When Nicholas Elmi acquired a liquor license and the keys to the space right next door to Laurel, most people assumed his jewel box of a BYOB would simply double in size and evolve into a traditional full-service restaurant.
For both the chef and those who reserve months in advance for a tasting-menu seat at one of the finest dining experiences in town, that seemed, at least in spring 2015, to be the logical move.
But Elmi isn't logical like most, especially when it comes to the notion that bigger is always better. And though Laurel did soon take advantage of the new liquor license with beautiful wine pairings for its seven-course menu (while still remaining BYO-friendly), the concept next door began to morph. As progress got delayed by zoning and other issues, Elmi realized part of Laurel's magic was its intimacy: "I like having my 22 seats and my tiny little kitchen. . . . And I didn't want to mess with it."
So the new space now called ITV, which shares the liquor license, became more intriguing as another creative outlet to serve his audience in a more casual and spontaneous setting, with ever-changing small plates, 17 wines by the glass, smart cocktails, and most of the 27 seats open for walk-ins.
It's reassuring to know I can sidle up to the marble bar on a whim for a fix of crunchy stroopwafel cookies around chicken liver mousse and jammy plum agrodolce. Or a pile of airy pork skins still snap-crackling from the heat beside a sour cream dip dusted with the tangy green powder of fermented wild onions. A sugar-dusted pile of delicately crunchy "chouquette" cream puffs stuffed with intensely fruity Concord grape jelly makes for a stellar dessert. But I could have just stopped after a bowl of Elmi's famous melt-away ricotta gnocchi, which came glossed in a buttery pink sauce infused with lobster and herbs.
It's a good thing when our most talented chefs can expand their reach to a wider audience in accessible ways without dumbing down the food, which here comes in small plates at $15 or less, plus a few heartier dishes around $22. And this sleek space, fitted with warm walnut, mod tube lights, and gray shiplap planks striping the wall back to a comfy rear nook with 12 banquette seats, is a stylish complement to the more formal tasting room next door.
ITV, which refers to "In the Valley," the English translation of the Lenape phrase "Passyunk," is just the latest in a wave of projects expanding the boundaries of Philly's already deep bar-food scene. Like the recently reconcepted Bar Volvér, ITV adds a fresh touch of high-concept luxury to the genre. And like Martha Bar in Kensington, where the ambitious pickle program pairs with a surprising range of locally sourced drinks, ITV is further evidence that wine and other beverages are diversifying traditionally beercentric gastropubs.
Sure, ITV offers some outstanding choices with its dozen beers, from Tired Hands to Hitichino Nest, BFM, and Saison Dupont. You'll need one to soak up that fluffy biscuit enriched with Wagyu beef fat. But there are sakes, too, which would pair well with the diced fluke cured in kasu (sake lees) over lemony buttermilk, cured kumquats, toasty pine nuts, and daikon radish that's been spun into noodlelike ribbons with a spiral slicer. I'd try a funky Basque cider to match the fall flavors of the inventive squash salad. Its sweet chunks of grilled kuri and delicata squash were tossed with fresh-torn herbs and tangles of vermicelli-thin snappy noodles that had been spiralized from a butternut squash and pickled in butternut juice tart with vinegar and sweet honey.
But the wines are a worthy focal point at ITV, chosen by Heather Sharp to complement the food, a Eurocentric list that leans toward "minimal-intervention" producers like the biodynamic Albert Mann from Alsace (a stone fruit-vivid Auxerrois), or an earthy Beaujolais-Villages from Jean-Paul Dubost, or the juicy rosé of German pinot from Hexamer. Sharp has a special fondness for minerally Austrian wines, and I loved the sparkling dry grüner from Szigeti against the oceanic gush of happy hour oysters, roasted just until warm beneath sweet peppers, fennel, and almonds.
But you'll want to step up to a rare glass of premier cru "grower champagne" from Aubry if you splurge on the caviar. And I suggest you do. Elmi charges far less than the industry standard food markup for an ounce of hackleback ($60) or sturgeon roe ($110). But it's the presentation that delights - a deconstructed riff on nachos from chef de cuisine Kyle McCormick that presents an ounce of roe on a gorgeous ceramic "cafeteria" tray (crafted by Port Richmond's Felt + Fat) laden with made-to-order blinis, potato crackers, and an elegant "seven layer dip" of thinly spread avocado and crème fraîche dotted capers, shallots, dabs of gelled vodka, and herbs.
Though it's easily the menu's most expensive item, that blend of finesse and creative wit elevates virtually every dish. The breaded schnitzel swaps out the usual meats for a deboned leg of rabbit, which has more flavor and texture than chicken or veal. Deep-fried wax beans are sealed inside a tempura crust so light they are impossible to resist. Butter-crisped rectangles of pumpernickel "soldiers" come smeared with creamy smoked trout rillettes, salmon roe, and shaved breakfast radish.
The tender lamb ribs crusted in benne seeds over a chipotle-peanut sauce was one dish that fell a little short of a wow. The long-grained bistro steak called bavette (similar to a hanger cut from near the flank) also raised cautious eyebrows from my more traditional steak-minded guests. But I loved its intensely beefy savor, and the intensity of the classic red wine peppercorn sauce, which evoked memories of Le Bar Lyonnais beneath Le Bec-Fin where Elmi first saw the virtues of a more casual alternative to an upscale dining room.
But it's another of ITV's spiralized wonders, the "potato ruffle," that elevates that steak to something new. A single potato shaved into one long ribbon is deep fried inside a disk-shaped basket, like a funnel cake made from a single chip. Once dusted with Grana Padano, thyme, and the salty gratings of dry-cured beef, it's the kind of magnetic hot potato thingy you simply can't stop grabbing, ripping, sauce-swabbing, and devouring until it disappears.
As long as ITV keeps spiralizing its way to exquisite bar snack glories, those hypothetical extra seats at Laurel will not be missed.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Mission Taqueria.
ITV (three bells out of four)
1615 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-858-0669; itvphilly.com
This sleekly modern and intimate wood-clad bar beside Laurel offers a more casual taste of Nicholas Elmi's food with small plates that bring wit and creativity (Chicken liver stroopwafels? Rabbit schnitzel?) and rise on the same top ingredients and refined techniques that have made its sibling one of Philly's best. Add a concise but impressively well-rounded bar program with good Euro wines, clever cocktails, and a dozen outstanding beers and ciders (plus sake), and ITV delivers an intriguingly cheffy new vision for the gastropub genre.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Beef-fat biscuit; chicken liver stroopwafel; smoked trout rillette; pork chips; squash salad; hamachi crudo; lamb ribs; lobster gnocchi; rabbit schnitzel; bavette steak with crispy potato ruffles; caviar; chouquettes.
WEEKEND NOISE A very comfortable 82 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Monday through Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; bar open until 2 a.m. Closed Sunday.
Small plates, $7-$22 (about three plates per person).
All cards but Discover.
Reservations for dining room only by phone or Reserve.com.
Not wheelchair accessible.