When Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin finally sank beneath the waves of anti-fuss, anti-French dining fashion in 2012, many believed the end had come for haute cuisine in Philly. But Nicholas Elmi, the undeniable young talent who piloted Le Bec through its choppy final years (with challenges beyond his control), had other plans.
Elmi, in fact, has been on a single-minded mission to redefine what modern French-rooted American gastronomy can be. He scored a national PR boon by winning Top Chef. True to his intensely serious nature, he chose to go small instead of cashing in big on instant fame, and launched Laurel, a 22-seat BYOB, where he marbled foie gras with cocoa and rained horseradish-yuzu snow over tuna to instant adulation. Such a Philadelphia story, right?
But as Elmi strides with constant upgrades through his third year there, Laurel reflects the 21st-century allure of gastronomy on an intimate scale that may be possible only in the rent-friendly confines of South Philadelphia, at least at $96 for a seven-course tasting. It's an exceptional experience and has only improved since Laurel did away with à la carte and unleashed Elmi and crew to cook and feed guests whatever inspires them.
That impeccable experience elevated Laurel last year to the elite status of four bells. Diners will be most comfortable in the plush chairs of the minimalist, lantern-lighted room. As each exquisite plate flowed to our table, my two guests, both self-avowed tasting-menu haters, conceded they were under Elmi's spell. Beet-cured petals of hiramasa were origamied into the shape of a flower. Subtle quinoa porridge was sparked by sweet-corn nuggets over soft-shell crab custard. A coal-grilled scallop basked in smoky broth on a hand-glazed spiral bowl from North Philly's Felt + Fat ceramic atelier. Luxurious Wagyu beef got an umami depth charge of cured "beef salt" dusted over the top.
The young but impressively poised staff struck the ideal balance of formality and approachability and poured a smart $65 flight of drink pairings from a well-used new liquor license, which also fuels ITV, Elmi's sleek new bar next door — a modern gastropub worth visiting for the beef fat biscuits, inventive cocktails and caviar service alone. (Laurel remains BYOB-friendly.)
A Spanish Valveran "frost cider" was a lovely match for the shavings of frozen foie gras that dissolved off the spoon into foraged knotweed jam and hazelnut granola. Then there was a Chenin de Loire to sip with tender snails in green-onion puree tucked beneath an airy cloud of potato foam. A stunning white Thénard Givry was ideal to accompany the dreamy whole Dover sole stuffed with truffles that Elmi sliced and plated tableside — a highlight dish of recent years.
Can you blame me for splurging to summon even more truffles from Elmi's grater? They rained down like an earthy blessing atop some creamy Parisien gnocchi. They melted away but still linger in my imagination. The rise of haute cuisine, Laurel-style, has only just begun.