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

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!

http://www.restaurantlaurel.com

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

    And those chairs do look darn comfy.

    1. 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. 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. 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

            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: JanR

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

                1. re: Bigley9

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

                  1. re: JanR

                    Ah, my bad, thought you were agreeing with hungry

              2. re: arepo

                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

                  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

                    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

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

                    http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/foo...

                    1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

                      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

                        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

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

                    2. re: arepo

                      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

                        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.

                        1. re: sal_acid

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

                          http://www.restaurantlaurel.com/pdf/M...

                            1. re: cwdonald

                              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

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

                                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escolar

                                  1. re: sylviag

                                    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

                                      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).

                                      http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/10/din...

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

                                      1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                                        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

                                          I've had it many times without a problem.

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

                            http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/foo...

                            "(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: Tommytd78

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

                                  1. re: Hungryin theBurbs

                                    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

                                      Ah, the critics calling the critic black.

                                        1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                                          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

                                            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

                                              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

                                                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

                                                  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".

                                                  http://brianfreedmanphiladelphia.com/...

                                                    1. re: amwf

                                                      I'll let you argue with Brian about it.

                                                      1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                                                        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?

                                2. 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."

                                  http://www.phillymag.com/articles/rev...

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

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

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

                                        http://www.philly.com/philly/food/

                                        6 Replies
                                        1. re: lawgirl3278

                                          CRAIG LABAN, INQUIRER RESTAURANT CRITIC
                                          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

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

                                            1. re: lawgirl3278

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

                                              1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

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

                                                1. re: PhillyBestBYOB

                                                  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.

                                        2. The four of us are a tough crowd to impress, but our seven course dinner at Laurel was excellent. We gravitate toward big red wines, and brought a special bottle, but came prepared with some excellent whites for the fish-centric evening. We particularly liked the scallop with apple, ricotta gnocchi and horseradish-sour cream granita. The perfectly seared rare beef filet at the home turn was worth the wait for our cabernet.

                                          The only miss was the cod, which was well prepared but, as a rather pedestrian fish, was out of it's class.

                                          My major disapointment was not being able to make reservations for another Saturday night meal right then and there. The computer won't allow it until later in the month.

                                          6 Replies
                                          1. re: george2

                                            Great review, I'm salivating!

                                            Any whites that you'd recommend, in particular, for Laurel? I'll be there in about two weeks and tend to go fish heavy.

                                            1. re: dndicicco

                                              Was there for a wine dinner about 6 weeks ago and we ate the entire menu.
                                              Whites that seemed to work the best were white burgundies, both Chablis Le Clos from 2005
                                              A Meursault of similar vintage was great also, believe it was a L Jadot
                                              Only american was a Kistler from 1999 that was superb as well.

                                                  1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                                                    We had a Meursault, which was the best match and a California chardonnay, which was good, but I'm not a fan of big oak. Indeed, a Chablis would probably be a great wine for Laurel.

                                              1. I just tried making a reservation for two for the first available Saturday night and they are now booking starting August. We have a week night reservation before then but wanted to try the tasting menu. Also Fridays could be a problem because hubby is travelling periodically and wouldn't get here in time.

                                                It seems like Laurel is the "toughest reservation" in town next to Talula's Table.

                                                1. Hubby and I had dinner at Laurel last night and everything was perfect. The reservation was made months in advance. We were there for the 7 course tasting menu which is heavily seafood focused. We brought 1/2 bottle Champagne, a bottle of a well aged White Burgundy (have to admit I was concerned about a 20 year old white wine but we did have a back-up) and a half bottle of a special Cabernet. We drank everything. The service was excellent - we were given the opportunity to specify some things we don't eat - for instance there was a lamb dish and for my hubby they substituted a pork dish. The stemware was very attractive and suited to the different wines. Silverware was changed with every course and in some cases we were given suggestions to use the large spoon rather than a fork for maximum enjoyment. Even though I am not generally a seafood lover, the presentations were beautiful and everything was eaten. Particular highlights included the scallop and the gnocchi. I did not find the noise to be a problem at all but we were there at 6 pm so maybe the noisier crowd comes later. While I knew it was tough to get a weekend reservation, I found I couldn't even get a weekday reservation for the first sitting on a Tuesday more than two months from now. On a waiting list. I guess the only disappointment, and it wasn't a biggie, was that Chef Nick wasn't there and the Sous Chef who was filling in did not come out from the kitchen to check how things were. I like when they do that in the smaller restaurants. It was a memorable evening.