If you're a fan of Bravo's Top Chef, you know about Nicholas Elmi. If you're into food and live in Philly, you've heard of him. And if you have any modicum of Philly pride, the name should ring a bell. And as a NYC transplant, I couldn't help but root for Chef Elmi - humble, intense, and clearly work and family-driven - what's not to like?
After working under famed Chef George Perrier at Brasserie Perrier, Elmi took on a tour of stints at Daniel, Lutece, Union Pacific, Oceana, and Mia. He eventually came back to Philly as Executive Chef at the now defunct Le Bec-Fin and then, at Rittenhouse Tavern. Throughout his continued education, Top Chef was clamoring for Elmi to come on the show. So after parting ways with Rittenhouse Tavern, it was finally time for him to take on 18 other chefs to compete for the title. Following in the steps of Chef Kevin Sbraga's season 7 Top Chef win, Chef Elmi brought the title back to Philly, along with a cool $125,000. With that prize money, he opened up Laurel, a phenomenal entry in the South Philly BYO scene. And despite all the well-edited "drama" that was highlighted throughout Top Chef, after a recent meal, it's clear that Chef Elmi's food speaks for itself.
Tuesdays through Thursdays are a la carte. And on the weekends, you can indulge in a set tasting for $85 pp. Due to the dearth of available reservations, I took what I could get. So on a Thursday evening at 8:45PM, the GF and I stepped into the Fond's former space and indulged. Being that Laurel is a BYO, the GF and I brought a bottle of Doc Lettere, a red sparkler that we were introduced to Vetri. Easy drinking, to be sure.
The meal began with two slices of house-made sourdough and a pat of browned butter topped with salt. A nice start for what was to come.
Foie Gras and Cocoa Terrine [$20]
Blood orange, candied celery root, brioche
Our first courses came out shortly thereafter. I had to go with the foie gras, which came with a quartet of brioche toast points. The heft of the creamy foie was tempered by the bitter cocoa and the sweet candied celery root and tangy drops of blood orange. The salt heightened the innate flavors of the foie. This was a deft preparation that provided a bright note for the rest of the meal.
Torn New Jersey Scallop [$14]
Hot house rhubarb, sea lettuce, grapefruit
The GF's first course proper brought forth refreshing notes. The scallop is truly hand torn and then cured with kombu to draw out the water and heighten the salinity. The bits of grapefruit imparted additional tartness provided by the hot house rhubarb, poured tableside.
Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi [$14]
Pancetta, sourdough, garlic
The lightness of the scallop dish was the perfect entry into a heftier second course. The oft-acclaimed gnocchi provided all the flavors that are associated with comfort and guilty pleasures. The pancetta was salty, fatty, and crispy, provided a textural contrast to the creamy, pillowy ricotta gnocchi. The tangy crunch of the sourdough bread crumbs offered an additional layer of flavor. It's unsurprising that this dish was praised by the Top Chef judges and Padma, in particular, was moved when Chef Elmi spoke about his daughter's love for this particular dish. A must-order!
Sunchoke, hazelnut, apple blossom
For my second course, I decided to opt for the roasted walu, which is actually listed under the mains. In fact, our server Grace noted that this was the first time she had ever seen anyone do this, but that it was genius. Personally, I didn't think any further than the fact that I love butterfish (aka walu aka escolar aka "white tuna) and knew I had to try the pork belly dish for my main. They don't call me the Belly of the Pig for nothing! But back to the roasted walu.
The fish was firm on the outside and moist within. The apple blossoms added some tang, while the hazelnuts offered some heft and texture. The sunchokes provided sweet nuttiness. The walu was cooked perfectly, a touch more would have been over. Having enjoyed walu much rarer in the form of escolar sushi and knowing that despite the delicious butteriness, there are indigestible esters involved (I'll let you figure out what that consequence is), it's not surprising that the walu is cooked fully. A definite favorite and highly recommended.
Niman Ranch Beef [$31]
Salsify, onion, Woodland Jewel mushrooms
For her main, the GF went with the Niman Ranch beef. Cooked perfectly tender, there was certainly no lack of seasoning here. The heft of the beef and the earthiness of the mushrooms were heightened by the accompanying bordelaise. The salsify puree was a necessary complement to the dish, providing a counterbalance to any saltiness.
Berkshire Pork [$28]
Crushed chestnuts, huckleberry-kale vinaigrette, pumpernickel
I couldn't help but get excited for this next dish. Essentially pork three ways, fall-apart tender pork belly, perfectly cooked pork loin, and a technically exquisite crepinette of shoulder and cheek were highlighted. The crepinette was perfect - a succulent melange of pork shoulder and tender beef cheek were wrapped in caul fat and crisped on the outside to provide great flavor. This all came atop a crushed chestnut puree, which had an earthy nuttiness that underscored the heft of the pork. The tangy huckleberry and kale vinaigrette helped to temper the dish.
At this point, Chef Elmi came out with dessert. Certainly as humble as he appears on TV, it's clear that his passion is for cooking and not the fame. The prize that comes with the win helped to launch a 22-seat BYO - not a celebrity monstrosity seeking to churn out hundreds of covers a night. In fact, there's a reason he took out 12 of Fond's seats to provide a better experience for his diners. Extremely easygoing and affable, we spoke about a range of topics including the quality of Top Chef-branded wine (meh) to the fact that his wife has graciously become his PR agent. I couldn't help but ask about Carlos. Carlos recently sent Chef Elmi a sushi knife as a gift (inside "joke" for Top Chef aficionados) so I wondered whether it was actually used. It is indeed and apparently, they talk every other week. FYI - the Top Chef jacket is *not* in the kitchen. I wouldn't be surprised if it was back at his home under a pile. But onto dessert ...
Chef's Daily Selection of Cheese [$9]
Tarentaise, Madurat, Forest Honey
We couldn't help but get the cheese plate. A selection of two cheese were offered including Tarentaise, which is a farmstead cheese, meaning that it's produced from the milk from herds on the farm where the cheese is produced, primarily by hand. Though a semi-soft, the nutty flavors were reminiscent of gruyere and complemented nicely by the sweet forest honey. The GF and I are suckers for goat cheese and the Madurat had all the flavors in spades. Even the "ash" rind was enjoyable and the sweet, creaminess of this mild goat cheese had subtle hints of the innate acidity of the goat's milk. It was perfect to spread on the crusty, buttery cinnamon raisin bread.
Citrus "Curd" [$8]
Chicory, meringue, Buddha's hand
We also ordered the citrus curd, which was definitely more my style than the GF's. I prefer desserts that aren't overly saccharine and while the buddha's hand added citrus notes in both flavor and scent, the curd wasn't overly sweet. The meringue offered a lightness which was a great bookend to the meal.
Chef Elmi's Laurel recently received three bells from Craig Laban, but I wouldn't be surprised if a 4th was in order. The entire meal was well-paced and our server Grace was extremely knowledgeable and attentive. Dishes were well-executed, well-seasoned, and most importantly, delicious. If the restaurant wasn't Top-Chef certified, I would still return for a great meal. The fact that it's a BYO is simply a bonus. Pro tip: if you're having trouble getting a reservation, there is a wait list and the occasional cancellation. So don't hesitate to call. Also, do order dessert. There's a high probability that if the Chef is in the kitchen, he'll come out with the dessert to see how the meal was. Because really, it's not the celebrity, but how his food is received. As it should - that's what appears to matter.