February was filled with a number of dinners as I traveled from Baltimore to Virginia to Philadelphia and then back to Baltimore. Since I gorged myself so thoroughly, I’m still catching up on reviews. I’ve gotten through my Arlington ones, have a few Baltimore posts waiting in the wings, and am posting my final Philly review. Of course, I will probably be in Philly again a few days from now, so hopefully I’ll have some reviews to share again! For now, I’ll leave you with a review of a restaurant that prompted a whole trip up to Philly to visit friends and dine at a place that I thought I’d never be able to experience, Laurel.
After months of trying to get into Laurel, my friend Rex texted me one evening to ask if I’d like to join him there. For those of you living in Philly, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that I received this text sometime in January and the reservation actually fell in mid-February. After winning Top Chef, being made into a Devil of sorts during editing of that show, and many favorable reviews in most major Philly publications, Laurel’s reservations disappeared faster than D.B. Cooper.
Luckily, Rex has some magical, mystical reservation powers and can get in anywhere, even this tiny spot on East Passyunk Avenue. I was so enthusiastic about being there that I showed up roughly ten minutes before everyone else, tucked myself into a comfy grey chair, and took a few moments to look around the dimly lit room that felt cozy but which didn’t offer much in the way of character. In a place like Laurel, it’s more important for there to be several spacious tables and warmth over superfluous decorations. As a gal who appreciates food more than the look of a location, I didn’t mind this at all, and eagerly prepared to prove that by filling my belly up.
With four of us dining, we opted to order a little bit of everything and try each other’s choices. Dishes of particular note were the Duck Confit Cassoulet and the Ricotta Gnocchi, rich options of which I took more than my fair share. The cassoulet felt homey and earthy while the gnocchi smoothly melted in my mouth with a touch of texture coming from the crispy pancetta. They were very different courses, but both were wholly appropriate for the frigid weather outside.
Another choice that I could spend pages gushing over was the Peking Duck. Crispy skin, tender meat, and a plump little duck heart were all the meaty stars of the plate. However, besides an immaculately cooked protein, what made this option stand out was the ground coffee which added a bitterly earthy flavor to it all. I’m sure Elmi isn’t the first person who has matched a good piece of duck with some quality coffee, but he’s executed this idea perfectly.
While there were a number of dishes that were so good that I always wanted to grab one more bite, the Cured Tuna could have used some tweaking. On the plus side, the tuna was delicate with just the right texture to it, and each aspect, from the apples to the horseradish, highlighted the beauty of the fish. Though the flavors were excitingly there, the food was so cold. Additionally, due to the texture of the crunchy, juicy apple, the chill actually felt frozen. Also, I can’t say that I’d order the Lemon Poppyseed Cake a second time. Admittedly, there wasn’t anything wrong with the dessert we chose, but it had an overwhelmingly heady floral element to it which kept me from enjoying the few bites I had. For an otherwise pleasurable meal, these qualms weren’t enough to keep me from declaring I was ready to come back the next evening and try the few things we hadn’t ordered between the four of us.
As I’ve said before, aesthetics don’t mean much to be. Still, those who snap pictures of all the food they eat would find Laurel a frustrating spot. Some of the plating was beautiful, while other dishes were hidden under globs of foam or other unattractive elements. Even though not all of the dishes were worthy of Instagram, the restaurant more than made up for it with the flavors, and given the choice between tasty food and being able to #foodporn, I will always choose the former option. Always.
If it wasn’t clear before, we savored our dishes and appreciated eat bite that we had; yet, as fantastic as most of the dishes were, the evening went downhill fast when our server handed us the check the minute we finished dessert and told us we had to get up as another party was set to arrive. Now that I am hostessing at a BYOB, I know that people like to linger over their wine and how frustrating that can be when another reservation is supposed to come in shortly. However, I couldn’t imagine going up to a table and asking them to leave. Up until that point, our servers were friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, but this final encounter did leave me confused and annoyed. It was a sour note on which to end the evening, and we left more than a few half-full wine glasses on the table as we walked out. It was also one of the reasons why Laurel wasn’t quite good enough to break into the My Fantastic Five list I have running on this website.
Since the evening we dined at Laurel, it has switched over to a tasting menu format. If the above average meal I had there was anything to go off of, this change only means that people can now experience the range of food Laurel offers without having to share their courses with others. Frankly, that’s a change I can get behind because while sharing is nice, when good food is involved, sharing is also a pain in the ass.