I didn’t order the albacore tuna, but here it was in front of me, the waitress just beginning her description of it when I cut her off to point out the mistake. She immediately apologized, began to lift it from the dark wood table—and promptly changed her mind. “Know what?” she said. “Keep it. It’s already on the table and it’s a great dish. I’ll make sure you get the right one, but you may as well enjoy this one, too.”
Turns out the mistake was one of the best things that could have happened. A parade of hefty chunks of oil-cured tuna, glistening atop a sweep of sour cream, yogurt and horseradish, proved one of the most profound tuna preparations I’ve had recently.
Ahi, of course, gets all the praise, its pink, jewel-like translucence as visually stunning as it is tasty, while albacore, with its grayer color palette and tin-can-stockpile associations, is too often brushed off as somehow inferior. This was a one-plate refutation of that: a textural tour de force of hearty albacore, snappy-sweet fried shallots and horseradish-sour cream granita dusted like snow on top to cut through and frame it all, the entirety sweetened up with a reduction of Asian pear.
It also was a perfect example of all that Chef Nicholas Elmi is doing so right here at Laurel, his nearly two-month-old BYOB in the former Fond space on East Passyunk Avenue. Indeed, from a tiny kitchen with barely enough room for three to ply their craft, Elmi seems to have taken stock of what went both right and wrong during his tenure at Rittenhouse Tavern, and transformed the experience into food that, already, is a stunning addition to an East Passyunk dining firmament as vibrantly exciting as it’s ever been.
For all the elegance and deep intelligence of Elmi’s cooking at the Tavern, I often felt that it was held back by a distracting sense of preciousness—delicacy, in some cases, when lust would have been more enjoyable. In a post-visit phone interview, he agreed: “They had an idea of what they wanted at the restaurant, and we kind of had to cook into that,” he said. “‘This is the square, stay inside of it.’” Eventually, he told me, “You feel like your food’s losing a little bit of its soul.”
That just doesn’t happen at Laurel, where Elmi’s cooking possesses soul to spare. Foie gras is bravely and brilliantly fixed up with cocoa in a silky-yet-hearty terrine, a hint of iconoclasm apparent from the first bite. It arrives with a side plate of crisp Metropolitan Bakery brioche slices, and when that terrine is spread atop, and anointed with a dab of blood orange and then crowned with a mathematically precise brunoise of candied celery root, that earthy, smoky, sweet-souled bite throws all your preconceived fois gras assumptions into question. Why has no one in Philly done exactly this before?
This 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.
Not everything succeeded as memorably. Grilled maitake mushrooms with roasted hazelnuts in a lemongrass-chicken broth, more or less riffing on a pho, lacked sufficient acid, an aggressive squeeze of lime perhaps, and fell victim to its own sense of restraint. Caramelized white chocolate pudding was also too muted: Excellent cocoa nib shortbread just wasn’t matched by either the pudding itself, the red wine mousse, or a red wine- quince puree.
But they were outliers in an otherwise exceptionally successful procession of dishes. Toothy seared ocean trout was joined by turnips and tossed with a perfect flurry of braised-then-dehydrated-then-fried black quinoa as crisp as corn nuts and easily as addictive: This is a fish that was just as at home with a red wine as a white; a trout, indeed, for the wintertime. Berkshire pork lavished in its triumvirate of treatments, and each one, from silky slices of belly to roasted loin to a crepinette of braised shoulder meat secreted inside a cocoon of crisped-up brioche enshrouded in caul fat, had me longing for it days later. Dragging one bite through the mashed chestnuts, dunking another into the shimmering huckleberry-kale vinaigrette, and leaving a third one unadorned became an in situ study in the range and vision of this kitchen.
Ricotta gnocchi piped in the Parisian style, however, may stay with me the longest: With a texture as light as homemade marshmallows, these knuckles were transporting foils for a bright, decadent sauce singing with garlic and crowned by snappy little bits of pancetta. In a city with no shortage of notable gnocchi, these rank among the very top tier.
Laurel as a whole, in fact, holds that promise. This stellar BYOB walks the tightrope between daring vision and impeccable technique with steadiness and confidence. And with just a few minor tweaks—a door that doesn’t slam when guests walk in, a lighter hand in the wine-pouring department—this will become a regional destination that exemplifies just what makes our city’s dining scene one of the finest in the nation. Already, Laurel is a delicious, transporting testament to the serious talent that Elmi possesses in such abundance. This is the restaurant, it seems, that he was meant to cook in all along.
1617 E. Passyunk Ave. 215.271.8299. restaurantlaurel.com
Cuisine: Ambitious, creative American highly influenced by Elmi’s French training.
Hours: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–10pm; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11pm.
Price range: $8-$29; tasting menus, 7 courses for $75.
Food: The best dishes are hauntingly good, both complex and comforting at once.
Service: Knowledgeable, helpful and exceptionally attentive.