We've been following Top Chef this season- not only is it fun to see snippets of New Orleans, but two Philadelphia chefs were competing for the title. Unfortunately, Jason Cichonski of Ela
was eliminated after a few challenges, but Nick Elmi (former Executive Chef of Rittenhouse Tavern) is holding on strong-- and is now one of the top 5 final contestants! The longer a contestant stays on, the more you learn about his/her cooking styles, and it was easy to see from the beginning that Chef Elmi is a competent competitor (his boyish good looks and loyalty to his family also make him mega-adorable).
Of course, seeing his dishes each weeks has me salivating (for more than one reason) so I talked a friend into checking out his new Passyunk restaurant, Laurel. Even though he has become a moderate Philly food celebrity, it's still easy to get a reservation, even though his tiny space holds only 24 seats. When you walk in, you kind of feel right at home, at least if you're familiar with the Philly intimate BYO scene. The small space is upscale, not too cramped, and the small groups remained relatively quiet throughout the evening (sometimes a worry at a larger BYO).
The team describes it as French/American, though I'd say it tends to lean towards the "New American" genre, combining familiar foods and cooking styles with the not-as-common ingredients and skills to elevate each dish to a higher level. The menu is split into four sections, and the staff recommended an item from each. I'll break it to you now- this won't be your cheap date option. My meal (three courses, no dessert, no extra drinks, including tax/tip) was $75. I have a hard time justifying spending so much on food, but I keep doing it, so I guess it is worth it in some unnameable way.
(I stupidly forgot my camera, so hold tight for some grainy iPhone pictures!)
If I've learned anything from Nick's time on Top Chef it is that he is a seafood master. So I was all about the fish options, of which there are many. First course: albacore tuna, horseradish, shallow, asian pear, and yogurt ($12). These menu descriptions can be misleading-- little information about the preparation of the dish, and while so many ingredients are listed, many are also left out.
This tuna dish was the highlight of my meal though, served raw and expertly sliced under a shower of frozen horseradish cream. Somehow the extreme cold of the horseradish helped mellow its spice, and not overwhelm the perfect (and generous portion of) tuna.
I also had a taste of my friend's scallop dish, "Torn New Jersey scallop, mutsu apple, sea lettuce, celery", for $13. Raw scallop has a fairly fishy taste, which I was unaware of- not as appetizing as the smooth, savory tuna. Also, still no idea what a mutsu apple is. The celery was quite distinct, particularly in the broth under the scallop.
Our meal was well paced, with time between courses for plenty of conversation and people watching. It was obvious many of the other restaurant patrons were Top Chef fangirls (and boys), asking to meet Chef Elmi and praising his success so far. Our second course provided fewer options (three versus four for the other savory courses)- of note, the small menu leaves little room for vegetarians. I chose the fresh ricotta gnocchi, since Chef Elmi actually won a very competitive Top Chef challenge with his handmade gnocchi. And now I can see why-- a rich tomato based sauce, plenty of pancetta and garlic, and all of that pillowy cheese (coated in more cheese).. it was near impossible to finish even this small bowl ($13).
The "Grilled Maitake, Roasted Hazelnut, Preserved Lemon, Lemongrass Chicken Broth" is essentially a very brothy mushroom soup. With all those contrasting flavors, I thought for sure this would be hard to love, but Nick has a way with knowing exactly what ingredients he can mix and match. The one thing we didn't like was that the soup was served lukewarm. On a cold evening, a hot soup would have been so comforting.
And that brings us to the third course, which is meatier and technically serves as the entree. Once again (seriously, I swear this is some sort of worldwide restaurant downfall), the entrees were less cohesive and delicious than the first two courses. It's almost as if the focus on the main protein causes chefs to under think the sauce/side/preparation. My seared ocean trout with turnip, burgundy snail and black quinoa was solid, but I would have rather had another plate of the first course tuna ($27).
|I swear that's fish, crispy skin up|
The other entree on the table offered me a taste of something completely new. Berkshire pork was perfectly cooked, with a crisp exterior but with plenty of pink inside. I absolutely loved it, but my friend commented that it tasted like/appeared to be pork belly, which isn't his personal favorite. Of course, the staff is available to answer these types of questions, but more information on the menu would help us make our our own best decisions.
That bed of mashed potatoes? Nope... crushed chestnuts. I ate a bite and I think my face scared the waitress, who came to explain this part of the dish. Incredibly starchy, the mashed chestnuts kind of coated your mouth, and the flavor wasn't one I wanted to keep reliving. The kale-huckleberry sauce was beautiful, but I can't comment on its flavor. This dish definitely highlights Chef Elmi's very creative touch (which I think was also exhibited well at Rittenhouse Tavern, from photos and reviews we saw), and perhaps our palates aren't QUITE advanced enough for all of his creations.
A small handful of desserts are also available, but I felt I had eaten (and spent) plenty. There was no pressure to vacate our seats, and I declined to bother Nick with another fangirl request (this may have been because I was a little nervous to meet him!). Laurel seems to be keeping a low profile on the buzz scale, but I can see with a few tweaks, it could become a top Philly spot, particularly for special occasions. Hoping to see Chef Elmi bring home another Top Chef title to our city!
1617 E. Passyunk Avenue