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Laurel, new BYOB on EPx from Top Chef contestant Nicholas Elmi

PhillyBestBYOB Nov 8, 2013 04:36 PM

Six of us had a fantastic dinner Wednesday night at LAUREL, on what was its second night open. Love what they've done to the ex-Fond space on East Passyunk (with super comfy chairs!). The service was excellent. I'll write more later about the food, but we enjoyed everything we had (the gnocchi was a standout dish in my mind).

The newest "must try (and keep coming back)" BYOB in Philly!


  1. l
    lawgirl3278 Feb 7, 2014 10:25 AM

    Three bells from LaBan. I can't access the full review without an Inquirer subscription.


    6 Replies
    1. re: lawgirl3278
      cwdonald Feb 7, 2014 10:57 AM

      LAST UPDATED: Thursday, February 6, 2014, 9:26 PM

      Nicholas Elmi was at times so weepy with emotion during his recent run to the finals of Bravo's Top Chef, my wife joked that he practically salted his gnudi with tears of homesickness.

      But the ever-intense chef - also prone to pot-rattling tantrums and pouting during his reality TV debut - has always worn a chip on his shoulder and his heart on his plates. And if the ethereal ricotta gnocchi I recently devoured at Elmi's new Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue were any measure (their melt-away softness sparked by crisp pancetta and the tangy crunch of sourdough bread crumbs), I could taste for myself why they worked their charms on the show's judges, too.

      The judges gave him an episode win for that dumpling tribute to his daughter's favorite dish - and eventually the bigger prize, too: Top Chef's Season 11 champ.

      Is it possible the show also gave him something more unlikely, a sort of culinary inner peace?

      There's no other way to explain Elmi's decision to take his star turn in America's biggest chef showcase - surely a potential investor windfall - and leap into one of the least profitable situations known to restaurant-kind: a South Philly BYOB with 22 seats.

      "The others [Top Chef contestants] told me I was insane. And I know it looks like I'm going in reverse. But I'm focused on what I actually want to do now," says Elmi. "I can touch every plate, every table. The money will come later."

      The touching gets literal with Elmi's "torn New Jersey scallop," which he actually hand-rips into smaller bay scallop-size chunks. Kombu-cured to firm and add brininess, the morsels are tossed with crisp mutsu apples and seaweed over a crystalline pool of tart apple-citrus consommé dappled with emerald herb oil. It's a gorgeous, refreshing, and elegant dish - complex, but in perfect tune. Even mini-nods to Elmi's classic French roots, like the crispy cube of brandade offered as a tasting-menu amuse-bouche, gets a clever personal wink: the surprise of white sweet potatoes mashed in with the saline house-cured cod.

      I'm as cynical as it gets when it comes to TV cooking competitions, which rarely guarantee a great real-world restaurant experience. I'm also placing no wagers on what becomes of Laurel when its short lease, picked up from Fond when it moved to larger quarters, expires in a couple of years.

      But knowing Elmi's rough recent history - a turn at the tiller as Le Bec-Fin headed for the iceberg, then an ill-suited pairing with corporate Restaurant Associates (at Rittenhouse Tavern) - I can see why the comfort of a tiny atelier where he has total control would be just the therapy he needed.

      And, for as long as it lasts, Philadelphians will need it, too, because Laurel isn't just an intimate spotlight for an as-yet underappreciated talent. It shows how pleasant an experience one of our small-box BYO's can be when not jammed to the gills with decibels and chairs.

      OK, removing 12 of Fond's seats may be extreme. And it can still get noisy. But the spacious wood tables and cushy linen chairs hand-built by Elmi and his partner, lawyer Jonathan Cohen, make this space as comfortable as it's ever been. The young servers are unfailingly pleasant and polished. And Elmi, repeatedly humbled on the show with criticism that he overthinks and under-seasons his food, actually seems to have matured on the plate.

      The menu is organized into a suggested four courses, with the entrée course falling reasonably in the high $20s. And his food is still intricate. But he's shed the previous clutter of a few unnecessary garnishes per dish, and his compositions now resonate with a focus on good ingredients rendered with distinctive pairings and pristine modern technique.

      His albacore starter may be the best raw tuna dish in town, firmed ever so slightly in tepid olive oil before being dressed with the delicate sweetness of shaved Asian pears and a powder of frozen horseradish and yuzu "snow" that melted in mouth with a cooling sparkle. A bracing edge of mustard oil, chile-spiked ponzu, and fermented daikon cubes were the perfect foil to assertive Spanish mackerel seared crackly warm on the skin side and sashimi raw on the reverse. A study in Berkshire pork - loin roasted, belly braised, tender shoulder pulled then formed into a patty - was memorable for its elegant necklace of huckleberry, kale, and chestnut sauces.

