNally knock-off. Back-lit liquor wall, check. Pressed tin ceiling, check. Brick walls, check. Basement lounge? Well, they had to dosomething original.
For all that, Cafe Tallulah has its charms. The mostly-French two-page wine list has real depth, including what must be one of the city’s best Châteauneuf-du-Pape selections in a neighborhood restaurant. As it was my birthday, Wendy sprang for the 2010 Château de la Gardine ($86; right), and they even serve it in the right glassware.
The menu is mostly French bistro standards with a few pasta dishes thrown in. Appetizers $9–16, entrées $17–29 (the burger is $16). We had nothing spectacular, but most of it was at least competent.
Tuna tartare ($15; above left) is more like a salad, with an avocado puree, baby cucumbers, radishes, red chili aioli, and pickled jalapenos. It was probably the cleverest dish we tried. There are decent grilled lamb merguez sausages ($13; above right), but the dish is too heavy for an appetizer, with its side of smoked potatoes.
Pappardelle bolognese ($19; above left) is lazily plated, and doesn’t really belong on the menu. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not why you come here. The steak frites au poivre with bearnaise sauce ($29; above right) is wholly respectable; I’d have it again. The fries are addictive.
Cafe Tallulah has survived its first year. I can’t really judge how well it’s doing: we dined early on a Saturday evening before heading over to Lincoln Center. Service was fine, but no bread was served, which in a French bistro is unaccoutable. It’s not Balthazar or Elaine’s; that the owner even imagined it is absurd. Still, it has earned a spot on my pre-show rotation.
Cafe Tallulah (240 Columbus Avenue at 71st Street, Upper West Side)
Food: Mostly French bistro classics, prepared acceptably
Ambiance: A McNallyish joint without McNally