As I sit here trying to grasp the state of our country the morning after two more mass shootings in the past 24 hours and three in the past week, I am angry. I am disillusioned. I feel helpless. So I am writing this to highlight a beautiful experience I had this past June with the person I love, in a city I love, eating a meal that I loved. Because hate and violence makes me sad and all of those things makes me happy.
For the past two years, my girlfriend Stephanie and myself have attempted to re-create our first date in the City of Brotherly Love, a city that up until then I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in. For both our one year and two year anniversaries, we enjoyed some combination of pre-dinner drinks, dinner at ROOT restaurant, a wine and tapas bar in Fishtown, and post-dinner cocktails at nearby Lloyd Whiskey Bar. Unfortunately, ROOT’s ownership decided to scrap the small plates concept and rebrand as “R&D,” a craft cocktail bar with rotating drink concepts that is receiving rave reviews. I mean, for all intents and purposes this should be a concept I love, so maybe it’s our nostalgia associated with ROOT, but with almost no menu to speak of (I got to enjoy a small bowl of mixed nuts for $7) and a wine list so unremarkable it’s almost not worth mentioning, R&D was a swing and a miss for us. We tried it out prior to our dinner during their month-long Tiki concept, something neither of us particularly enjoyed. We may give it another go at some point in the future, but needless to say we are pretty devastated they axed one of our favorite restaurants, which was such an integral part of our love story. But honestly, fuck ’em. I’ve written numerous (three, I believe), glowing reviews of dinners enjoyed there, explaining how important they’ve been to meeting my girlfriend and our love story, all while tagging them across the internet, and haven’t received so much as a single like, comment, or share from them. You don’t want great press? C’est la vie.
The death of ROOT combined with our obsession with Top Chef Season 16 led us to Laurel, a modern, French-influenced American restaurant in South Philadelphia, one of the best restaurants in the city, and the home to not just one, but two former Top Chef contestants: Season 11 winner Nicholas Elmi and Season 16 contestant and one of our favorites, Eddie “Money” Konrad.
I’m sure Elmi has been experiencing this a lot recently, as I did not start watching Top Chef until Season 12 and am not particularly well-versed with Philly chefs, but I didn’t really know who he was, let alone the fact that he was crowned Top Chef several years prior. Stephanie and I were there due to Eddie’s recent run on the show and to experience his food at an acclaimed Philly restaurant. Needless to say, I am now more than aware of both of them.
The restaurant is small, with only 22 seats. Intimate and elegant, but still casual, with alternative rock quietly playing in the background. As usual, I was stressing about being under-dressed, wearing jeans instead of dress pants or khakis, but the couple across the room from us in t-shirts and shorts quickly put me at ease. Weighing our options, which included two different tasting menus, with or without wine pairings, and a few à la carte additions, we finally settled on the six-course seasonal tasting menu, a killer bottle of Grüner Veltliner to pair with at least the first half of the meal, and added Elmi’s famous gnocchi with black truffles. Like I’ve been known to say: Life is short. Live large. Eat well. And when in doubt, get the truffles.
And eat well we did. This was one of the most experimental and whimsical dining experiences we have yet to enjoy. Much more so than our dinners at Restaurant Latour or elements. I won’t review each course as not only were we there in June, I also didn’t take tasting notes. Sue me. Instead, I will let the photos speak for themselves. I apologize for the poor lighting, as the dimly lit, romantic vibe may be perfect for special occasions and of course to make people like myself look better, it is not ideal for food photography.
Each course, as you can see for yourself, was gorgeously plated. Simplicity is where this meal shined and only faltered when there was a bit too much going on like I felt was the case with the Dry-Aged Pennsylvania Duck. Regardless, the highlights for me were the Turbot, Icelandic Cod, and the stunning Marinated Razor Clam, which I actually wasn’t a huge fan of upon the first bite, but it grew on me substantially. Plus, come on, have you ever seen a more beautiful dish? That seemed to be the case with most of the meal, where each bite revealed even more depth of flavor, more layers, and occasionally more weirdness (not in a bad way) the further down the rabbit hole you traveled. And it goes without saying that Elmi’s gnocchi with black truffles was pillowy, cheesy, nutty perfection. There’s a reason people make a pilgrimage here just for that.
Our lone gripe over our nearly two and a half hour meal was the service, which was surprisingly laid back for such a high-class meal. For instance, instead of one dedicated server or sommelier, we often had several different people bringing food and explaining the dishes or wine, which got a little chaotic. A bit strange for a restaurant of this caliber, but this hiccup was overshadowed by the studied pacing and exceptional food. And by far the highlight of the evening was towards the end of our meal when both Konrad and Elmi came out to say hello, with Eddie spending a good ten to fifteen minutes chatting with us about his experience on Top Chef, his relationship with fellow Season 16 contestant David Viana of Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, and his love of Philadelphia and Polish food. For two people who are typically more star struck by celebrity chefs than we are by actual celebrities, this elevated our anniversary from a phenomenal meal to a truly unforgettable experience.
Thank you to Chefs Elmi and Konrad for blowing us away. Finally I want to wish Eddie the best of luck, having just announced his departure from Laurel to pursue a yet-unannounced solo venture. Whatever it may be, we can’t wait to check it out. Bravo chefs, and of course: Go Birds.
1617 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19148