Thanks to chef and owner Nick Elmi’sTop Chef win, Laurel has fast become Philly’s toughest table.
Nick Elmi, winner of Top Chef season 11, plates a foiegras and cocoa terrine dish with candied celery root and cherry at his new restaurant, Laurel.
Nick Elmi seems happy. A young couple is offering effusive praise for the seven-course feast they’ve just finished. Others chat contentedly, surrounded by the warm, cream-colored walls of his dining room. It’s a Tuesday at Laurel, Elmi’s East Passyunk Avenue BYOB, and he bounces back and forth between his kitchen and the 22-seat service. The skilled chef and attentive host fields many more compliments before dinner is complete. He might actually be starting to get used to this.
Just a few months ago, anyone who watched Elmi on Top Chef saw he was a technique-focused, tightly wound tradition-defier; he was the French chef from humble Massachusetts roots who was moved to tears over a pasta dish and wearing his stress on his furrowed brow. But Elmi has plenty of reasons to be pleased of late: The Philly toque is the latest winner of the hit Bravo reality cooking series and Laurel, his first turn as owner, has maintained a three-month wait list (and growing) for reservations since January. Fame might have helped fuel the opening buzz last November, but it’s sheer talent, honed at now shuttered dining institutions like Le Bec-Fin and New York City’s Lutèce, that has garnered glowing reviews from the city’s most discerning palates for his French-inspired plates.
To satiate the persistent demand for those prized 44 seats per night—there are two seatings at 6 and 8 p.m.—Elmi flirted with a 10 pm seating on Fridays and Saturdays and he’s still considering opening another day each week, but for now, Laurel will remain closed on Sundays and Mondays. Talk of an expansion was just a rumor—plans to take over an adjacent storefront were quickly dashed. It seems like everyone has ideas about how to get bigger. But for Elmi, this is exactly how he envisioned things unfolding. “I like talking to everyone,” he says. “As a first-time business owner, I wanted to touch on everything and talk with every table that comes in. I wanted to make it as intimate as possible from the very beginning.”
Wild striped bass with sunflower, artichoke, grape, and cauliflower.
Of course nothing sparks a sense of familiarity quite like a turn on reality TV, and over time Elmi has found that his small restaurant serves another important purpose: “The good thing about the dining room is that ‘super fans’ are forced to use some form of discretion,” he explains. “I come off of TV and some people think we are best buds.”
Of late, things have quieted down, and the requests for photos with the “Top Chef” have begun to abate. On this night, the only camera flashes going off are from guests snapping a few keepsake photos of their favorite dishes.
Despite being comfortably settled in, Elmi is far from resting on his laurels, as the saying goes. He is expanding the diminutive kitchen so there is a “little more space,” and Laurel’s back patio is now home to a chef’s table complete with heat lamps and a fire pit. The menu will evolve with the seasons—mostly fish and vegetables to reflect what’s available—and thus inform Elmi’s seven-course tasting menu available nightly with à la carte offered on Tuesdays through Thursdays. Elmi says around half of his guests on those nights elect for the full menu.
There are already staples among the offerings, like the foiegras and cocoa terrine that’s been available since day one. And the silky ricotta gnocchi with pancetta, a dish he makes at home for his young daughter that brought on the tears (and snagged a win) during one of Top Chef ’s many challenges, is one of Laurel’s signature bites. The torn New Jersey scallop with green apple, sea lettuce, and yuzu is a not-to-be-missed first course, as is the brightly colored albacore tuna studded with frozen horseradish and accompanied by shallots, pear, and yogurt. Entrée courses offer heartier flavors like roasted walu with sunchokes and Berkshire pork finished with asparagus and hickory nut pesto.
Back in the dining room, two women congratulate Elmi on his Top Chef win when he serves dessert. He asks how their dinner was before retreating to the kitchen, a smile still on his face. “I’m back to real life,” says Elmi. “And real life is better than ever.” 1617 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-271-8299