Local chef gets famous on Top Chef. Local chef leaves town to chase national career of TV chef sequel gigs and shop around, like, forever, for the signature restaurant. Local chef lands high-profile spot in Washington power orbit, and, because I'm a cynic, I expect that's the last Philly will ever see of the pride of Somerton.
But Jennifer Carroll has proved me wrong with her spirited homecoming at Spice Finch, a beautiful blond-wood space near Rittenhouse Square perfumed with aromatic Mediterranean small plates that — from the vibrant green broccoli tabbouleh to earthy lamb ribs crusted in spice — taste like they've arrived here for all the right reasons: The opportunity to work with her fiance and talented co-chef, Billy Riddle. The chance to redefine her culinary identity with bold-flavored, vegetable-forward cooking. And the reaffirmation that Philly, with its affordable rents and sophisticated yet down-to-earth clientele, is still a satisfying, accessible place for independent restaurateurs to create something new for themselves.
The Mediterranean focus may be a pleasant surprise for those who knew only Carroll's restrained French bistro cooking at 10 Arts in the Ritz-Carlton, where Eric Ripert chose Carroll from his Le Bernardin kitchen to run the show. But much has transpired in the six years since she left. And Riddle, an alum of Lacroix, Ela, and Townsend, honed his Mediterranean chops on the Greek cuisine at Kapnos Taverna in Arlington, Va., which coincided nicely with a shift in their personal tastes.
That's why perfect grape leaves arrive at Spice Finch stuffed not with the usual mushy rice, but with toothy farro that adds more texture. They're topped with the sweet-and-spicy surprise of chili-poached apricots and served with a tangy side swipe of yogurt sauced bright with house-preserved lemons.
"This is what we eat at home. It's all about our new, healthier lifestyle," Carroll says. "Food is medicine," echoes Riddle.
That means lots of whole grains, a colorful bounty of seasonal produce, and the exotic flavor infusions of spices, oils, and house-fermented harissa, which elevate everything from french fries tossed in Shabazi butter (OK, not so healthy) to Berbère-spiced carrots with crumbled cashew dukkah and a citrus vinaigrette lit by orange-blossom water and chermoula oil.
Some of the flavors here may feel vaguely familiar to Zahav fans. There's a natural regional overlap as well as the fact that both use copious amounts of Philly-based Soom tahini and the evocative spice blends from New York's La Boîte (Shabazi, Izak, and Moussa, among others), though Carroll is quick to note she connected with La Boîte years ago while at Le Bernardin.
But Carroll and Riddle bring their own new-world perspective to this broad and pleasantly affordable menu of small plates and large-format platters intended for sharing. There's not a chickpea to be found in the "hummus," for example, but a silky puree of charred carrots thickened with mashed northern beans that, boosted with a little fenugreek, cardamom, and ginger, makes a subtly spiced, irresistible dip for a pretty crudité of seasonal radishes and beans. No matter what you call it, it's good. And Spice Finch's broccoli riff on tabbouleh is also a revelation of textures and color, a bright-green crunch of shredded raw brassica layered with quinoa and a blast of herbs scented with cumin and cracked coriander.
There's much more to explore in this broad menu of appealing small plates priced at $16 or less, as well as a handful larger platters — like the enormous lamb shank for $36 braised in dates with harissa water — that make a satisfying centerpiece for sharing.
These plates add welcome depth to our range of sophisticated Mediterranean options (which also includes Suraya in Fishtown). But Spice Finch's virtues ultimately are less about pure novelty than a well-rounded package of food, ambience, and drink. In particular, it has also brought something needed and different to Rittenhouse Square, transforming a long-irrelevant (but surprisingly spacious) hotel restaurant in the Warwick into a very un-hotel-like series of airy, modern rooms where large groups can gather around a lazy Susan laden with merguez clams, samosa lamb pies, and spice-roasted cauliflower with vegan cashew nut butter — and actually both see their food and hear one another talk.
Carroll wants her hearing-challenged family from Northeast Philly to be able to chat. And there's effective soundproofing behind the stylishly louvered blond-wood accents throughout the 150-plus-seat space. The quietest zones are behind the glass-partitioned rear dining rooms, where tables with cushy captain's chairs frame the open kitchen. The livelier front portion of the restaurant, meanwhile, rightfully buzzes around one of the best new cocktail bars in town. Beverage director Michael Haggerty's crew can mix a well-crafted classic (a spot-on Green Point) or have creative fun. Maligned spirits like Midori get rehabbed in his "Redemption" series, and cocktails as serious as the Corpse Reviver #2 take a carnival turn in the slushie machine, with a tiny bottle of super-bitter Underberg cleverly fastened to the rim so one can still dose it with intensely herbal amaro. The "Rest in Pete's" is both on theme and geographically correct — a turmeric, saffron, sumac-dusted sparkler that nods a wink of nouveau Med glamour toward the memory of Little Pete's across the street.
