Chef Jason Cichonski is both creative and precise.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Philadelphia chef with as wide a range of references at his disposal as Jason Cichonski. By turns, he channels the creativity of the greats of Europe—Ferran Adria, Rene Redzeki—and the precision of French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. And yet his cooking never comes off as forced or devotional. Instead, it’s a natural expression of his range of experiences and hyper-creative mind processing the entirety of our contemporary restaurant world into something unique and personal.
That said, the best dishes at Cichonski’s Ela are generally the most seemingly classic ones, where modern touches were couched in a context of necessity. The skate arrived curled up like some sort of loose nautilus shell, its butter-browned flank a visual reference to the addictive whole-grain mustard crisps off to the side. Pureed sunchoke added further nuttiness to main components that alone would have been a pleasant and earth-toned composition. But like the best chefs, Cichonski often adds a final twist. Here it’s a vivid tangle of vinegary cabbage braised with mulling spices. This was the spark that ignited the other flavors on the plate. Nothing fancy, nothing precious: just cabbage, treated with respect and wit. Gorgeous.
A massive portion of thick, subtly gamy duck magret, the center glistening like a ruby, found its counterpart in a silky puree of smoked butternut squash. Alongside the ingenious scatter of pretzel spaetzle, it embodied the flavors of winter—a hearty, comforting plate that will remind me why I love cold-weather food when I finally start to miss it again in June.
Tender, sweet veal hip managed a similar feat with its flavor spectrum of underappreciated parsley root and the soulful scent of pumpernickel risotto. Foie gras—marinated in sherry vinegar and root beer overnight—is served as a whisper-light mousse, the sweetness and crunch provided by black-sesame biscotti, the bite by charred radicchio, pomegranate and mint salad.
Cichonski’s banh cam—the beloved glutinous rice and mung bean spheres of Vietnam—are made his own with the addition of truffle and rosemary for aromatics, white beans instead of mung, and mashed potato flakes for texture. The result is reminiscent of an oversized, gnocchi-like orb encased in a lace-thin carapace, a fresh, successfully idiosyncratic homage. It’s a dish that shows a sense of maturity far beyond Cichonski’s years.
But not everything was seamless. With certain dishes, it seemed chef used clever techniques that did not produce the payoff he’d hoped for. Diver scallop “noodles” were clever and fun, but I’m not convinced I enjoyed them any more than I would have a classically seared one. The flavor maintained its integrity, and the texture was indeed a surprise, but the dish as a whole left me wanting. Gouda sauce with the gnocchi failed to counterbalance the almost overwhelming sweetness of the dates and the caramel, which was a shame: The first two bites were revelatory. After that, it grew too sweet.
But those quibbles are matters of personal taste. Either way, they spring from a deeply creative mind that’s willing to take risks. Greatness rarely manifests itself otherwise. And this is a kitchen that’s capable of sending out remarkable food no matter how simple it may seem. A bright puff of shaved kale salad, with its smoky bacon and charred onions, was an unexpected highlight of a recent meal at Ela. Salmon carpaccio was given the space to show its inherent personality without too much make-up; the remarkably subtle cardamom-scented sauce framed it perfectly, but didn’t steal the spotlight. Red-wine-poached strawberries with petite shortbread rounds, ginger and white chocolate reframed strawberry shortcake into something wholly new and spectacularly delicious.
This ambitious restaurant in the former Ansill space in Queen Village is well on its way to becoming one of the city’s most interesting, rewarding destinations. With a bit of fine-tuning—and a wine list edited to better serve this remarkable food—this will be yet another jewel in Philadelphia’s crown. Get in while you can. I have a feeling, in another few months, once the national press “discovers” it, landing a table will be a justifiably difficult endeavor.
627 S. Third St. 267.687.8512.
Cuisine: Modern, creative American.
Hours: Sun., Tues.-Thurs., 5:30-10pm (bar open until midnight); Fri.-Sat.. 5:30-11pm (bar open until 2am).
Price range: $7-$25.
Atmosphere: Sexy, sophisticated and casual.
Food: Smart and creative.
Service: Friendly and well-informed, and dealing admirably with the crowds.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014