I’ve been talking up Talulla, a new restaurant in Cambridge’s Huron Village, and even my Boston-lifer friends ask, “Where’s that?” To get there, you head a mile outside Harvard Square toward Fresh Pond, past a series of multimillion-dollar stately homes. (I don’t know anyone who lives there, either.) It’s worth enduring real estate envy to get to this tiny spot, which wraps refined French technique around careful local sourcing and globe-trotting flavors. Given its swank surroundings, don’t be surprised to learn it ain’t exactly a budget bistro.
The 28-seat room has an understated charm with exposed brick and vanilla walls, copious fresh flowers and photos of the restaurant’s namesake, the toddler of wine director/co-owner Danielle Ayer and husband/chef/co-owner Conor Dennehy—who’s supported by sous-chef Joy Gerardi and veteran cocktail maven Matt Schrage. The short menu of traditional appetizers, entrees and desserts can be bundled into a $60 three-course prix fixe (wine pairings, $35); a separate seven-course tasting menu runs $115 (wine pairings, $75), with a couple of uplift options for both.
The wine list demands a little study, breaching 100 bottles and leaning heavily on France, with stops across the Old World and the U.S. It’s a list that doesn’t blink at a $575 Alsatian riesling with some bottle age, or a younger white burgundy at $450, but also includes some brash young French upstart’s rather modest, funky pét-nat rosé as a tasting pairing. Most bottles go for less than $70, and a dozen by-the-glass options run $10-$21. It’s a wine-lover’s restaurant, though Schrage adds a few beers ($5-$8), a good selection of aperitif wines and bracing original highballs ($12) like the Sylvan Spectacle of fino sherry, the quinine-accented Italian dry vermouth Cocchi Americano, a sprig of rosemary and fresh lemon.
Dennehy’s menu is loaded with exquisite details and picture-pretty platings, but his is not a doggy-bag aesthetic. He sets the table with fabulous housemade sourdough and pale green ramp butter dotted with tiny onion blossoms, plus a wee amuse-bouche of diced salt-roasted potato with a dab of mayo and sliver of sorrel, hinting at nearby posh summer cookouts. His apps will soon populate many an Instagram feed, like scallops ($18) barely cured and given umami smack and brine from kombu leaves, delicately arrayed on the edge of a plate over sea green avocado puree, microtome-thin radish slices and strips of dehydrated rhubarb. A similarly lovely slash of textures and colors makes up radishes ($16) generously bedecked with Maine crabmeat and cucumber slices over buttermilk/chive dressing. Ajo blanco ($17) is a pale puddle of cool, silky, garlicky goodness pocked with pink Muscat grapes, bright green parsley and tawny almonds. But even monochromatic dishes like a green salad ($15) of arugula and pea greens with judiciously applied miso vinaigrette packs lively flavors.
Entrees also favor gorgeous, tweezery platings. Both the Berkshire pork ($34), with its hunks of roasted loin and crisp belly flanked by grain salad and a sprightly lovage salsa verde, and the lamb loin ($38), with its wee slices artfully splayed across blobs of potato puree and dotted with ramps and garlic scapes over a rich pan sauce, are lovely and delectable, but also small enough to be the object of dad jokes. Cavatelli ($32) under a rich, coarse braise of lamb with tatsoi, spring onions and toasted bread crumbs is duller to look at but more substantial, ditto the novel “risotto” ($30) of coarsely cut toasted oats, vivid green peas, Macomber turnips and a big, soft-poached duck egg, though the porridge could use more salt. Black bass ($34) will also draw out camera phones, a meaty skin-on fillet with a couple of shelled mussels and edible flowers over a bed of flageolets in a superb, deep-flavored miso broth.
The comparatively simple desserts show off great ingredients, like a huckleberry currant cobbler ($14) in a cast-iron skillet strewn with crunchy maple/oat streusel and fennel fronds alongside quality hazelnut ice cream. Three cheeses ($15) from small American farms are properly tempered and ably complemented with crisp flatbread, strawberry-rhubarb compote, raisins on the vine and pickled hazelnuts. Sixty bucks for this kind of dinner isn’t exactly cheap, but still feels like a value.
The tasting menu, by contrast, is more of a special-occasion extravaganza, and with wine pairings you might be staggering stuporously across the finish line from the richness, dazzling variety and picturesqueness of it all (the portion sizes are actually sensibly scaled). The short space here won’t allow a blow-by-blow, but from the amuse (chilled parsnip soup dusted with cocoa nibs) through seven courses to a hunk of genoise over a dab of dreamy lemon curd, it’s a leisurely parade of luxurious moments, with unexpected, witty wine pairings. OK, two highlights: artfully cut local squid bodies and tentacles crowned with green garlic over nutty farrow and dots of bitter-lemon conserva, served with an unusual, bracingly dry Hungarian Tòkaji; and lamb belly (and especially lamb rillettes) in a little nest of black garlic, nori and fennel, paired with soft, mostly-grenache Rhone with a lovely tannic bite at the end.
In short, Talulla is the kind of neighborhood restaurant that one finds only in really prosperous neighborhoods. We ordinary folk can visit as long as we’re willing to shell out a little extra for its considerable charisma and skill (and those wines), and maybe for big celebrations to spend large on that over-the-top tasting menu, too. ◆
Tasting with wine pairing
Talulla, 377 Walden St., Cambridge (617-714-5584) talullacambridge.com; Liquor: Full; Hours: Tue.-Sat., 5:30-10 pm; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Scant nearby guest street spaces