There’s clearly something exciting going on in downtown Glens Falls in this, its centennial year as a city, and part of the evidence of the renaissance is the growing number of interesting places to eat.
WHERE: 26 Ridge St., Glens Falls. Phone 793-2004
WHEN: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays
HOW MUCH: $79.39
MORE INFO: Handicapped accessible entrance, but not bathrooms. MasterCard and Visa. No children’s menu.
One such, called Bistro Tallulah, has been open only four months and is packing in patrons nightly, mostly from word-of-mouth about the creative cuisine of chef-owner Shawn Whalen, a native of the area who graduated from Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., and labored in the kitchens of places like the fabled Brennan’s and Martin Wine Cellar in pre-Katrina New Orleans.
Whalen rhapsodizes about his years at Martin Wine Cellar, where he had carte blanche to be creative in the dishes he produced on a daily basis. He also speaks with real emotion about the impact of Hurricane Katrina, whose aftermath provided experiences he will remember always.
Uprooted by the disaster, he and his wife, Courtney Locke-Whalen, eventually relocated here and opened their bistro, where they offer a small but ambitious menu of dishes that are Whalen’s personal takes on Cajun-inspired cuisine.
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The location, on Ridge Street near City Hall, is an old building with high tin-covered ceilings and lots of exposed brick with jazzy art here and there. We visited on a Saturday night, and the place was jammed with patrons happily chatting over their meals. The result was an incessant din, which makes Tallulah not the best place for intimate conversation, but the food more than makes up for that.
Menu simple, delightful
The menu is a simple two-sided sheet, with one page devoted to entrees and the other side offering salads, soups and sandwiches. Many of the entrees come in small or full plates with the prices about half for the smaller, but we found either way the cost was most reasonable.
I didn’t spend a lot of time perusing the menu before ordering. As soon as I spotted the Cochon de Lait, I knew I had to try it. Cajun-French, the idiom translates as “milk pig,” referring to a roasted suckling pig. Tallulah’s version is succulent pork pulled from the roast and then recrisped in fat to give the meat as delicious an exterior as the tender morsels beneath.
In the full plate version, which is priced at $19, a generous amount of the crispy meat is served atop a sweet potato purée for a winning combination of sweet and savory. We detected brown sugar and butter in the purée and something else, perhaps a splash of bourbon? The dish also came with a vegetable medley of roasted zucchini and broccoli rabe, and a cabbage slaw with a piquant dressing, which is always a good idea with pork.
Tallulah’s also offers the pulled pork in a sandwich. It’s served on a toasted peasant bun with roasted garlic aioli, pickles and house-made french fries for $9.
While this was my first time at Tallulah’s, my dinner date had visited before and knew right away what she wanted: the braised lamb shanks ($22 for the full plate), which are served in a red wine reduction with pearl onions, garlic and fennel over a mash of Yukon gold potatoes and celeriac, along with roasted asparagus with lamb jus and a citrus gremolata, the traditional dressing for the Italian veal dish osso buco.
The lamb was fork-tender, cooked to delicious perfection and nicely complemented by the wine sauce, and the potato-celeriac mash was a savory treat that made me want more than the modest taste I cadged from her plate.
Other tempting entree choices: Hanger steak and frites (a seared hanger steak with house-made fries, roasted asparagus, gorgonzola demi-glace and roasted garlic aioli for $10/$19); or classic Coq au Vin (braised organic chicken with bacon lardons, red wine and cipollini onions served atop a creamy leek risotto and baby vegetable medley for $9/$19).
For openers, I had a cup of the roasted chicken and andouille gumbo ($6), which is served over a creamy leek risotto. It was delicious, the best soup I’ve had in a while, with a rich brown roux base, tender chicken morsels and bits of spicy sausage and just enough heat to leave a nice afterburn on the palate. The risotto on the bottom of the bowl works its way into the soup as you dig in and makes for another level of good flavor.
My dining partner chose the pan-seared dry-pack scallop salad ($7 for the small plate), which was tossed with dried cranberries, baby greens, arugula, toasted pine nuts, shaved red onions, tarragon and a Maytag blue cheese vinaigrette. It was a savvy choice, featuring three jumbo scallops nicely seared and so much more delicious than the briny scallops you find in the supermarket. (Any time you are offered the choice, always choose the “dry” scallops.)
We concluded our memorable meal with coffee and a shared confection, a gooey pecan torte topped with lightly whipped cream ($6.50) which was everything you’d want a gooey, sweet dessert to be.
Our tab, for sodas, entrees, coffees, dessert and gratuity came to a reasonable $79.39. That did not include the soup or scallop salad, which would have added another $13 to the check. Our hostess insisted that those be complimentary because she had to ask us to switch tables soon after we arrived because of some kind of mixup with reservations of a larger party. It wasn’t necessary, but we were impressed by the gracious gesture.
And that leads to a cautionary word: Don’t try to dine at Bistro Tallulah without a reservation.
Cochon de Lait is a traditional dish of the French Acadians who settled in parts of Canada, as well as in Louisiana. There are businesses and festivals devoted to it even today in Cajun country. It is or was often produced as part of a male bonding ritual — with bull sessions and lots of imbibing as the pig cooked over a smoky fire for hours. The real treat is the “croquant” quality of the skin, the crackling which Bistro Tallulah re-creates admirably with its “recrisping” of the pulled pork.