Nicholas Elmi was at times so weepy with emotion during his recent run to the finals of Bravo's Top Chef, my wife joked that he practically salted his gnudi with tears of homesickness.
But the ever-intense chef - also prone to pot-rattling tantrums and pouting during his reality TV debut - has always worn a chip on his shoulder and his heart on his plates. And if the ethereal ricotta gnocchi I recently devoured at Elmi's new Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue were any measure (their melt-away softness sparked by crisp pancetta and the tangy crunch of sourdough bread crumbs), I could taste for myself why they worked their charms on the show's judges, too.
The judges gave him an episode win for that dumpling tribute to his daughter's favorite dish - and eventually the bigger prize, too: Top Chef's Season 11 champ.
Is it possible the show also gave him something more unlikely, a sort of culinary inner peace?
There's no other way to explain Elmi's decision to take his star turn in America's biggest chef showcase - surely a potential investor windfall - and leap into one of the least profitable situations known to restaurant-kind: a South Philly BYOB with 22 seats.
"The others [Top Chef contestants] told me I was insane. And I know it looks like I'm going in reverse. But I'm focused on what I actually want to do now," says Elmi. "I can touch every plate, every table. The money will come later."
The touching gets literal with Elmi's "torn New Jersey scallop," which he actually hand-rips into smaller bay scallop-size chunks. Kombu-cured to firm and add brininess, the morsels are tossed with crisp mutsu apples and seaweed over a crystalline pool of tart apple-citrus consommé dappled with emerald herb oil. It's a gorgeous, refreshing, and elegant dish - complex, but in perfect tune. Even mini-nods to Elmi's classic French roots, like the crispy cube of brandade offered as a tasting-menu amuse-bouche, gets a clever personal wink: the surprise of white sweet potatoes mashed in with the saline house-cured cod.
I'm as cynical as it gets when it comes to TV cooking competitions, which rarely guarantee a great real-world restaurant experience. I'm also placing no wagers on what becomes of Laurel when its short lease, picked up from Fond when it moved to larger quarters, expires in a couple of years.
But knowing Elmi's rough recent history - a turn at the tiller as Le Bec-Fin headed for the iceberg, then an ill-suited pairing with corporate Restaurant Associates (at Rittenhouse Tavern) - I can see why the comfort of a tiny atelier where he has total control would be just the therapy he needed.
And, for as long as it lasts, Philadelphians will need it, too, because Laurel isn't just an intimate spotlight for an as-yet underappreciated talent. It shows how pleasant an experience one of our small-box BYO's can be when not jammed to the gills with decibels and chairs.
OK, removing 12 of Fond's seats may be extreme. And it can still get noisy. But the spacious wood tables and cushy linen chairs hand-built by Elmi and his partner, lawyer Jonathan Cohen, make this space as comfortable as it's ever been. The young servers are unfailingly pleasant and polished. And Elmi, repeatedly humbled on the show with criticism that he overthinks and under-seasons his food, actually seems to have matured on the plate.
The menu is organized into a suggested four courses, with the entrée course falling reasonably in the high $20s. And his food is still intricate. But he's shed the previous clutter of a few unnecessary garnishes per dish, and his compositions now resonate with a focus on good ingredients rendered with distinctive pairings and pristine modern technique.
His albacore starter may be the best raw tuna dish in town, firmed ever so slightly in tepid olive oil before being dressed with the delicate sweetness of shaved Asian pears and a powder of frozen horseradish and yuzu "snow" that melted in mouth with a cooling sparkle. A bracing edge of mustard oil, chile-spiked ponzu, and fermented daikon cubes were the perfect foil to assertive Spanish mackerel seared crackly warm on the skin side and sashimi raw on the reverse. A study in Berkshire pork - loin roasted, belly braised, tender shoulder pulled then formed into a patty - was memorable for its elegant necklace of huckleberry, kale, and chestnut sauces.
Elmi's foie gras terrine was even more beautiful, a silken slab of creamy pink marbled with bitter cocoa and paired with a fine mince of cuminy, caramelized celery root - an earthy sweetness that gave the luxurious liver an unexpected exotic twist.
There were a handful of hiccups. The walu was slightly overcooked, as was the chicken on our first visit (a perfect second-meal take with black trumpets and Meyer lemon reduction was crispy-skinned and juicy). The quinoa-crusted snails ringing the ocean trout should have been omitted while Elmi was shedding garnish clutter.
And there are not, for the moment, many great choices at dessert - except good cheese (Pont l'Eveque) with earthy chestnut honey, and a bowl of caramelized white chocolate pudding, which was actually Elmi's daring comeback "panna cotta" on the final show. It's an undeniably delicious bowl of complementing textures, from the wine-cooked quince and crunchy cocoa nibs over sweet pudding to the refreshing pink froth of red wine mousse artfully smeared on top.
But the most memorable moment was the house eau-de-vie infused with sweet, aromatic Buddha's Hand citrus, and Elmi himself arrived to pour us a nip.
It was still a week or so before the Top Chef finale, when the world would learn his secret. But Elmi, drained as he was, looked undeniably serene.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Osteria in the Moorestown Mall