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Small is Sexy

Who knew that amidst the pulsing bars and nondescript eateries of the Castro sits a sexy little restaurant serving the most tantalizing of dishes. Tallula, opened in May of 2003 by Harveen Khera, co-owner of Chez Spencer, has a warm, rich feel and offers a menu that pairs the familiar with the exotic.

You may not notice the deep green two-story townhouse until you're upon it; the glow of the tabletop candles invite you through the large front windows. An unobvious side door opens onto the low-lit front room that houses a bar and a small loft with a handful of tables. If you're not seated in the front, be sure to follow your host/ess closely as their path through the restaurant and up a narrow, worn wooden staircase may be tricky. Upstairs are two cozy rooms surrounded by a terrace. The one further back offers lush scarlet walls and shimmery, wafer like shells, handstrung by the staff and hung from the ceiling to give the space an ethereal feel. Voluminous curtains on the windows add to the air of comfort.

The wine list and beer selection, which offers imports and micro-brews (good news for Fat Tire fans), are choice. Tallula's cocktail menu, far from self-explanatory, provides saucy names and cryptic descriptions for specialty drinks (all $7). Order, for instance, a Scarlet ("I decided to dress for the engagement. Strawberry nipples and sugared lips"), and you'll get an almost too-pretty-to-drink strawberry mimosa, replete with sugared rim and rose petal garnish.

Tallula's culinary angle is three-fold: Indian spices paired with California ingredients prepared in a French manner. This explains how frogs' legs ($14) and chicken curry ($15) can coexist on a single menu. Skip the complimentary fried chickpeas for the more savory menu items, two-thirds of which are smaller dishes meant for sharing. Go for the Washington State Steamboat oysters on the half-shell ($12), served with a house relish of red onions, Fresno chiles and sherry vinaigrette. Or choose a starter with an Indian slant, like the aloo tikki ($6): lemon and cilantro potato pancakes served with chutney, or the finger lickin' spiced pomme frites, perfectly paired with a mango pickle aioli. The pomme frites are filling though and, unless you've decided to make a meal of small plates, you'll want to save room for entrees. Sample the marinated flank steak ($18), thinly sliced and served with mushrooms in a saffron tomato sauce, or the fennel-crusted golden trout ($18), presented with the head intact in a delicious pool of lemon-ginger vinaigrette.

The dessert menu (all $7) is the stuff of a sweet tooth's daydreams. The dense chocolate espresso terrine is a knockout combination drizzled with raspberry compote and dusted with powdered sugar, though the portion is much too large for one person. The coconut ice cream sundae served in a martini glass with caramel sauce and toffee-coated almonds is a pleasantly cooling finish if you've enjoyed the spicier dishes.

Tallula offers a seductive setting with a menu to match for a reasonably priced date on the fancier side of things, though get there early if you actually want to hear each other. Of course, you could just let the compelling flavors of the meal do the talking for you.