The ideas of restaurants and romance revolve around each other like two dancers on a ballroom floor. There are few locations more conducive to consummating a couple’s conjoining than a quiet corner of a carefully chosen room. When the eating is exquisite, the event is all the more exciting. Though I was not there in a romantic situation, many other diners appeared to be. A superlative spot for the serious diner, Chef Nicholas Elmi’s Laurel in Philadelphia is the ideal location for a sensuous tête-à-tête with a loved one or one who would be loved, particularly if the two happen to love great cooking.
For those who care for such things, Chef Elmi is the most recent winner of Top Chef. While the show is chock full of theater, it also has been a hotbed of culinary talent with previous winners achieving prominence and a panoply of potential projects. A chef of Elmi’s abilities, personality and vision, no doubt has been presented with many possible opportunities to cash in on his reputation, but for the time being he appears content to stand behind the stove of his small, intimate and stunningly romantic restaurant on East Passyunk in Philadelphia. For him, this wonderful BYOB with a cozy neighborhood feel and world-class food is a labor of love and it shows.
No class of restaurants connote romance more than French, especially those restaurants with a classic bent. Make no mistake, Laurel, the offspring of the Massachusetts born Elmi, is very much a restaurant in the French tradition. That isn’t a surprise when you consider that he worked for the likes of Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy and, of course, George Perrier at the legendary Le Bec-Fin, where Elmi became the Executive Chef. As will become evident shortly (if I do my job well), Chef Elmi is comfortable with classic French cuisine and quite adept. Laurel would be an excellent restaurant if he simply rested on it, but, what makes it one of this country’s best is that he does not settle. While respecting French traditions and using them wisely and well, he does not kowtow; instead he adds his own fresh perspective and contemporary vision to create something unique and very, very special.
Elmi’s clothless table approach is more akin to the neo-bistros of Paris than it is to the Michelin-trumpeting salons of Old World grandeur, but like the best Parisian neo-bistros, the outstanding food, casual ambiance and overall affordability greatly entice. Owing to Pennsylvania’s somewhat arcane alcohol policies, Laurel is a BYOB, as are many other restaurants in the burg. While this does little to directly enhance the restaurant’s bottom-line, nor present the diner with new and unusual finds or pairings, it is a boon to those able to bring their own worthy wines, making the evening even more affordable beyond the already reasonable prices. Dining with my great friend, Joe Bavuso, we each brought a bottle for the evening. We started with his lovely bottle of Extra Brut Reserve Champagne from grower/producer Bereche et fils. When dining at a BYO, especially one new to me, I try to bring wines that can cover a lot of turf and work with a number of different food preparations. Champagne certainly fits that bill and this one from a small-grower producer in Montaigne de Reims, was lovely and worked very well through the first half of our dinner.
Our meal started with exquisite bread and in-house brown butter, a elaboration on the standard approach. I limited myself to but a single piece, though I desired more.
The main parade of cuisine commenced shortly after. More Japanese than French, the first course was refreshing and wonderful. Kombu-cured fluke with yuzu, yuzu zest, finger lime, white radish and candied Buddha’s hand displayed brilliant balance and crisp flavors that vied for a spot on my favorite dishes of 2014. It was a dish right in my wheelhouse. The fish was pristine, the yuzu a favorite flavor while the radish supplied crunch and the glorious fingerlime (a most underused ingredient in my book) provided pop. The bar for the rest of the meal was set and it was set high. This dish was elegant, precise and absolutely delicious.
Horseradish and fish are not words one often sees in the same sentence when it comes to fine dining largely because the powerful burn of horseradish easily overpowers most fish. Not in Chef Elmi’s hands. Our second course was another powerful dish, but not because of the horseradish. Elmi used liquid nitrogen to tone down the heat of the root. He then paired it with lightly smoked arctic char, a fish assertive enough to find balance with the flavor of the root. Sour cream also tempered the surliness of the spice, while crispy shallots added a bit of savory texture to the dish which Chef Elmi rounded it out using green apple and pine needles. It could easily have been overwrought, but the balanced result was sheer brilliance.
I had had a taste of Elmi’s ability with terrines a month or so before this dinner at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress, where Chef Elmi led a workshop on terrine making. They were great then and even better in situ. His fois gras torchon with bitter chocolate is both beautiful and delicious.
So too was the quail and foie gras pavé. It was with these dishes, which came together for us to share, that we first fully felt the French influence on Elmi’s food. The previous dishes may have incorporated the finesse of the French kitchen, but it wasn’t until the foie that the French flavor flowered. The pavé was paired with endive jam, gooseberry and saffron gelée and pearls of “black” vinegar. The terrines were food for adults. Many terrines, especially those with foie gras, are served with sweet components, often to a fault. Not so for Laurel. While both had touches of sweetness, they were present for balance and were countered by well placed bitter components that emphasized the savory nature of the preparations. These terrines are masterful.
