The ice water looked good and Joncarl Lachman, thankfully, was headed my way. But not to pour me a drink. He was there for a mercy cooling.
"You look warm - try this," he said, putting the frosty pitcher against my forehead and unleashing a deep laugh that rippled through the tiny dining room of Noord Eetcafe.
As the icy metal instantly chilled me down, I couldn't have been more grateful. Noord's a/c was doing its best to cool this bright corner room on one of summer's hottest nights. But the vent breezed out beyond my little corner - otherwise perfect with its splendid candlelit view of East Passyunk's Singing Fountain - and I was left to the mercy of a brutal heat wave.
It was not an ideal setup. The dairy-rich foods of Holland and Northern Europe that inspire the rustic flavors of this menu were not created with a Mid-Atlantic swelter in mind.
And yet even so, the soulful flavors of Lachman's hand-spun ode to the North Sea were so apparent in my meals, not to mention the pure joy this native Philadelphian radiates at being back after a decade in Chicago, that I couldn't help but appreciate the rare virtues Noord brings to our dining scene.
From the moment we dove into a bread bowl of house-baked Swedish farm crackers and a loaf of coarse barley bread, ripped peasant-style and charred on the grill, I knew we had a winner.
There is no other restaurant in Philly that's as devoted to the pleasures of house-smoked fish and rich sauces scented with anise and mustard. The seared scallop appetizer comes over an actual mustard soup, in which house-baked pumpernickel croutons bob in broth that's vivid orange with pureed carrot and mustard grains, then streaked green with tarragon oil. An even creamier mustard broth is the backdrop for a whole brook trout, its bones replaced with buttery Jerusalem artichoke stuffing, then topped with the peppery crunch of wilted mustard greens.
Before Lachman's done with us, we will know our lohikeitto from our zuurkool, and how those creamy bitterballen pork croquettes clearly help foster a sense of genuine gezelligheid - even if that expression of conviviality is otherwise considered to be untranslatable abstract Dutch.
That's because while Noord's flavors may be distinct, it's a kindred spirit to the legion of other 35-seat chef-owned BYOs that represent some of the best, most intimate aspects of Philly's dining scene. With its penchant for updating rustic flavors rather than modern cuisine (sorry, no "new Nordic" crispy lichen here), I almost think of Noord as a northland cousin to Cypriot Kanella - but with herring and Smørrebrød bread samplers decked with smoked fish.
The corner dining room wrapped in folding cafe windows at 11th and Tasker Streets is spare but elegant in a Northern Euro way, with an original tin ceiling, naturalistic photo art from Lachman's partner, Robert Moysan, and a fountain-side view of a neighborhood that's evolved into the city's most exciting culinary scene.
That's exactly the village spirit that drew Lachman back from Chicago, where the Southwest Philly native spent a decade opening two restaurants, one of which, Home Bistro, he still owns.
Lachman and his small staff, most of whom joined him here both in the kitchen and dining room from Chicago, appear to have made quick friends with their new dining public - a trick, considering how noisy this little room can become. Noord has surely won them over thanks in no small part to food that puts a focus on good ingredients with sensible, natural touches rather than culinary flash.
Some concepts, in fact, were ideal for summer appetites, like the pickled farm market peaches that added spark to a corn and crab salad tumbling over a beautifully seared haddock, or the delicately crisped softshells perched over watermelon, watercress, and mint. A cold froth of caraway-scented cauliflower vichyssoise tinted with exotic heat of mild Surinam masala curry was heightened by a blooming sweetness of a dollop of whipped cream.
Most of Noord's fare, though, is the kind of thing I'll crave come September. Delicately grilled head-on prawns fan atop ivory cream tarted with the brine of pickled herring. Chicken croquettes, a homey wonder inspired by Amsterdam's Febo automats, were crispy torpedoes filled with creamy chicken stuffing, set over toasted Victorian milk bread beside a bright salad with candy-striped beets.
Lachman's vinegar-braised rabbit is pure peasant goodness, the tender legs snuggled with baby turnips into zuurkool, a sweet-tart Dutch kraut fragrant with caraway and pork influenced by his mother's cooking. The Dutch Colonial tradition is vivid in the Surinam curry that shimmers through the massive lamb and Gouda burger.
The veteran chef's innate skill, though, is evident in his ability to transform otherwise familiar foods into something memorable. The mussels, for example, come Amsterdam-style, infused with the haunting perfume of star anise. A pair of thin pork chops become irresistible with tangy apple gastrique and shatteringly crisp potatoes. Even mundane salmon is elevated by a creamy Norwegian lohikeitto, a chowder sauce redolent of leeks and coriander that was somehow flavorful without being heavy.
Lachman holds nothing back, though, for dessert. His dense boterkoek met advocaat was a deliciously dense almond butter cake. Brioche bread pudding is turned dark as midnight with good Dutch cocoa. But my favorite was a classic parfait: caramel-glazed Dutch nut cookies layered with cardamom-scented whipped cream and seasonal fruit from the farmer's market that sets up weekly across the street. A simple pleasure? For sure. But Noord is fresh proof the simple virtues of a great Philly BYO remain as satisfying as ever.
Chef/owner Joncarl Lachman talks about Noord Eetcafe at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews.
Contact Craig LaBan at email@example.com.