March 11, 2010 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham

Buzz-worthy Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro marches to its own stylish drummer

The hanger steak is a favorite entrée at Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro in Birmingham. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)

Elegant in its simplicity, Tallulah Wine Bar & Bistro offers an uncluttered setting that matches its concise menu of fresh, contemporary American fare and an eclectic wine list.

The new spot in downtown Birmingham strikes a nice balance between food and wine.

Just 15 white-covered tables are set around the room painted pure white and a soft shade of sand. The bar topped in white onyx carries out the monotone theme, and a big mirror behind it does exactly what mirrors are supposed to do -- give the illusion of more space -- as do the uncovered windows across the front.

The open kitchen at the back of the room adds to the vitality. One can glimpse an ensemble of black-capped chefs turning out such dishes as whole trout, roasted chicken and hanger steak, basics that take on their glamour through the choice of creative garnishes.

Setting off the trout, for instance, are pancetta (cured pork), tendrils of watercress, red grapefruit and fennel, while the chicken is partnered with a wedge of mellow grilled savoy cabbage and baby sweet potato, unexpected combinations that work well.

The choices proprietor Mindy VanHellemont and executive chef Jake Abraham offer will change as ingredients come in and out of season, ingredients that whenever possible are from local sources. In fact, a list of farmers and purveyors is printed on the menu.

Because Tallulah is a wine bar as well as a restaurant, sharable appetizers are emphasized. There's a selection of artisan cheeses as well as a tasting plate of Serrano ham, multicolored olives, almonds and pecorino cheese, and another of black grapes, toasted pistachios and yet more cheeses.

Of the four salads, beets with arugula, hazelnuts, fennel and Maytag blue cheese is notable, but it doesn't quite edge out the house version -- baby greens, thinly sliced apples and pears, candied walnuts and luscious little nuggets of toasted goat cheese in barely perceptible vinaigrette.

On Sunday evenings, a four-course array served family-style is the only available menu, another indication that Tallulah intends to march to its own drummer.

On a recent Sunday, the bistro offered a first course of arugula and watercress salad or fisherman's stew, followed by a cheese course of toasted goat cheese and poached pear along with a baguette, then either roasted salmon or stuffed chicken breast.

Each of the two entrees was accompanied by a colorful quartet of sides -- horseradish whipped potatoes, grilled winter vegetables and a savory little heap of celery root remoulade dotted with capers. (On Sundays, the addition of an acoustic jazz trio adds to the appeal.)

Suffice it to say that finding a compatible wine isn't difficult. The staff is wine-savvy and helpful, and the full wine list is incorporated into the menu. Suggested wine pairings, offered in 2-ounce tastes ($5), are listed with each dish.

Wine also is served by the glass ($7-$10), the pichet (two and a half glasses $15-$38) or the bottle (mostly in the $30-$75 range).

Tallulah opened on Feb. 24, and in the early going there certainly has been a buzz as a stylish crowd jams the 65-seat room to check it out.

And despite the rush, things have gone pretty smoothly, with just one little problem: When the room is at capacity, as it was on the first Saturday night, the noise can be a concern. VanHellemont (whose childhood nickname was Tallulah) says the problem is being addressed.

Right next door to this appealing place is Tallulah Too, a retail wine shop.

abraham67@comcast.net">abraham67@comcast.net (313) 222-1475

Prince Edward Island mussel appetizers are available. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
Chef Jake Abraham with owner Mindy VanHellemont. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
The wine bar offers 2-ounce tastes for $5. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
More Molly Abraham