      Elmi's foie gras terrine was even more beautiful, a silken slab of creamy pink marbled with bitter cocoa and paired with a fine mince of cuminy, caramelized celery root - an earthy sweetness that gave the luxurious liver an unexpected exotic twist.

      There were a handful of hiccups. The walu was slightly overcooked, as was the chicken on our first visit (a perfect second-meal take with black trumpets and Meyer lemon reduction was crispy-skinned and juicy). The quinoa-crusted snails ringing the ocean trout should have been omitted while Elmi was shedding garnish clutter.

      And there are not, for the moment, many great choices at dessert - except good cheese (Pont l'Eveque) with earthy chestnut honey, and a bowl of caramelized white chocolate pudding, which was actually Elmi's daring comeback "panna cotta" on the final show. It's an undeniably delicious bowl of complementing textures, from the wine-cooked quince and crunchy cocoa nibs over sweet pudding to the refreshing pink froth of red wine mousse artfully smeared on top.

      But the most memorable moment was the house eau-de-vie infused with sweet, aromatic Buddha's Hand citrus, and Elmi himself arrived to pour us a nip.

      It was still a week or so before the Top Chef finale, when the world would learn his secret. But Elmi, drained as he was, looked undeniably serene.

      1. re: cwdonald
        lawgirl3278 Feb 7, 2014 11:26 AM

        Thanks! An excellent review. I'm so glad he mentioned the gnocchi, that was the highlight of my meal there.

        1. re: lawgirl3278
          PhillyBestBYOB Feb 7, 2014 12:20 PM

          Mine too (funny that he defeated the self-proclaimed "Gnocchi Queen" on Top Chef).

          1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
            PhillyBestBYOB Feb 7, 2014 12:30 PM

            Ignoring the food for a moment, that is a beautifully written review. LaBan really is a very good writter.

            1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
              sal_acid Feb 7, 2014 02:36 PM

              No overwrought prose. No cliche endings. Nothing "to die for"

              Laban is very good indeed.

              I'm surprised that he still has a job at the Inky given how things are there.

              1. re: sal_acid
                PhillyBestBYOB Feb 7, 2014 03:01 PM

                Laurel is definitely to die for.

    2. g
      gwh912 Feb 3, 2014 05:16 PM

      We tried it last week. Felt it had promise, and loved seeing Elmi delivering dishes to the table.

      That being said, none of the dishes really meshed to us and while the dishes sounded inspired, they never really came together on the plate.

      Also, service, while well intentioned, was an issue, with our table being "lapped" according to our waiter; with both two-tops next to us getting their 2nd and 3rd courses (and cleared) before we even got our 2nd, even though we sat down first, and finished first course ten minutes before either table did. Waiter seemed to laugh it off but it meant about 45 minutes of no food on weeknight.

      Hoping for the best, and will try again in a few months after they have worked the kinks out...

      1. PhillyBestBYOB Feb 3, 2014 04:47 PM

        According to Eater, LaBan's review is due next weekend...

        1 Reply
        1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
          Philly Ray Feb 3, 2014 05:02 PM

          We're going tomorrow night. Looks like we made it in just under the wire between the last episode of Top Chef and LaBan's upcoming review.

        2. PhillyBestBYOB Jan 31, 2014 12:53 AM

          Another review of Laurel, this time by Trey Popp:

          "...my favorite meal anywhere [in 2013]. From the thimble-sized snowballs of frozen horseradish that bedazzled cubes of poached tuna to the tongue-tingling windfall of pink peppercorns clinging to a marbled foie gras terrine shot through with brown veins of cocoa, his plates took my table by storm."


          Coincidently, Nick has made it to the final on Top Chef next week (vs. season-long favorite Nina). Win or loose, should do wonders for his business.

          1. PhillyBestBYOB Jan 16, 2014 05:33 PM

            1st (very positive) review of Laurel was just published by Brian Freedman in the Philly Weekly:


            "(The) willingness to sidestep convention, yet remain technically rigorous, seems to be at the root of Elmi’s success here. Meltingly tender New Jersey scallops arrived hand-torn and tangled up in a transparent-green apple consommé studded with little islets of sea lettuce and translucent shards of celery throughout. On a painfully cold night, its brightness, its shimmering freshness, seemed to hold out hope that warmer days would one day arrive again, all while mining a brilliant winter-flavor theme."

