Philadelphia has its second Top Chef winner — Nick Elmi has joined Kevin Sbraga at the peak of the televised-elimination-based-weekly-cooking competition world. But it's Elmi's choices after his victory that really say something about our city and how it's changing.
It used to be you might worry about a highly-praised Philly chef fleeing north to New York City for big money on the big stage. Sbraga stayed in Philadelphia, opening his eponymous restaurant on Broad Street in 2012. He chose a big, glittering showpiece of place in Center City, proving that Philadelphia's dining scene was thriving and hospitable.
But, in a just few short years, the locus of our dining culture seems to have shifted in interesting ways. Some of the city's most exciting, innovative cooking is happening in neighborhoods — The Pickled Heron in Fishtown, Will in Passyunk Square, Serpico on South Street (it's on the south side of the street, so I'm counting it as Bella Vista).
When Nick Elmi — who spent years toiling in New York City and the grand palace of Center City dining, Le Bec Fin — won $125,000 and a whole heap of free press, he chose to embrace that movement, opening teeny, tiny Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue. The cozy BYOB is a place where Elmi can have a hand on every single dish and be his own boss. The margins are small, but so is the overhead. It's working: This week Laurel was awarded 3 bells from Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig Laban in a rave review.
When Philadelphia neighborhoods are vibrant enough to support a restaurant like Laurel, that says something. And a name like Elmi will lure diners out of Center City, expanding their view of what places are worth visiting (or living in). Just don't sleep on that foie gras terrine.
LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite Media and Keystone Edge. She was smart enough to eat at Laurel before Nick Elmi won Top Chef.