While contemporary and his own, Elmi’s terrines were ultimately classic French in their construction and presentation. Our first real taste of Elmi’s approach to modernizing and making his own of the classical canon of French cuisine was his take on cassoulet. Visually unlike any cassoulet I had ever seen, his was as delicious as the best classic versions I’ve ever had, but even more refined and elegant. Here, Elmi used modernist techniques to enhance an already wonderful dish. The enhancements were manifest more in texture and presentation than in flavor, after all, how can the flavor of such a classic truly be improved? The white beans were in the form of an espuma. This was covered in onion ash and centered with a quail egg. Duck confit and crispy chicken skin lay underneath awaiting delightful discovery. The real brilliance was the fact that the dish conveyed all of the wonderful aspects of cassoulet – richness, comfort and deliciousness, while somehow managing to remain light and not overpowering. Had I not arbitrarily set a limit of no more than one dish from a restaurant on my favorite dishes of the year list, I could have made a case for including this one too.
French food is known for its luxuriousness and nothing suggests luxury more than freshly shaved white truffles. The same holds true for Italian cooking, especially the cooking of Piemonte, where Alba truffle is king. Chef Elmi showered Alba truffles on top of his ethereal ricotta gnocchi. This is the way I most enjoy truffles – showered luxuriously on one appropriate dish. Here, we were able to fully appreciate their subtlety and majesty. I have had truffle tasting menus and yes, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, as the repetition dulls the senses and appreciation of these wonderful fungi. At that point they become a matter of ostentation rather than pleasure. These were pure pleasure, but as wonderful as the truffle component of the dish was, the real stars remained the relatively humble gnocchi, which were a textural tour-de-force.
The next course, the sea bream, was a lovely, delicious dish, nothing more and nothing less. If that sounds like faint praise, it is not. It was marvelous, but unlike some of the other dishes, it lacked the clear lineage of association. That is not a criticism. What it shows is Elmi’s comfort working in a purely contemporary idiom as much as he has reworking those classic dishes.
The entire meal at Laurel was a standout, but if there was one dish that defined the meal and Chef Nicholas Elmi’s talent and skill, it was his Squab “en Vessie,” his interpretation of a true French classic – Poulet de Bresse en Vessie. That dish takes a whole Bresse chicken (the Rolls-Royce of chickens), and often with a variety of accompaniments including truffles, etc., cooks it within a tied off, liquid impermeable pig’s bladder (see the photo at the top of the post). Considered by some to be the original “sous vide” technique, the result is moist and full of flavor. Elmi used squab instead of chicken and his result was nothing short of other-worldly. Squab is a personal favorite and this dish re-set the bar for me for the bird with deep flavor, perfect doneness, and its juicy, satiny texture. His treatment of the rest of the plate was original and inspired as well, utilizing chestnuts, fennel flower, parsnips and then, as if the squab wasn’t sufficient, duck as a stuffing for the pigeon’s leg. This dish was simultaneously luxurious, comforting, mind-blowing, delicious and totally satisfying. Wow.
Joe’s Champagne had worked wonderfully for the first part of the meal. For the latter part, my 2001 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir fit the bill rather nicely, once again illustrating the beauty of a BYOB restaurant for the diner. To have the wines that we did at typical restaurant prices would have set us back considerably. Typically at a restaurant like Laurel, I would search the list for something interesting, but modest and affordable. That would often result in a good wine that I had never had before, which is fun, especially if the list and the sommelier are good and reasonable. Still, to be able to bring a wine that at restaurant prices would typically be unreachable, is great fun in its own right.
The savories done, we had just one dessert. It was a good one and I liked not being bombarded with a parade of sweets. As it was, it was a nice way to bring this extraordinary meal to a close without burying us.
We, along with a young couple visiting from Australia, were the last patrons in the restaurant. Chef Elmi gifted each of us a glass of restaurant made Green Meadow Farms red currant Eau-de-vie. It was a perfect way to end a truly remarkable and wonderful meal. Laurel is a rare kind of restaurant, equally comfortable as a neighborhood joint and as a true destination restaurant worth a trip to Philadelphia from afar just for itself. It is also equally comfortable for lovers and lovers of food. It is a restaurant that emanates love and its clear that Chef Nicholas Elmi and his staff love what they do. It couldn’t show that love any more clearly.