            17 Replies
            1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
              Tommytd78 Feb 1, 2014 07:51 PM

              Who writes reviews like that? Embarrassing

              1. re: Tommytd78
                PhillyBestBYOB Feb 2, 2014 05:42 AM


                1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                  JanR Feb 2, 2014 05:52 AM

                  My response too.

                2. re: Tommytd78
                  Hungryin theBurbs Feb 2, 2014 11:33 AM

                  Ummm, just about every restaurant critic and food blogger. What's embarrassing about it?

                  1. re: Hungryin theBurbs
                    sal_acid Feb 2, 2014 12:11 PM

                    It is overwrought prose which is unfortunately common is the food blog world. Last sentence is just a load of BS that really says nothing of meaning about the food. Shimmering freshness that holds out hope for warmer days? Really?

                    1. re: sal_acid
                      PhillyBestBYOB Feb 2, 2014 01:07 PM

                      Ah, the critics calling the critic black.

                      1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                        sal_acid Feb 2, 2014 01:14 PM


                        1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                          george2 Feb 2, 2014 02:24 PM

                          LOL, PB

                          But I have to agree with Sal, the writing is pretty bad.

                          The review aside, I got reservations for April, the earliest Laurel could seat four of us at a reasonable time on a Saturday. I also ate at Le Cheri, brought some excellent Bordeaux ($20 corkage is reasonable, and so are their wine markups) and had a great meal.

                          1. re: george2
                            PhillyBestBYOB Feb 3, 2014 06:13 AM

                            Wow, that's pretty impressive. I guess being on TV, even being spun as the "bad guy", is good for business.

                            I thought Charlotte told me corkage at Le Cheri was $25?

                            1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                              PhillyBestBYOB Feb 3, 2014 02:27 PM

                              Brian Freedman is a well-known wine guy (he used to be director at the Philly Wine School), which might explain his evocative prose. That just struck me as I was reading a Parker review of a wine I bought:

                              "Pure blackberry and red raspberry in Desjourneys’s 2008 Moulin-a-Vent are garlanded in rose and violet, then mingled on a polished palate with roasted game pan scrapings and lobster shell reduction and tinged with iodine and iron filings, for a saliva-inducing and vibratory finishing impression."

                              I don't know what that means, but I can't wait to drink it.

                              1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                                amwf Feb 4, 2014 03:48 PM

                                Great point, with one correction. Brian Freedman is a great guy, but was never the director of the Wine School. He was a part-time instructor for a number of years under the guidance of the school's director.

                                1. re: amwf
                                  PhillyBestBYOB Feb 4, 2014 03:57 PM

                                  I don't know, never having been to the Wine School, but his online bio says he was "director of education at The Wine School of Philadelphia".


                                  1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                                    amwf Feb 4, 2014 04:50 PM

                                    Nah, this is the actual director: https://www.linkedin.com/in/keithswal...

                                    1. re: amwf
                                      PhillyBestBYOB Feb 4, 2014 07:20 PM

                                      I'll let you argue with Brian about it.

                                      1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                                        amwf Feb 5, 2014 01:41 PM

                                        Could only imagine arguing with him. Would be hilarious. So why hasn't someone with the moniker of PhillyBestBYOB not gone to wine school? Wouldn't that be the first thing you should do?

                                        1. re: amwf
                                          PhillyBestBYOB Feb 5, 2014 05:34 PM

                                          On the job training (I drink a lot).

                                          1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                                            Delucacheesemonger Feb 6, 2014 10:33 AM

                                            Tru dat

                3. s
                  sal_acid Jan 14, 2014 04:49 AM

                  Menu link doesn't work.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: sal_acid
                    cwdonald Jan 14, 2014 06:32 AM

                    If you have a pop up blocker it might not work. Try this direct link to the pdf.


                    1. re: cwdonald
                      sal_acid Jan 14, 2014 09:00 AM

                      Thx! Nice stuff.

                      1. re: cwdonald
                        sylviag Jan 14, 2014 12:41 PM

                        Thank you. Looks wonderful!
                        Is yalu the fish that Nan used to have on the menu?
                        I loved that fish. Not at all like mahi mahi.
                        I think they compared it to butterfish.

                        1. re: sylviag
                          cwdonald Jan 14, 2014 12:46 PM

                          Wikipedia entry on Waloo. Might change your opinion on it.


