Anyone who has met Philadelphia chef Jennifer Carroll and eaten the wares of her culinary training knows that her dream gig was to have her own spot.
Sure, we found her first at famed chef Eric Ripert’s 10 Arts at the Ritz-Carlton, between 2008 and 2011, where she dazzled local audiences with her twists on French traditionalism. Of course, she made a star of herself competing on the Bravo network’s “Top Chef Season 6: Las Vegas” and its “Season 8: All Stars” revue. Carroll could have basked in that glow alone, and been successful. But opening Spice Finch, a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern bistro in the Rittenhouse area’s Warwick Hotel), with her fellow chef/fiancé, Billy Riddle, was truly the goal all along.
“I’ve always wanted a restaurant in Rittenhouse, and never thought I’d be able to get a space here,” says Carroll, who – at various post-10 Arts stages of her professional life – sought to make her solo debut with spots in Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Philly. “I grew up loving this neighborhood, the park and its surrounding energy. With the prospect of working with my current team, and collaborating with Billy, I was so excited to bring Spice Finch here. Its Mediterranean vibe and style of food was missing from this part of town, so we wanted to fill the gap.”
It should be noted that while Riddle spent time with Middle Eastern influences at Kapnos Taverna, Carroll was focusing her skills and tastes with more French leaning fare, from her time at the legendary Le Bernardin, forward. Was it Riddle who pushed for the changes Carroll would make, or just the rut of routine?
Top Chef star Jennifer Carroll talks new restaurant
“Both,” notes Carroll. “Having cooked French Mediterranean for so long, I was getting bored using certain flavors and spices. Billy would come home and talk about all these Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors he was cooking with, so I started to look back at my time with Marcus (Samuelsson, with whom she worked at Red Rooster) and began adding ingredients like allspice and berbere to my everyday cooking. The additions livened up our palates and changed the way we were eating at home as we continued to cross-pollinate our flavors, now on the menu at Spice Finch.”
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Carroll and Finch split their time between residences in the Northern Liberties area, and Washington, D.C.. They both know the ins-and-outs of a biz that they’ve each worked within for a decade-plus. They’re making their solo debut and walking into a culinary scene with far more competition than when they started. What is it like competing on the level playing field of new chefs and other seasoned (duh) vets?
“There is always competition and there are always amazing chefs,” says Carroll. “Yes, there are more restaurants now, and think it’s amazing to have all of these seasoned and upcoming chefs around us because it pushes us all to become better. But Spice Finch is different. We are using these flavors in a non-traditional way.”
To go with such non-traditionalism, Spice Finch’s look is lighter and brighter than the space’s former resident (Tavern 17), one that pulls in a lot of natural light to begin with.
“With that, we blew out the wall on the corner to bring in even more light and keep it airy,” says Carroll. “The space is really made to be customized to whatever guests are looking for – casual night, event, private party, etc.”
Then there is the fact that Spice Finch is designed for loud and quiet crowds - sociability and solace - with its sound elements adjustable throughout the restaurant.
“We have Sonos speakers in every corner of the room and can adjust the levels in order to customize different parts of the space,” notes Carroll. “The bar can be louder and the dining room can be lower to more of a conversational level, plus we have sound proofing above the panels in the ceiling.“
Sound and vision aside, from its very vegetable-y starters (charred carrot hummus; stuffed grape leaves; egg and potato manchego, harissa aioli) to its bold, but nuanced main dishes (date braised lamb shank, chili-chicken kebab), Carroll claimed that its menu is reflective of the way Billy and she eat at home - more nutritional for an overall healthier lifestyle.
And the name? “Spice Finch is named after the bird that eats all the spices that flavor our restaurant in a simple and fun way,” says Carroll, who recommends “you get the whole menu” to start. “From the garlic yogurt, merguez kebab, lamb ribs, to the roasted cauliflower.”
If you go:
220 S. 17th St., Philadelphia, spicefinchphilly.com