“I’m a restaurant romantic,” says Joncarl Lachman, and it’s hard to think of another label that would stick more tightly to the Southwest Philly native’s chef’s whites.
At Noord Eetcafe, the Northern European BYOB he opened in May, Lachman serves scallops in a traditional soup of mustard and vegetable puree, reminiscent of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s supper staples. When he isn’t manning the stoves, he’s tending his piece of trendy Passyunk Avenue the time-honored way: “I love to be the guy out cleaning the windows and sweeping the sidewalks.” And when he knocks off at the end of the night, Lachman doesn’t go far. Like an innkeeper of the old stripe, he lives upstairs.
No wonder he originally wanted to call the restaurant Winkel, Dutch for “little shop.” A tidy, low-key homeyness belies the spare white decor of his 40-seat storefront. And the same spirit suffuses Lachman’s cooking, which is less Scandinavian than the name Noord suggests, and more squarely in the realm of Dutch comfort food. In other words, it helps to be in the mood for fish and mustard.
Pickled and smoked fish are the standouts. Lachman’s broodje haring is mercifully restrained: He leaves the aggressive funkiness of the genuine article in Amsterdam and brings to Philly a light pickling liquid that’s longer on wine and water. From this, the Icelandic herring fillets he was getting in early summer emerged with a sprightly tang that was an ideal answer to the heat wave. There was also wet-smoked salmon, velvety and rich, and lean smoked trout—part of a trio of open-faced fish sandwiches showered with tiny carrot crisps.
Fresh seafood was hardly disappointing (whole wild striped bass; rainbow trout stuffed with sunchokes and mustard three ways; and the intriguing sourness, only halfway mellowed by cream, of that scallop mustard soup mentioned above), but the best things happen the day after, in the form of cured versions of what didn’t sell. One exception—grilled prawns in “North Sea style citrus butter”—proved the rule. Lachman compounds the butter with his herring pickling liquid. Mingled with the jus that seeps out of the prawn heads, it’s the lustiest butter sauce in town.
There is meat—mustardy breaded-and-fried pork balls, rabbit leg in a sour vinegar braise, a heavy beef tenderloin with barley—but it can’t outshine the seafood. What Noord lacked, on my visits, was enough vegetables. Abundant watercress was a recurrent reminder of the Netherlands’ waterlogged floodplains, but on a Saturday in late June, I found myself wishing for more of the bounty I’d browsed at the farmers’ market that morning.
But I don’t see that holding me back when the urge for preserved fish and mustard strikes next, as I suspect it inevitably will.