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Inside Nicholas Elmi’s Laurel on East Passyunk

By Danya Henninger
November 4, 2013
Photo by: Danya Henninger

After stepping down as top toque at Rittenhouse Tavern last May, former Le Bec-Fin chef Nicholas Elmi’s life got even more interesting. First, there was a trip to New Orleans to film season 11 of Top Chef, which is currently airing on Bravo and on which he has been pegged as one of the favorites. (“Oooh my,” a recent fan told him in a straight-out-of-Fargo accent, “I just moved here from the Midwest, and I’ve been watching you on TV. You’re doin’ mighty well!”)

Then, when Elmi returned to Philadelphia, there was a search for a location to open his first venture as both owner and chef.

A serendipitous glass of wine with chef friend Lee Styer led to Elmi taking over the space that was formerly home to Fond (which has since moved up the block). Plans began to take shape in late summer, but Elmi wasn’t quite done with his traveling; “something” - the details of which we’re unlikely to learn until late in the Top Chef season - took him out of town for much of October.

He’s back now, and so on Tuesday, after expending more than a soupçon of elbow grease, he opens the doors to Laurel at 1617 East Passyunk. We stopped into the French-inspired BYO for a preview look at the dining room and the food.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The interior has been completely refitted with new tables, chairs, fixtures and a coat of cream-colored paint. Only 24 seats fill the space - around 10 less than Fond had - because Elmi was determined to remove the only part of Philly’s BYO dining scene he doesn’t love: a tight squeeze in the dining room.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    From applying the Scotchgard protecting the cushioned chairs to installing and staining the new frames that hold the front window, Elmi and his partner did all of the work themselves, learning as they went. “YouTube is awesome,” he says, “Watch an hour and a half of instructional videos, and you can learn anything.”

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The kitchen presented another challenge. “When I opened Rittenhouse Tavern, I could have any piece of equipment I wanted - it had the backing of this big corporation [NY-based Restaurant Associates],” Elmi says. “Here, I had to pick and choose, and then try to fit it all in.”

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Navigating the small space with him is sous chef Eddie Konrad, who left a post at NYC’s Del Posto to help open Laurel. The pair worked together at Le Bec-Fin and became culinary soulmates. “I honestly thought I’d be working my way from New York to the West Coast and then back again for the next several years,” Konrad tells us, “but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do this.”

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    “This” means assist in putting out a menu of Elmi’s best dishes, tuned to the season. “My training is all in French cooking,” says the chef, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in Paris before helming Le Bec-Fin under the tutelage of Georges Perrier, “but Laurel is not a French restaurant. French-inspired, yes. Haute cuisine, no. This is much more relaxed.”

    Pictured: Elmi sauces a dish of seared Berkshire pork shoulder and belly, plated with grilled cippolini onions, roasted chanterelles and crushed acorn squash ($24).

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    The menu is divided into four courses - the first three savory and the fourth sweet - and if you followed the recommendation to order one from each, your check would come in below $60. “Nothing over $30,” Elmi says. Smaller plates, like the ricotta gnocchi with lardo and sorrel (from the backyard garden) shown above, average around $13.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    To start, Elmi is leaning on his repertoire, and the menu is a collection of his top creations from Le Bec and Rittenhouse Tavern with slight tweaks and improvements. Plated in modern style, each dish is full of textural contrast and deep flavor. Spanish mackerel is cut into lightly-grilled cubes of silky meat that carry no fishiness but get the appropriate dose of oceanic flavor from a topping of seaweed and a pungent ponzu sauce below.

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Everything is sourced from the local producers, farmers and purveyors Elmi has cultivated relationships with in the past dozen years. “One of the reasons I wanted to open my own place was so I could take advantage of these relationships and use all their incredible, high-quality ingredients. That’s where good food starts,” he says.

    Pictured: Grilled maitake mushrooms with roasted hazelnut and lime pickle, awaiting pho-style chicken broth to be poured tableside ($11).

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Expect the menu to evolve as Laurel finds its footing. “I’m going to do tasting menus, eventually move to maybe tasting menu only on Friday and Saturday nights,” Elmi says. “However, I want this to be a place where South Philly diners come once or twice a month, at least. That’s what we’ll rely on. Not high-end tastings. This is for the neighborhood.”

    Pictured: Nantucket Bay scallops with Jonagold apples, sea lettuce, razor clams, celery and pea tendrils ($13).

  • Photo by: Danya Henninger

    Overseeing the front of the house is general manager Alice Tran, who worked with Elmi at Rittenhouse Tavern. Laurel will serve dinner 5:30-10 PM Tuesday-Thursday and 5:30-11 PM, Friday-Saturday. Only a few reservations for opening week remain.

    1617 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-271-8299

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