In a nutshell: Thanks to exceptional French cuisine, a hospitable crew in the front and back of the house, and a cozy dining room setting, you’ll feel right at home at this East Passyunk BYOB.
When I checked my Twitter feed on Wednesday, November 5, at 1:52 pm, I saw this:
With less than eight minutes left before game time, I figured, “What the heck? Let’s give this a shot!” Anticipation built as minute after minute passed. At the stroke of 2 pm, I refreshed repeatedly, adrenaline fueling each keystroke I took. Then this happened:
My fingers somehow typed the right answer quickly enough for me to come in first! It took a solid five minutes of me staring at Twitter for the unbelievable news to sink in. The rush of knowing I’d be at Laurel that evening kept me on a perpetual natural high the rest of the day.
When we arrived at the restaurant, I nearly thought we walked into someone’s house. The dining room–scarcely larger than the 10-by-15-and-a-half-foot kitchen–seats 22. Warmth emanates from the décor, whether its the lights casting golden hues on the walls, the comfy linen chairs cradling guests twice a night, or the miniature flower centerpieces adding a cheery pop of color to each table. Most importantly, warmth emanates from the ever-gracious and attentive staff. (Shout-out to amazing GM Alice!)
A glass of fizzy champagne was in order to celebrate Laurel’s one-year anniversary, the reason behind tonight’s momentous occasion.
A rich, nutty brown butter, whipped to a spot-on spreadable softness, enhanced the natural tanginess of the sourdough, prepping our palate for the meal to come.
Is that snow? I wondered when the dish was first presented at the table. Indeed it was, but it was no ordinary snow; say hello to frozen horseradish. The chilly heat ebbed and flowed in each bite like the waters the albacore came from. The mildness of the olive-oil-poached fish served as a flavor foundation for tart green apples and sweet crispy shallots.
A myriad of autumnal produce took the stage next in a warm rendition on the standard salad course. Vegetables including starchy sunchoke and tender sweet potato made their presence known, celebrating the season’s bounty.
The fork-tender duck confit and crispy chicken skin that comprised the bulk of this cassoulet wasn’t visible when this aromatic bowl arrived. In fact, it was completely hidden beneath a cloud of fluffy white bean foam sprinkled with jet-black vegetable ash. The golden yolk of a quail egg peered up from the center of the bowl, a visual touchstone before we used our spoons to dive in.
We smelled it before we saw it. (Could it be something about the bowl’s shape that amplified the aroma, or was the dish just that fragrant?) The gnocchi were unlike any I’d tasted before. I’ve always been wary of eating gnocchi based on stodgy clumps of dough I’d consumed at nondescript restaurants in the past, but Laurel’s version transformed the dumpling into melt-in-your-mouth macaroni-esque pasta that was light and hearty all at once. Bits of salty pancetta lardons and crusty sourdough croutons added texture and a pleasant crunch. Forget mac and cheese: ricotta gnocchi is the go-to comfort food.
What is American sauce? According to a little company called Heinz, it features tomatoes, shallots, and parsley and apparently tastes a bit like Thousand Island. According to Laurel’s back of the house, it means a lobster emulsion for its cod dish on the tasting menu. It took major self-control to not sip the broth directly from the ridged plate, but I compromised by using my spoon to scoop it up along with tender chunks of pan roasted cod, crunchy slivers of rutabaga, and intensely-concentrated squash puree.
Nick himself delivered our final entrée, an artfully-constructed take on the classic “meat and potatoes” dish. The marbled beef was easy to slice and generously flavored with aromatic truffle. Roots that looked like miniature pumpkins and hemispherical moons balanced the other angular pieces on the plate.
I was fortunate to have tried the sumptuous white chocolate pudding earlier this season at Feastival, and the dish continued to deliver. Both texture–the crunchy Cocoa Puffs-effect of puffed grains–and taste–the tartness of huckleberries and cranberries–punctuated the remarkably creamy pudding. For the generous amount of pudding in the bowl, I wished we had even more berries and grains to add on top.
I love that here at Laurel, as Nick himself said in an interview, he “can touch every plate, every table.” Judging by the smiles that appeared on our faces over the course of the dinner, he touched our stomachs and hearts as well.
1617 E. Passyunk Avenue