January 9, 2014


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).

Top Chef mugshot: cute, right?
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).

Didn't take this one either
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


  1. I've been wondering about this place. Nick seems like a really talented and nice dude, if maybe a bit pretentious. But, hey, I guess sometimes that comes with the territory. I'm pretty sure he has a chip on his shoulder after being the only one not offered his job back after Le Bec got taken over.Regardless, gotta root for the guy from Philly!

    1. I wish he had more dishes that mirrored things he created on the show-- but I guess a chef has to prove himself in many ways. I didn't know he worked at Le Bec!

  2. I'm confused. I feel like your post doesn't really tell me if you liked the place or not? Looking at the pictures, it seems that for $75 the portions were right. Yes I understand that it was $75 each and it seems that you each got 3 plates, that's a fair price. I'm confused on a few things.
    1. Did you actually like the place or did you not like it but aren't brave enough to just say you didn't? - It's very unclear in your post if you actually enjoyed the meal or if you enjoyed that this great chef is also on a tv show that I've never seen.

    2. Did you really suggest changing out a trout for a tuna? You do know that those two fishes are totally different right? You can't sub tuna for trout...and from your comment about the scallops having a 'fishy taste' and your comment about thinking that the trout dish didn't have enough thought in the sauce makes me think that you just don't like fish. Cook a cod, eat it...if you don't like that because it's too 'fishy' you probably just don't like fish.

    3.You commented that the menu wasn't set for a vegetarian. You're probably right, but before making that comment did you check with the restaurant to see if they do substitutions for special diets? I'm willing to bet that if you mention that when making your reservation, they'd accommodate.

    4. "Also, still no idea what a mutsu apple is" - you're on the internet...google it! This statement kind of discredits you on a whole...in my opinion.

    Now I haven't yet eaten at Laurel, which is why I was looking around for reviews, but I can assure you that I'm going to go there with my refined palate and my $75 and I'll come right back here, and update you. :-)

    1. Hi Susan-
      Thanks for your detailed comments and questions. I did enjoy Laurel but often write reviews as commentary and description of the specifics of what I ate. I did not suggest subbing tuna for trout, I was saying that I could have had another plate of the tuna appetizer in place of the trout entree and been very satisfied.

      I do love seafood, including trout, and thought Nick cooked it perfectly. However, when eating at a restaurant such as Laurel, I expect a well rounded dish, beyond just a well cooked piece of fish. If that was all I wanted, I would cook it at home for a fraction of the price! In my opinion, all components of the dish are very important.

      Laurel may accommodate vegetarians under special request, I was just commenting that nearly all the dishes offered from the regular menu have animal components.

      I'm sorry you thought my comment about mutsu apple discredits me, I really meant that the dish didn't highlight in such a way that would introduce me to this.

      We would love to hear about your experience as well! Apologies that our review did not help you before you tried it yourself. It seems many of your issues stem from misunderstanding so hopefully I have helped clarify my thoughts!

    2. Dear Susan,
      I'm confused. I feel like your comment doesn't really tell me if you liked this blog post or not? Looking at your points, i'd say the length of your comments was just right. But I'm still confused on a few things.
      1. Did you actually like the blog post or did you not like it but aren't brave enough to just say you didn't? It's very unclear in your comment if you actually enjoyed the post or if you enjoy signing into random blogs and expertly slicing them up (like the tuna) in order to boast about your "refined palate."

      2. Did you really question the fact that someone would prefer to eat tuna over trout? Calling all fishermen! Dump out your entire catch and go get some trout instead! Trout is the only fish that matters! Oh you brought me a boatload of lobster, oysters, and caviar? Worthless! Dump them out and go get some trout! Wait, I'm on the internet, I can just google the most expensive fish ever bought. What's that? It's a blue-fin tuna? A TUNA?? WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY. He should have bought a giant trout instead.

      3.You commented that she commented the menu wasn't set for a vegetarian. I agree with you that she did not put enough effort into finding out whether they would accommodate vegetarians. Especially since it seemed to be one of the main focal points of this blog entry. I mean, she spent almost a full sentence mentioning it, clearly it was an incredibly important part of the post. But why stop at asking about the vegetarian options? She should have asked if the restaurant would have accommodated vegans, gluten allergies, and people who can't eat anything that is prepared on a Wednesday.

      4. Mutsu apple - "a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo apple varieties first grown in Japan, and named after the Mutsu Province of Japan, where it was presumably first grown." Glad that's cleared up. (In case you're wondering, I used Bing.)

      Now I haven't read a review you've written, but I can assure you that if you do, I'm going to review your review with my refined penmanship and editorial eye and I'll come right back here, and update you. :-)