Top Chef Alum Jennifer Carroll Returns to Philadelphia in a Big Way
After working in some of the country’s most celebrated restaurants and competing on multiple seasons of Top Chef, Jennifer Carroll is returning to her hometown. The Philadelphia-born chef and and her fiancé, chef Billy Riddle, are opening Spice Finch on Thursday in Rittenhouse Square after months of anticipation.
The contemporary Mediterranean restaurant is a fitting amalgam of Carroll and Riddle’s collective pasts. Riddle’s resume includes Kapnos Taverna in Washington, D.C., as well as Townsend, Ela, and Volver in Philadelphia, while Carroll worked under chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Eric Ripert, as well as at D.C. French-Mediterranean restaurant Requin. The pair return to the City of Brotherly Love after their stint in D.C., where they still operate catering company Carroll Couture Cuisine, and have noted some changes in Philly since they last worked here.
“I think there’s always been diversity in Philadelphia, we’ve always had that,” says Carroll. “But now, I think the Philadelphian palate itself has changed. The guests are willing to try more things.”
Something that’s remained constant, however, is the collaborative spirit within the city’s culinary scene.
“Just the level of respect is something special,” says Carroll. “I asked Mike Solomonov where we could get metal skewers for my merguez kebabs, and he was like, ‘Ah, skewers are tough. But I’m going to Israel in August, want me to buy them for you?’” So the award-winning chef and co-owner of modern Israeli restaurant Zahav is leaving room in his suitcase for Carroll’s skewers.
The restaurant’s plant-focused menu includes starters like charred carrot hummus with housemade sourdough flatbread, and date truffles with pomegranate and cashew streusel. Vegetables and grains each get their own section, and plates for the table feature both fish and meat options like date braised lamb shank and whole roasted fish, as well as a salt-baked eggplant with mushroom and bechamel.
“We’re doing a lot of stuff in-house,” says Carroll. “We’re trying to be as zero-waste as possible.” Harissa that’s fermented in-house, for example, uses onion and pepper ends that would otherwise wind up in the trash. “These things are being repurposed, and put into our sauces.”
The thoughtful bar program is the work of beverage director Michael Haggerty, who comes to Spice Finch after stints at Wm Mulherin’s Sons and a.bar.
“He’s taking the concept and the flavor profile of what we’ve done in the kitchen, and bringing it to the bar,” says Carroll.
Named for one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean, where the spice trade took place, the Cap Spartel is made with lemon, carrot, honey, and mace—all the same flavors liberally used throughout the menu. For the cocktail’s yogurt-washed gin, Haggerty marinates the gin in the same cow and sheep’s milk Greek yogurt the chefs use in the kitchen, before straining the liquid and adding dill. Also, inspired by the fact that Carroll and Riddle don’t drink, Haggerty has included a selection of non-alcoholic cocktails, including the N/A groni, made with sanbitter and chinotto.
“We still love the flavors of cocktails and going out and having specialty drinks, but we don't want the alcohol, so it’s nice that we have a curated list,” she says. “He’s been having fun with that.”
Haggerty has also been having fun with the series of “redemption cocktails,” in which forgotten spirits like Jägermeister star in meticulously made, grown-up versions of their less mature iterations. “Everyone loves a comeback,” reads the menu.
The 4,000-square-foot restaurant seats 158, and has a small outdoor area, too. Inside, there are art deco-inspired light fixtures and mirrors, wicker touches, and a wood-accented, granite-topped bar, which is a centerpiece for the bright, polished space.
When choosing their first restaurant’s name, the chefs wanted something fun. “The bird is native to the Mediterranean and eats many of the spices that we’re incorporating into the menu,” says Carroll. “Have you ever seen a finch?” asks Riddle. “They’re so adorable.”
Today, Spice Finch opens its doors for dinner at 5 p.m., with plans in the works for breakfast, brunch, and lunch, too.