Restaurant Review: Tallula

Tallula has a new chef, an old soul and a killer wine selection.

For more than 50 years, patrons flocked to Whitey’s in Lyon Park for the live music, the cheap beer and the house specialty: marinated and pressure-fried “broasted” chicken. Then the local demographic began to change and a wave of new bars in nearby Clarendon introduced fresh competition. Whitey’s closed its doors in 2003. All that remains today of the legendary honky-tonk is the vintage neon “EAT” sign above the front door.

In its place, Neighborhood Restaurant Group—the force behind area favorites such as Rustico, Buzz Bakery, The Evening Star Café and Vermilion—in 2004 opened two adjoining restaurants that share a kitchen: Tallula, a contemporary American bistro with an exceptional wine program; and EatBar, its casual gastropub counterpart. Introducing a fresh, textural palette, the new owners transformed the interiors from 1950s dive to spaces that feel more like a Tuscan garden, with earth tones, stone and cork.

Tallula is a cozy and comfortable place to settle in. And I’m happy to report, after three visits, that great chicken—moist and tender with crisp skin—can still be eaten at this address.

Of course the menu is still evolving. In early July, Pennsylvania native Nate Waugaman, the former executive chef of Addie’s in Rockville and the onetime personal chef to Redskins owner Dan Snyder, took over the top toque slot at Tallula, replacing Barry Koslow, who left in July of 2011.

Waugaman’s seasonal fare, while still contemporary American, brings regional influences of both Southern and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. This guy knows how to dress a plate with the freshest ingredients from local farms in an eye-catching way. And the dining room’s friendly, polished service is as stellar as the food.

One evening, a seductive appetizer consisted of peanut-crusted Virginia oysters nested in a zucchini slaw with a spring onion emulsion and paper-thin fried lemon slices. And what could be more Southern and appealing than simple fried green tomatoes? Waugaman stuffs them with a little blue cheese, tops them with shaved onion and a mound of micro-herbs, and sprinkles on a subtle sherry vinaigrette.

“This is my new favorite place,” said one of my pals as he cleaned his plate of every last crumb.

If I had to pick a favorite salad, it would be the mix of tart apple, baby arugula, toasted walnuts and shavings of sharp Italian Bombalina cheese, topped with a sweet maple dressing and mustard seeds. A perfect combination.

Or, for $18, two can share the chef’s house-made charcuterie board of silky ham, anise salami, creamy veal liverwurst and more, paired with a fig compote and pickled peppers. The cured selection provides a chance to mix and match, use your hands, break bread and commune.

If you enjoy a memorable wine in delicate stemware with your meal, you’ve come to the right place. Take a moment to page through Tallula’s thoughtfully crafted list of more than 400 wines (60 of which are available by the glass in 3-, 6- or 10-ounce pours). The list is organized in helpful categories, such as Sommelier’s Picks, Local Favorites and Best Deals Below $35.

Got a taste for light reds? Don't overlook the collection of pinot noirs from small producers in Oregon and California.

Any of the pinots would be divine with an entrée of this kitchen’s tender, dry-aged sirloin steak, perfectly cooked to order, which came with a rich slab of potato gratin and a fat slice of grill-charred tomato. (So spectacular, I hated sharing the dish with my tablemates.) I’m also a fan of the seared day boat scallops, which were complemented with wisps of bacon and the freshest fava beans, mingled with three varieties of basil for a burst and depth of flavor.

Over my visits, I encountered only one entrée that I couldn’t wrap my arms (or taste buds) around: an excessively sweet and sticky house-smoked wild salmon fillet, which reeked of chimney fumes.

On the poultry front, the aforementioned plump chicken breast soars beyond expectations when paired with a sublime tarragon-laced pea purée. (The chef shared later that he achieves the juicy texture and crisp skin by cooking the bird in a hot iron skillet, topped with a heavy weight.)

To Waugaman’s credit, every sauce is distinct. On a cold winter night, I’ll head back to Tallula for the hearty portion of succulent pork loin with creamy cheddar grits and spiced peanuts.

The desserts, on the other hand, sound appetizing on paper, but for the most part, don’t deliver. There is a notable loss in freshness factor, bordering on stale. The best of the bunch was a slice of nice-enough cheesecake with flecks of basil and candied walnuts, accompanied by a not-too-sweet apricot-elderberry sorbet.

Better to linger over wine while enjoying the casual authenticity of this place. On busy weekend nights, the boisterous sounds from EatBar next door spill into Tallula’s serene dining room, providing the audible ambiance of people having a good time. I reckon the original proprietors of Whitey’s, at least in this regard, would approve.

Tallula

2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 703-778-5051, www.tallularestaurant.com

Open:
Brunch: Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Prices:
Brunch: entrees $9 to $14.
Dinner: appetizers $7 to $12; entrées $18 to $25.

Reservations:
Suggested on weekends.

Bar and Cellar:
In addition to handcrafted cocktails and select microbrewery beers, Tallula serves more than 400 wines (60 by the glass), many from small producers in Spain, France, Italy and the American Pacific Northwest.

Parking:
Small on-site lot, plus additional spaces in the Country Club Cleaners lot on North Pershing Drive. Clarendon Metro station is a five-minute walk away.

Categories: Food & Drink
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