                          1. re: cwdonald
                            sylviag Jan 14, 2014 01:10 PM

                            oh my

                            1. re: sylviag
                              lawgirl3278 Jan 15, 2014 01:03 PM

                              I think they rotate the fish that they have on there. I know when I went they replaced the ocean trout with dourade, same preparation. Maybe for freshness and availability?

                              1. re: lawgirl3278
                                PhillyBestBYOB Jan 15, 2014 01:20 PM

                                According to the NY Times, it doesn't sound like much of an issue, as long as you don't eat a lot of it (and it's not actually toxic, it just has a laxative-like effect).


                                Not sure if I had it when we went to Laurel. I would definitely try it (but then I'm adventursome).

                                1. re: PhillyBestBYOB
                                  Delucacheesemonger Jan 15, 2014 02:20 PM

                                  When in Indonesia my fav sushi resto had butterfish, loved it, ate a lot, no leakage, lucky me, well lucky my companion.

                                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger
                                    JanR Jan 16, 2014 07:06 AM

                                    I've had it many times without a problem.

                    2. a
                      arepo Jan 13, 2014 09:09 PM

                      Amazing. There was not one thing on that entire menu that appealed to me. Not even the desserts.
                      I wonder if Philly is ready for this "ambitious" menu.
                      Of course this is strictly subjective and I am sure that there are many who will simply love everything.

                      14 Replies
                      1. re: arepo
                        Hungryin theBurbs Jan 14, 2014 04:29 AM

                        Interesting perspective. I'm surprised, as the menu does not look overly ambitious or unusual to me. To me, virtually everything on the menu looks like something I would be happy to eat, or at least interested in trying. I'm hoping to get there soon.

                        1. re: arepo
                          JanR Jan 14, 2014 08:30 AM

                          That was my impression too.

                          1. re: JanR
                            Bigley9 Jan 14, 2014 12:22 PM

                            I am with hungry and jan - looking forward to trying it!

                            1. re: Bigley9
                              JanR Jan 15, 2014 08:04 AM

                              I agreed with Arepo. I wasn't thrilled with the menu. But then, I'm not very adventurous.

                              1. re: JanR
                                Bigley9 Jan 15, 2014 11:27 AM

                                Ah, my bad, thought you were agreeing with hungry

                          2. re: arepo
                            Delucacheesemonger Jan 15, 2014 02:18 PM

                            While l 'recommended' your post l realize we are coming to that conclusion from different ends. lt is not that it is too ambitious, for me it is that it is nothing l would want to eat.
                            l understand l do not like precious or too many ingredients in a dish, but this menu has nothing that appeals to me, sort of voting against a candidate rather than supporting and liking a candidate, l would be picking the best of things l do not want.
                            Certainly Hungry in the Burbs and l are not going to be great dinner companions as he/she would be happy with the menu.

                            1. re: Delucacheesemonger
                              Hungryin theBurbs Jan 15, 2014 05:07 PM

                              Ok, now I'm curious. I just picked out a dish from each course that appealed to me: the scallop with apple; the gnocchi with pancetta, which looks very similar to a dish he made on Top Chef that was uniformly raved about the multiple chef/judges; and the pork with chestnuts and huckleberry/kale vinaigrette. What is it about those that doesn't appeal to you?

                              1. re: Hungryin theBurbs
                                arepo Jan 15, 2014 08:10 PM

                                Okay, I take it back (sort of).
                                I think the problem is the additions that turned me off.
                                I actually liked the idea of the scallops (torn? what is that?) with apple but frankly I am not a seaweed kinda kid and the idea of sea lettuce crinkles my nose.
                                The chicken sounded possible for me but I didn't bother to check my dictionary to find out that winter aliums were nothing more than onions.
                                I guess that's what I mean by an ambitious menu.
                                Like Jan, I am admittedly not very adventurous. That is my loss but at least in most places if they don't have anything that particularly appeals to me, at least there is always going to be the usual steak of some sort as a last resort for me to choose from.
                                I wish Nick the very best and hope his venue makes it big.
                                For me, I need to look at a menu and complain that my biggest problem is that there are so many delectable choices I can only choose but one.

                              2. re: Delucacheesemonger
                                Hungryin theBurbs Jan 15, 2014 05:16 PM

                                I wrote that before I read this review, which makes me even more interested in the gnocchi and the pork.