Spice Finch's friendly service staff is more than capable of walking diners through all the details, including a well-chosen wine and beer list. But it also needs to know when to stifle itself. Every lifting of a fork at our table, it seemed, was interrupted by a status check — "How are your first bites?" "What are your favorites?"; "How did you hear about us?"; "Let me tell you about the time I ate here off hours!" — so much so that the staff came off as needy.
If I had half-bell demerits (I don't), I might have used one here, even if this problem has an easy fix. But there's no need to fish for compliments when a restaurant is doing so many things right. Spice Finch strikes a fine balance for an audience with potentially diverse demands of a restaurant: a quick drink and casual bar snack of blistered shishito peppers; or an all-in feast built around a whole fish roasted with chermoula oil and ramp vinaigrette.
In general, the small plates were more compelling than the larger dishes (the dry-rubbed chicken was fine but no more; the salt-baked eggplant was too mushy). And though this menu is a vegan-friendly bonanza, there also are worthy indulgences for cheese lovers (oozy Mahon croquettes; the baked cheese shredded phyllo), and omnivores, too. The big head-on peri-peri shrimp are a beautiful, harissa-splashed homage to a coveted dish from now-closed Koo Zee Doo.
The lamb ribs, rubbed with Moroccan spice and low-cooked for 12 hours before a final crisp beneath a chermoula sauce with radishes and apples, are the meatiest, most tender, and deeply flavored lamb ribs I've eaten. Add a side of warm grain salad studded with the surprise of hominy, and a fragrant tagine of local beans and mushrooms, and you've got a satisfying meal.
Of course, there has to be dessert — Carroll admits it's an obsession. And the small selection here is deftly on theme, from the Turkish-style burnt cream, a cool panna cotta-like pudding with seasonal fruits that's roasted on top like a marshmallow, to a shredded wheat variation of baklava stuffed with cashews and walnuts soaked in anise lemon syrup.
My favorite, though, is a nod to Carroll's childhood raids of peanut butter Kandy Kakes from her grandmom's Northeast Philly freezer: a riff on chocolate-peanut butter cake where tahini is used instead, both in the sesame-flavored icing and to enrich the texture of the fudgy cake. It sits beside a scoop of Capogiro's orange sorbet and is the ultimate coming-home dessert for a hometown chef — essentially still down-to-earth, but with a worldly accent to signal a journey with unexpected turns. And the best part of that narrative, aside from finding love, returning to her roots, and launching the restaurant of her dreams, is that Jennifer Carroll gets to eat her cake, too.
220 S. 17th St, Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Parking: Valet parking at hotel $15 with validation from restaurant.
Handicap access: Wheelchair accessible.
Cuisine type: Mediterranean; Middle Eastern
Style: It's a stylish Mediterranean homecoming for Philly's Jennifer Carroll, who's returned from the land of Top Chef celebrity and years in D.C. with fiancé Billy Riddle (ex-Lacroix, Townsend). Together they've created an airy, spacious and appealing restaurant with a veg-forward menu that occupies an aromatic niche somewhere between Zahav and Suraya. The small plates are well-executed for sharing, and the restaurant as a whole rises on knowledgeable (though sometimes needy) service, a fun cocktail list and a handsome space that brings both accessibility for big groups and some rare comforts (reasonable sound levels, decent lighting) that should become an asset for Rittenhouse Square.
Specialties: Grape leaves; charred carrot hummus; fattoush; Berbere carrots; roasted cauliflower; garlic yogurt; Shabazi fries; baked cheese; Mahon croquettes; tortilla; broccoli tabbouleh; warm grain salad; bean tagine; peri-peri shrimp; little neck clams and merguez; samosa; lamb ribs; date-braised lamb shank; whole roasted fish; chocolate-tahini cake; burnt cream.
Alcohol: There are food-friendly wines from Europe, from gruner to cab franc and Alicante nero, as well as quality craft beers plus thoughtful non-alcoholic options with kombucha and cold-brew on draft. But the energetic cocktail program is Spice Finch's prime liquid asset, with creative takes to reclaim maligned spirits (the Redemption series), classic drinks turned whimsically frozen in a slushie machine (Corpse Reviver #2) and several signature cocktails that, with notes of turmeric, anisette and pomegranate, align nicely with the restaurant's theme.
Weekend noise: What?! A new restaurant with a reasonable sound level? Spice Finch delivers a manageable 78-decibel vibe without deadening the room's lively vibe. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
Hours: Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 pm. Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m.
Payment notes: All major cards.