Imagine for a moment that there was a supernatural portal in Philadelphia, perhaps on floor seven and a half of the Divine Lorraine, that transported you straight into the frantic mind of Jason Cichonski. For 15 minutes, every sight, smell and stray lyric of punk-pop rattling around the 27-year-old chef’s consciousness would reverberate in yours. Then, when it was all over, you’d wake up under a beige Eldorado parked in the median of South Broad.
It would be a weird trip. Cichonski is a guy who, talking on his cell phone as he walks down the street, spots “one plant that kind of looks like rosemary, and another plant that kind of looks like sea beans,” and obsessively builds their coincidental proximity into an appetizer that might appear at Ela three weeks from now.
Or maybe the rosemary and sea beans (or sidewalk weeds that look like rosemary and sea beans) won’t quite make tandem liftoff from his mental runway. Instead, it’ll be something he cooks completely by accident, like the Vietnamese banh cam balls in which he replaced his original crab filling with truffled white beans but forgot to nix the Old Bay spice from their encompassing sheath of sticky-rice dough—only to decide after tasting them that “truffles and Old Bay are just terrific together.”
Then there are Cichonski’s scallop noodles. Here, pureed scallops are rolled out thin, vacuum-sealed, and then slowly poached (without additives) until the proteins coalesce in a smooth, slick sheet from which thick noodles are cut—thus maximizing the surface area available to be caramelized. Twice, they came to me in a tangle of thin-shaved carrots and salsify ribbons, soaking up a slurry of orange vinaigrette and sesame seeds. Twice, I vowed to have them again.
627 South 3rd Street
Cuisine: Progressive American
Price: $18 to $24.
This one dish resonates like no other at Ela. Apart from its cleverness, it has an unexpected and completely compelling sort of universality. How can I explain? I can’t. But maybe if you rebooted the evolution of East Asian cooking entirely, started over from scratch, and let random events alter its course, one possible outcome would be bowls of these scallop noodles in every Asian eatery on Washington Avenue. They are just so right that nothing about them feels odd except the pure fact of their existence.
Yet scallop noodles aren’t the only compelling thing here. Cichonski was an unusually young head chef at Lacroix, and last year he was the opening chef at Mica, Chip Roman’s place in Chestnut Hill. But Ela is the first place where he’s really been his own boss (Roman is a partner), following his own “insanely ADD” imagination toward a more radical eclecticism.
So there are oysters on the half-shell, spattered with bacon fat and kicked up with hop-infused vinegar in place of a traditional mignonette. Pale slices of raw hamachi are enlivened with an airy horseradish granita (surprise!) and apples that are alternatively pickled and pureed.
There’s more conventionally comforting food, too. Skate wing comes with red cabbage, roasted sunchoke and whole-grain mustard crackers. You’ve seen magret duck breast with butternut squash and brussels leaves done a hundred times before, but here it’s executed flawlessly. Alas, not so a salad of beets boiled until flavorless, or a chilled foie gras mousse whose huckleberry, gingersnap and parsnip components made it far too sweet for a second course.
As a matter of fact, the foie might work better as dessert. It was at least preferable to the ones I tried, which were marred by overthought flourishes like cookie-dough sauce, or more concerned with abstract sculpture than with simple deliciousness.
The wise course, then, is to skip dessert and have another cocktail instead. They’re also of Cichonski’s creation—a little surprising, since the straight-edge youth shunned alcohol completely until recently.
But apparently, he’s a quick study. Take as proof tequila with rosemary and a crystal-clear evocation of kaffir lime, or a hot cider toddy in which bourbon hums behind applejack and maple bitters. If only they weren’t so awkward to order. Ela’s background music runs toward Thelonious Monk, but its drinks get their overlong names (like “me vs. madonna vs. elvis” or “okay I believe you but my tommy gun don’t”) from songs by indie band Brand New.
But then, a brief moment of awkwardness isn’t the worst price to pay for something so deliciously off-the-wall. And a few conceptual missteps don’t change the fact that the price of dinner at Ela is completely worth it when what’s on the table doesn’t just feed you, but offers a transporting peek inside this rising young chef’s head.