                                1. re: Hungryin theBurbs
                                  PhillyBestBYOB Jan 15, 2014 06:19 PM

                                  Did anyone watch Nick Elmi on Top Chef last week (latest episode is on at 10PM tonight)? The Twitterverse was all in a dither over whether he should have voluntarily resigned or not (he didn't).

                                  Philly certainly has more than it's fair share of controversial Top Chefs (Nick, Jason, Jenn, Kevin).

                                  1. re: Hungryin theBurbs
                                    Delucacheesemonger Jan 16, 2014 06:32 AM

                                    l am not implying at any level that l am right and others are wrong. Restaurants l go to are very, very menu centric to me.
                                    l love scallops, the other bunch of ingredients do not appeal to me with scallops.
                                    The other first courses again do not appeal to me, like a kid being forced to eat overcooked liver.
                                    Next course nothing, maybe the gnocchi but after Zeppoli's last week, how can they approach them.
                                    Next, not a flaky fish or US chicken guy and huckleberry-kale vinaigrette, that is the king of precious.
                                    l know it is just me but l am not entranced.
                                    To make my position worse have never seen Top Chef.

                                    1. re: Delucacheesemonger
                                      PhillyBestBYOB Jan 16, 2014 05:27 PM

                                      Nick almost had a meltdown over another contestant touching his pots last night on TopChef!

                                2. re: arepo
                                  Buckethead Jan 16, 2014 07:30 AM

                                  Before I went there I would have disagreed with you, the menu looked good to me, with interesting flavor combinations. But after having dinner there, most of those interesting combinations didn't quite work out for me. I think the menu is a little too ambitious, too focused on trying to make unusual ingredient combinations work.

                                  The best things I had there were the simplest: the pork dish and the mackerel dish were my favorites. The gnocchi was good too, but making delicious parisian gnocchi is frankly not that hard. The foie gras was interesting for one or two bites but the bitterness of the cocoa ended up overwhelming it.

                                  It's obvious that Nick can cook, the pork in the pork dish was some of the best-cooked pork I've ever had, but I think he needs to simplify things a little.

                                  1. re: arepo
                                    mkertello Feb 1, 2014 03:43 PM

                                    arepo - i would agree... the menu doesn't really excite the palette and sounds a bit too 'frou frou'. The diner has to trust in the chef in a case like this. I never had the pleasure of eating Chef Elmi's food, but the devotees from Rittenhouse Tavern rave. Worth trying, I'm sure.

                                  2. j
                                    jhpark Jan 11, 2014 06:32 AM

                                    I indulged in the 7-course tasting menu. Highlights included the mackerel and the gnocchi, and everything else was also very good. He does have a knack for combining both textures and flavors rather well.

                                    I personally found it pretty noisy, but it was around 10-11pm on a friday night and the place was still full.

                                    It's definitely on the list of places worth going back to

                                    1. l
                                      lawgirl3278 Nov 11, 2013 06:22 AM

                                      My husband and I ate there on Friday. It was fantastic. The decor is very soothing and it's not too noisy (the sound cushions on the ceiling and the comfy chairs help!). Service was very friendly and helpful. Here's what we had:

                                      First course
                                      Fluke crudo with asian pear and horseradish sauce - a surprisingly larger portion which 2 can definitely split. The sauce was creamy and complemented the fluke perfectly.

                                      Mache lettuce salad with honey buttermilk dressing - a light, fall salad; a good meal starter

                                      Second course
                                      Ricotta gnocchi with lardo and ricotta salata - this was the star of the night. Bowl of heavenly pillows of pasta with a nice crunch of lardo and croutons. My DH and I fought for the last bite!

                                      Third course
                                      Pork with chanterelles - I only had a couple of bites, but it was cooked perfectly

                                      Dourade with parsnips and burgundy snails - beautiful white, flaky fish with crispy skin. I'm not a big fan of snails, but if you like them, these weren't rubbery or chewy

                                      Fourth course
                                      White chocolate mousse with chocolate cookie crumbles - very nice, light ending to the meal

                                      I will definitely be back. I thought Chef Elmi had a knack for mixing textures, (like adding a bit a crunch to softer dishes) which I liked very much. All the flavors were well balanced.

                                      Chef Elmi was food running a bit throughout the night. I told him we were happy to have him in the neighborhood :)

                                      1. b
                                        Boognish Nov 9, 2013 06:46 AM

                                        hah, I knew you'd be the first report. Looking forward to hearing about it!

                                        And those chairs do look darn comfy.

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