Chef Jennifer Carroll was a bundle of sassy energy on Top Chef and its assorted spinoffs. But you should see her now, as she and her fiance, Billy Riddle, count down to the July 12 opening of Spice Finch, their Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bistro in the space at the Warwick Hotel (220 S. 17th St.) previously occupied by Tavern 17.
Calm. Chill. Happy. Even amid the predictable early jitters of her first solo restaurant.
"I value my relationships and my way of life a lot more now," Carroll said. "I don't take everything as seriously, and that definitely makes me calmer. I choose to be happy and positive instead of worrying about the small things. I learned this by dealing with my mother [Joan] being sick for years. I'm trying to enjoy my life and the good times."
Spice Finch marks a homecoming for Carroll, whose last Philadelphia opening was a decade ago at chef Eric Ripert's 10 Arts, then at the Ritz-Carlton. She left in October 2011. Riddle worked locally at Ela and Townsend. After leaving Philadelphia, both worked for such chefs as Mike Isabella and Marcus Samuelsson, all the while plotting a solo restaurant for which deals came and went.
Spice Finch is set up with a relaxed air — a light color palette with brushed-brass accents, light woods, wicker, and cool hexagon mosaic tile floor. Colors pop everywhere, especially in the dishes themselves. At 23 seats, the granite-topped Art Deco-inspired bar is sizable but smaller than Tavern 17's. The restaurant has 168 seats plus 16 outdoors.
One important feature is the sound, which is adjustable throughout the restaurant. "It's important for people to hear their conversations," Carroll said. "We know it will be vibrant, but we have soundproofing [built into the ceiling] and various textures to absorb noise." The design includes an extensive, dividable private dining room with AV equipment.
Carroll describes the menu as "vegetable-forward. It speaks to the way Billy and I eat."
The menu includes charred carrot hummus; stuffed grape leaves; and a tortilla with baked egg and potato manchego, and harissa aioli as starters; grain, seafood, and meat dishes such as broccoli tabbouleh, lamb ribs, and merguez kebab; and larger shared plates such as shakshuka, salt-baked eggplant, and dry-rubbed whole chicken. Most dishes are $6 to $16, with the shared plates from $22 to $36.
Expect a high use of herbs and spices — but not necessarily spiciness. One of Carroll's favorite dishes is the date truffles with pomegranate, cashew streusel, and torn herbs. "Billy and I have been doing this bite for our catering company," Carroll said. "I love seeing the surprise on people's faces when they try it. It makes people happy in one bite — it hits every taste bud: sweet, tart, salty, crunchy, and then you get the freshness from lime zest and herb."
"We designed the menu to be not intimidating," Carroll said. "My dad can read this menu and understand every word." Plenty of gluten-free and vegetarian/vegan options, too.
Though Carroll had expected to open her own restaurant several years ago (remember Concrete Blonde, for which Bravo cameras followed her around Lower Manhattan?), she said she was glad that she had waited for this deal. And not only for the financial side.
"My plans have definitely changed," said Carroll, 43, a Northeast Philadelphia-raised graduate of Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown.
"Back in the day, I would have gone for a formal, curated tasting menu. That is not what I am anymore. It's not the way I want to eat. I want to go in and get a whole bunch of dishes and be relaxed, whether I'm in jeans and T-shirt or I'm dressed up on the weekend."
She and Riddle, 32, have been together for almost six years and engaged for 2½ years, putting off an actual marriage because of work. But, she said, "we're always at weddings" — via their D.C.-based Carroll Couture Cuisine, which they will continue to operate.
Michael Haggerty has set up an extensive beverage menu including classic cocktails, two frozen cocktails (a corpse reviver and a paper plane), 11 beers on tap, and two nonalcoholic mocktails.
Spice Finch will start with dinner nightly, adding lunch, brunch and breakfast.