It isn't easy being a beefcake chef who wants to be taken seriously for his beef cheeks.
"All anyone wants to talk about is what my hair looks like," groans an exasperated Jason Cichonski, the chef and co-owner of Ela.
It's no wonder. With headlines like "Sexytime!" leading his coverage on foodie gossip sites such as Eater.com, where Cichonski has rocketed like a hot kumquat high into the national brackets of a search for the country's hottest cook, it's clear the 27-year-old former Lacroix chef hasn't been able to shake the pretty-boy stigma that likely started when he was named a Philadelphia Daily News "Sexy Single" in 2010.
I'm here to tell you that Jason Cichonski is, in fact, a very dangerous man. Because, darn it, the tall, tousle-haired dude cooks even better than he looks, with so many cockamamie ideas - noodles spun from scallops; Vietnamese fritters with truffles and prunes; a "pretzel-spaetzle" Franken-dumpling - that somehow always work. I even slurped down a half-dozen oysters each topped with something ominously called a "dill pickle sponge" - and wished I had six more.
Also, note to guys: I strongly suggest you do not let your daughters, girlfriends, or wives dive into Cichonski's "hot chocolate chip cookie dough" dessert without a chaperone. They may not come back. It is that serious.
Lest one fret I've only pumped more helium into the hunk-o-rama hype, Cichonski assures me that he's undergone some major humbling since making the transition from the cushy hotel luxury of Lacroix to the owner-chef realities of running a neighborhood restaurant.
His partner, Chip Roman, of Blackfish and Mica fame, has taken the big-brother approach to helping Cichonski refine the day-to-day details of restaurant management, from which days to order your cream ("earlier in the week it's cheaper") to editing some of the younger chef's wilder ideas ("Anchovy and blueberries? What the hell were you thinking?") Likewise, one of Cichonski's early pet dishes - popcorn panna cotta with vanilla roe and poached shrimp - was dropped because, "I loved it but people did not. So I had to put my ego in check: food does not have to always be 'educational.' "
At this Queen Village corner tavern in particular, approachable is the Roman watchword that's still being refined. The history of the beloved Judy's space, it seems, weighs like a three-ton hunk of that cafe's stuffed meat loaf on Cichonski's shoulders - a legacy of comfort food and bargain coupons that resonates more than its successor Ansill's daring plates.
The space, designed by Richard Stokes, is warm enough, the elements of industrial chic (from the steel-topped bar to the Edison bulbs in construction-cage lights) are softened by a warm glow, earthy colors, a white brick bar back, and a boathouse-like ceiling of varnished wood lath.
I'm still not convinced Cichonski has found the perfect sustainable compromise between his haute desires and the neighborhood's homier instincts. There's no burger here (yet), and no plans for meat loaf on the menu ("I'd die a little inside," Cichonski mutters.)
But then it may not matter during its honeymoon as a hot new destination. With the larger plates priced in the low $20s, few kitchens in town can match Ela's food value-wise for pure excitement.
The "sponge" atop those oysters was really more of a marshmallowlike pouf of foam. And once it dissolved like a creamy dilled cloud in the mouth, a hint of warm bacon faded in, only to be washed away by the bracing brine of raw Shemogue oyster liquor. Another oyster whimsy at an earlier meal - dashed with hops-infused vinegar and the crunch of fried shallots - was also thrillingly complex.
I've long been wary of trick-happy young chefs wielding gizmo kits of foamers, vacuum bags, and futuristic fluid gels. But I've sensed a more artful shift in their use around Philly of late. And in Cichonski's hands, these tools seem positively essential, intensifying flavors at the same time they lighten the gorgeously composed dishes, where jet-streams of pureed sauce streak past intricate and unlikely combinations that harmonize with surprising grace.
A dab of black garlic adds savory-sweet depth to tender veal loin. A subtle smoke to pureed butternut squash, plus a brief lye bath for the "pretzel-spaetzle" noodles, gave perfectly roasted duck breast an irresistible duo of novel flavors. Meaty tilefish, pressure-marinated in a sous-vide vacuum bag with red curry and honey, seems almost tattooed with the exotic flavors, allowing a light froth of citrusy seafood sauce and thin-stemmed honshimeji mushrooms to snap delicately against its sides.
In a carpaccio of lightly cured salmon, flavors surge and fade like little bell chimes in the mouth - the sweetness of Asian pear, the earthy snap of king oyster mushroom stems, rich orange fish in exotic cardamom vinaigrette, the subtle bacon twang of frozen roasted pancetta shaved on top like savory snow.
A racing stripe of toasted nori powder and miso dashi add a surprising Asian touch to the Americana of roasted tomato soup, atop which bobs a crunchy cube of fried cheddar. Sunchoke puree and crackers made with whole-grain mustard add earthiness, spark, and crunch to pan-seared skate. Pineapple-infused tapioca lends a bright, exotic sweetness to the island richness of jerk-braised tender short ribs. Hamachi crudo glazed with gingery oil plays against sweet-tart caramel-apple sauce and the cold prickle of horseradish granita.
There were a few misfires. The complimentary steamed buns at the beginning of the meal are dense, sometimes too cold, and hardly worth the effort. The otherwise wonderful gnocchi with hazelnuts and dates had it all going until they met a surprisingly dull froth of raclette (a pungent mountain cheese that takes work to bland-ify.) A fried sweetbread appetizer with kumquats was so gloppy, it was like an inelegant pile of Gen. Tso's Thymus.
Cichonski found a far better use for those kumquats as a bittersweet counterpoint to the marvelously sweet-sauced tortellini stuffed with ground Peking duck. The wink of pure invention was the appeal of the "noodles" he cut from sheets of pureed scallop (an udon-like nod to the Lacroix brunch scallop sausage), the sea-sweet strands blanched and sautéed with salsify into blood-orange vinaigrette. His favorite South Philly Vietnamese snack, meanwhile, the chewy rice flour-ball fritters known as banh cam, get a fascinating modernist update here - stuffed with rosemaried white-bean puree, drizzled with brandied prunes, and dusted with powdered truffle.
It's a crunchy-chewy-sweet-and-savory bar snack almost worthy of dessert. Then again, that "hot cookie dough" dessert really shouldn't be missed. As the waiter poured a carafe of molten chocolate-chip batter atop a Stonehenge-like ring of vanilla semifreddo stuck with shaved banana chips, the spoons at my table were spring-loaded for attack. Move over, budino, there's a new "it" dessert in town. From the first course to the last, the chef at Ela is hottest where it matters most.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.